DROVE ALL NIGHT
At Main and Fourth, a minivan shot through the stop sign. Ben hit the lights and siren.
The minivan veered across the road and screeched to a halt at an angle from the sidewalk.
“Shit.” Ben punched the brakes. Keeping his eye on the vehicle, he called it in.
Whoever drove that thing had bought themselves a couple of hefty fines. Reckless asshole. Some people should not be allowed behind the wheel.
Stepping out of the cruiser, he palmed his sidearm. The car had Pennsylvania plates. Not from around here, and driving like a crazy person. He approached with caution.
The driver’s door flew open and someone leaped out.
The pale, wide-eyed woman hit the ground. Her knees smacked the blacktop so hard he winced. She threw her hands out in front of her. “Do it.” The woman sobbed. “Arrest me. Take me away. Lock me up and throw away the key.”
Fifteen years as a cop and this was a new one on him. Ben stopped midstride and loosened his grip on his weapon. “Ma’am?”
“I can’t.” Her shoulders jerked up and down. “I just can’t anymore.”
A rusted pickup stopped and Hank Styles hung his grizzled old head out the window. “Everything all right here, Ben?”
That’s all he needed, Hank Styles playing deputy. He waved him on. “All good.”
“She don’t look so good.” Hank leaned further out his truck. “What’s wrong with her?”
It went easier if you didn’t engage the conversation. “Drive on, Hank.”
The woman staggered to her feet, wrists still held out to him. She took three tottering steps in his direction and collapsed.
Ben caught her a heartbeat before her head hit the road.
“Holy crap.” Hank jerked his head back in. “She’s dead.” He rolled up his window and gunned his truck down Main.
Ben checked for a pulse and found one at her neck. Her skin felt hot and clammy. She was burning up. An ambulance, maybe?
“Is my mommy dead?” A plaintive voice came from the van.
The van door opened and Ben stared straight into hell. A boy, maybe five or six, and covered in barf blinked back at him. From the far side, a scarlet-faced toddler hiccupped and then yowled. Two older kids, wearing identical girl faces peered around the van door at him.
The smell made his eyes water; an unholy miasma of body fluids that did not belong on this earth.
The woman stirred. “Ryan?”
“You fainted.” Ben hoisted her into his arms. First step, get her out of the road. “Lie still.”
“Where are you taking her?” One of the girls cocked her head at him.
Ben jerked his chin to indicate the side of the road. “Stay put.”
He walked around back of the minivan and set her gently on the grassy shoulder.
“Are you arresting her?” The girls moved to the other side of the van, hanging over the squalling baby, heads jammed together as they peered through the open window.
The woman opened her eyes, squeezed them shut, and then opened them again. “Who are you?”
“I’m the police chief, ma’am.”
“My children.” She bolted upright, slamming her head against his chin.
Ben tasted blood as he pressed her back down. “Lie still. You fainted.”
She blinked at him, but lay back. She had brown eyes, dark like his morning coffee and huge in her pale face. When not passed out on the side of the road with sweat sliding down the sides of her face, she might even be pretty. Too thin, but real pretty.
He turned to the minivan. “Any water in there?”
“Nope.” Three heads moved from side to side. The baby kept right on bawling.
Ben jerked his chin at the red-faced crier. “He sick?”
“Uh-huh.” One of the twins slow-nodded. “He’s got the flu, and he pooped in his diaper. Mommy didn’t have any more so we were going to Walmart to get some. He’s screaming coz he’s got a sore bum.”
Sick mum, one sick toddler, one puking boy and a set of lively twins. He weighed his options.
They didn’t cover this sort of shit in the police academy, or the army, and Ben was man enough to know when he’d drifted way out of his league. He reached for his cellphone.
Ma answered on the fourth ring, sounding as delighted to hear from him as ever. “Ben!”
“You home, Ma?”
“Of course I am. It’s baking day and they want some cupcakes for that fundraiser for the library. Do you think I should put sunflowers or flip-flops on the top? What with it being summer and all.”
“I’ll be right over.”
“What’s wrong?” Her voice sharpened. “Did you get shot? Are you injured?” She heaved a sigh. “You forgot to eat lunch again, didn’t you?”
He had, but not his biggest concern right now. “Bringing some kids.”
“What? What kids? Whose kids? Where did you find them?”
“See you.” Ben hung up on her still firing questions. If he answered those, she’d only find a raft more for him.
“Ma’am?” He looked down at the woman. “Can you tell me your name?”
“Poppy.” She swallowed. “Poppy Williams.”
“Well, Poppy Williams, I’m gonna have to drive your car.”
“Are you a car thief?” Her eyes widened.
Ben shook his head and hoisted her into his arms. She weighed next to nothing. Her sweatshirt claimed her as Property of Philadelphia University and hung on her narrow frame. He placed her gently in the passenger seat.
Her eyelids fluttered closed as she fought sleep. He’d bet by the shadows under her eyes it had been a long, long time since Poppy Williams had gotten a good night’s sleep. Her fever must be knocking the crap out of her round about now.
Her eyes flew open. “My children.”
“I got them.” He buckled her in.
“Are you kidnapping me?”
Her lids fluttered closed, only to startle open again. “Are you a rapist?”
“Nope.” He took his badge out and held it in front of her fever-glazed gaze. “I’m the police chief, ma’am. I got you.”
The stink in the car had Ben driving with his window wide open and still nearly dry heaving all the way. Poppy Williams woke every now and then, and went back to sleep as soon as he assured her he was still the police chief. Eventually he put his badge on the dash right in front of her.
Ma stood on the sidewalk, hopping from one foot to the other. That was the thing with his mom. She never walked when she could run, or stood when she could bop about like a jackrabbit. Today, she wore a red T-shirt announcing to all PoliceChief’s Mom. It might put his passenger at ease.
Poppy hardly looked old enough to have four children. Her dark hair had escaped her ponytail in tendrils that stuck to her temples. He’d bet his last dime she had one helluva story.
“Who’s that?” One of the twins peered out her window. Their names were Brinn and Ciara but damned if he could tell them apart. One had on a blue T-shirt and shorts, the other some kind of dress with flowers all over it.
“Is that the perp?” The older boy, Ryan, leaned forward in his car seat.
“That’s my mother.” He stopped beside her.
Ma frowned at the unfamiliar car, caught sight of him and beamed. She appeared at his door before he even had it open.
“Ben.” Face full of delight, as if she hadn’t seen him in months, and not yesterday for lunch, she kissed his cheek. “I had no idea what to make of that cryptic message.”
“I need your help.” He walked around the car with her tailing him.
“You’re so like your father. Never use three words when one will do. I thought you were doing traffic duty today. Isn’t that what you said? Yes, you did say that. You said people were speeding out of the Walmart parking lot.” She paused for breath. “And they nearly hit that nice Barker boy. Isn’t that what you said?” She nodded. “That’s what you said.”
Ben gave her a nod to cover all those questions and opened the passenger door.
Ma snapped her mouth shut. That had to be a first. She took a step closer, straightened and stared at him. “Who is that,” she whispered.
“I can see that.” She slapped his arm. “Is this her car?”
“Yup.” He slid open the side door. The reek charged out to the sidewalk.
“Oh, my.” Ma clapped her hand over her mouth. “Oh, my.”
The baby’s lip quivered, his eyes filled up, and he opened his mouth and bellowed.
Ma folded like a cheap deckchair. Her arms shot out and she unclipped the little guy. “You poor baby.”
“Sean.” Poppy stirred, and tried to sit up.
Ben flashed his badge. “Chief. I got this.”
She settled down again.
Ma had the baby in her arms and rocked him side to side. “You poor little guy. Are you unhappy? Tell Dot what is making you so unhappy.”
“He pooped,” Ryan said.
The girls craned forward between the first row of seats. “And he’s got diaper rash,” said the one in the dress. “It makes him super cranky.”
“Well, of course it does.” Ma put the kid’s head on her shoulder, and ran a soothing hand down his back. “Dot is going to fix that for you. Yes she is. No need to fuss.” She gave Ben a reproachful glare, as if he was somehow to blame for all of it. “What happened to these children?”
He shrugged, because other than their mother losing her shit, he had no answers.
“Come on, honey.” She motioned to Ryan. “You climb out here and see Dot. You look like you could use a bath.”
“I barfed.” Ryan nodded. “All over myself and some of it got on Sean, too.”
Ma had a stomach of iron, because she took the news without a flinch. “Did you?” She held out her hand to Ryan. “How very nasty for you.”
She leaned in closer to Ben and jerked her head. “Is that their mother?”
“Yeah.” He unclicked Poppy’s seatbelt. “I think she’s sick. I didn’t know what to do with all these kids if I called an ambulance.”
“Sean’s sick too.” Dress twin bounced to the ground. Her sister followed more cautiously. “He got sick one day after we left Philly.”
“Is that where you’re from?” Who needed interrogation when you had a ma like his? The baby had quieted down to loud sniffles, his flushed face pressed into ma’s neck.
“Yes, ma’am.” Dress twin seemed to suffer from the same inability to stand still as Ma. She bounced on her toes, canting left and then right, flipping her ponytail from side to side. “Four-twelve Mifflin Street, South Philadelphia, one-nine-one-four-six.”
“Oh, my. Aren’t you clever.” Ma widened her eyes.
“I am.” Whip, whip, whip went the ponytail. “I get the best grades in my class. Even better than Randall Greer, and he’s always telling everyone how smart he is. He once cried and tried to hit me when I beat him at spelling.”
“He sounds like a perfectly horrid little boy.” Ma leaned in closer. “I don’t like people who brag. How about you?”
“Nope.” She stopped and smoothed her dress. “I like this dress. It’s my favorite.”
“It’s very pretty.”
She went back to bouncing. “I’m Brinn and this is Ciara.” She jabbed a thumb at her sister. “We’re twins.”
“I can see that.”
Ben felt tired watching her.
Poppy moaned and twisted in the seat.
“Inside?” He jerked his chin to the house.
“Yes, indeed.” Ma gripped Ryan’s hand tighter. “Brinn? Why don’t you and Ciara follow me into the house? My son will bring your mother.”
“Is he your son?” Twin sets of dark brown eyes fastened on him.
“He is.” Ma nodded at her T-shirt. “See, I’m the chief’s mom.”
“Ten-four. Copy.” Ryan grinned at him. “Roger. Copy that.”
“He’s very big.” Brinn stopped bouncing long enough to eye him up and down. “Are you sure my mom will be all right.”
“I’m quite sure.” Ma hustled them toward the house. “I raised him, you know, from when he was even smaller than Sean here.”
“Sean’s the smallest in our family.” Brinn gripped her sister’s hand and towed her after Ma and the boys.
Poppy opened her eyes, gazed around her in an unfocused way, and found him. “My children?”
“Chief. Got ’em.” He leaned in and hoisted her into his arms. She weighed less than a bag of feed. Under her sweatshirt he could feel the hard ridges of her ribs. One helluva story.
“Put her in your old room.” Ma stood in the hallway, a staff sergeant in charge. “I’m going to run a bath for Ryan here, and get this little guy changed.”
“We ran out of diapers.” Brinn scrutinized him carrying her mother. “Is my mother going to be all right?”
Ciara’s eyes brimmed with tears.
“Oh, honey.” Ma hauled Ciara in for a hug. “Mommy’s going to be fine. She’s a little sick is all. Ben is going to find a nice comfortable bed for her, and then we’ll call Doc Cooper.”
“She doesn’t look good.” Brinn’s lip quivered.
“Nobody looks good when they’re sick,” Ma said. “Now, would you like to help me run a bath? Then we can all get something to eat. Would you like that? Are you hungry?”
“I want to stay with my mom.” Standing rigid Brinn glared at him.
Ben tried to look nonthreatening. Also not to loom over her like Ma said he had a bad habit of doing.
“Then, that’s what you must do.” Ma smoothed her hair. “You go with Ben and see that he takes proper care of your mom.”
The twins trailed him to his old bedroom. He nudged the door open with his foot and stepped right into his past. Ma had barely changed a thing. His old football pennant still hung above his twin bed.
“That girl isn’t wearing a top.” Brinn cocked her head and glared at the Miss September poster. “Is she a ho?”
“Nope.” He didn’t know what to say to most people. Little girls with mouths on rails made him break out in a cold sweat. “Covers?”
The twins blinked at him.
“Pull them down.”
They leaped into action and he laid Poppy down. He moved to take her shoes off.
“What are you doing?” Brinn stepped in front of him.
“Taking her shoes off.”
“Do you sleep in your shoes?”
“Figured as much.”
She stepped aside, but still gave him the stink eye, just in case he got any ideas about her mother’s feet. He’d leave getting her more comfortable to Ma.
Ben parked outside Grover’s General Store. Give a woman half a chance and she sent you to the store. Ma had given him a list long enough to make his heart sink. A rummage through the car had revealed Poppy had run out of near about everything.
How much crap could kids really need?
He preferred using Grover’s to the bigger chain stores. The Grover family had been part of the community since the first wagons chased gold west. It might cost him a few more cents on the occasional item, but Grover’s always stocked his favorite brand of coffee, made sure they had the candy he favored, that sort of thing. If they didn’t, they’d order it for him. They did the same for everyone in town. Coming into Grover’s was more like a family visit.
“Hey, Chief Crowe.” Mia Grover peered over a magazine rack she was restocking.
When the hell did little Mia get big enough to see over that rack? Seemed like only yesterday he’d been taking her and three friends for a ride in the back of his cruiser around the Elementary school parking lot. “Hey, Mia.” The promise of a shortcut through his list made him stop. “Get some help?”
“Sure, Chief.” She went a little pink and pranced up to him. “What do you need?”
He shoved his mother’s list into her hand.
Mia scanned it, and frowned up at him. “Diapers? Are you married now, Chief?”
As if he could get married again without the entire town knowing. “Nah.”
Mia’s face cleared into a big, sunny smile. She wrinkled her freckled nose at him. “Is this for those children?”
“The orphans.” Tears welled in Mia’s wide, brown eyes. “So young and abandoned on the side of the road.”
Ben mentally used every ugly word he knew. And he knew a lot.
She took a shaky breath. “You’re a real hero, Chief Crowe. I know you don’t catch murderers or drugs lords or anything like that, but someone who would take care of those poor children is an even bigger hero.”
“They’re not orphans.”
“She abandoned them.” Mia jammed her fists on her hips, crinkling his list in the process. “I know I don’t have children yet or anything, but I would never do that. What kind of woman does that?”
“Mia, honey.” Bart came up behind her and put his arm around his daughter’s shoulders. “I think Chief Crowe is in a hurry. Why don’t you help him find what he’s looking for?”
She scuttled off, snagging a shopping cart on her way.
“How ya doing, Ben?” Bart held out his hand.
Bart saved the Chief Crowe for when his daughter was around, but they’d been to school together and it was always Ben when they were alone. Bart might sag a bit more than when he played tackle to Ben’s quarterback senior year, but he raised great kids and ran a good store. He also made the best ribs around and didn’t skimp on them at the Founder’s Day town cookout.
Bart shook his head. “Hank Styles came in for his Saturday night pizza and poker game a bit earlier.” He sidled closer. “Crying shame what happened to those kids. From New York is how I heard it?”
“Philly.” Ben felt the slow ache in his ass that was the Twin Elks grapevine. Just once, it would be great if they got the facts even close to straight. “Philly. They’re from Philly.”
“Philly?” Bart whistled as if he’d told him the kids drove straight through the gates of hell with Satan riding shotgun. “Hank says the mother is—” Bart glanced around, “—a crack whore. Saw her tripping on the road and everything.”
Where did he even start? “She’s not a crack whore.”
At least, he’d bet all the money the county didn’t pay him she wasn’t. The car seats had been good quality, the kind that anchored at three points. The car, not new, but in good condition, current stench aside, and the kids were well dressed. Not pricey, citified stuff, but good quality and sensible.
“So why’d she abandon her kids?” Bart stuck his chin out, ready to argue a point he knew nothing about.
Mia passed them pushing her shopping cart, and gave him a cheery wave. “Nearly done, Chief. Just looking for the formula.”
“Does Ben Crowe have a baby?” A feminine voice floated from the chip aisle.
Another woman chimed in. “No. Did he get married again?”
The ache is his ass bloomed into a need to yell or kick something, or run naked down the road waving his dick at everyone and give them all something real to talk about.
Bart gave him an apologetic smile.
The chip aisle speculators weren’t done yet. “You don’t suppose he and Tara are getting back together, do you? I always thought that woman needed a child.”
A child was the last thing his ex-wife needed, or him for that matter, which was funny as hell because he’d gotten himself four this morning.
Mia appeared with a laden cart. “All done, Chief.”
“Is Tara Crowe having Ben’s baby.” A third voice joined the other two speculators and Ben was done.
He paid for the groceries, loaded them up and made his escape.
Ma hung up the phone as he walked through the kitchen door. “What did you do?”
Nothing and he shrugged at Ma. No running naked, no dick waving and no fathering children. The last one of those made naked dick waving sound attractive.
The phone rang again. Ma glared at it, and went back to plating a sandwich. She put it in front of Ryan.
Ben dumped the grocery bags on the kitchen table. “Your list.”
The phone stopped, and then went again. Faster than a speeding bullet went the Twin Elk jungle drums.
Freshly scrubbed, Ryan watched him with big eyes. “Who’s our vic, Lieutenant?”
“Eh?” He couldn’t have heard that right.
“What we got?” Ryan chowed down on a pb&j sandwich.
“The phone has been ringing off the hook.” Ma collared a pants-less Sean and tucked him under her arm. She motioned Ben to hand her the diapers. “What did you say?”
He shrugged. “Nothing. I told Bart she was from Philly. And that she wasn’t a drug addict.”
Ryan glanced between them. “Possible ten-fifty.”
Did this kid have police codes memorized?
“You said nothing.” Ma expertly diapered Sean and set him on his feet again. “That’s the problem. You never say anything and now I’m going to have to spend hours on the phone fixing this.”
Sean toddled for the door and Ben barely managed to get it closed in time. Kid sure moved fast on chubby little legs.
“He’s been cooped up in a car, poor mite.” Ma set Sean down at the table. “Hand me the sippy cup.”
He blinked at her.
“The cup! The one with the two handles and the spouty thingy on the top.” She clicked her fingers at him.
Brinn appeared at his side, Ciara at her six, and gave him a very adult eye roll. She rooted through the bags until she found what he assumed was a sippy cup. She also handed Ma a carton of juice. “You need to water it down,” she said. “My mom says it’s bad for his teeth if you don’t put water in it.”
“Then I’ll put water in it.” Ma tugged her ponytail. “Now you girls sit down and Ben will make you a sandwich.”
Ben would? He didn’t know what kids ate. Ryan seemed happy with his pb&j so he went with that.
The girls tucked in. “You need to get us a glass of milk too,” Brinn said.
Ciara whispered in her ear.
“Please,” Brinn said.
Ma had the phone in one hand, pouring juice in the sippy cup with the other.
Neat invention. With the top screwed on kids wouldn’t spill. He looked at the glasses of milk in his hand, and up at the girls.
“We don’t need a sippy cup.” Brinn grinned at him through a mouthful of sandwich. The twins resembled their mother. Same dark eyes and dark hair. Did their mother have the same sassy, cute smile they did?
“Peg!” Ma beamed into the phone. “I need to get the prayer chain activated.”
God help them all. Raw fear slithered down his spine. The Twin Elks Prayer Chain could teach the CIA a thing or two.
“How’s your mom?” He asked Brinn because she seemed to be the twin who spoke.
“Sleeping.” Brinn drained her milk and looked at him expectantly. He should have added milk to his list at the store. Obediently he got the carton out of the fridge and refilled their glasses.
“Vic stable,” said Ryan.
“Does he always talk like that?” Again he asked Brinn.
She nodded as she chewed. “He watches too many cop shows on TV. Mom wanted to move him from his daycare but all the ones closer to her work were full, and she couldn’t afford the other ones.”
“How do these silly rumors get started, Peg?” Ma glared at him. “No, she’s sick. Well, the flu I’d say, but Doc Cooper’s on his way.” She nodded and made yes noises as Peg’s garbled voice drifted over. “Sure, he’s retired but he’s only two doors over, and she has four kids with her. I think the baby has it too.” More nodding and uh-huhing. “You do?” Ma put her hand over the mouthpiece. “Peg has a portable crib she can lend us, from when her grandson was last visiting.” She went back to her call.
“You drive all the way from Philly?” He felt kind of low getting information out of kids, but their mother was too ill. At least, that’s what he’d say if anyone asked.
Brinn nodded. “We’re going to California.”
She launched into some pop-type song about girls and California. Ciara joined in.
Thus ended his interrogation session. He considered Ryan.
Ryan watched him with wide eyes, jaw working on his sandwich.
Ben discarded the idea.
“If you’d make sure the true story gets around, Peg, I’d be so grateful,” Ma said. “That’s right, I’m making lasagna for our adult coloring night.”
Ben tuned out again. The girls’ singing scrambled his man-brain. Time to check on their mother.
Ma had worked another one of her miracles here.
Poppy wore an old Cougars T-shirt from his school football days. Her breathing rasped into the silent room.
Paler than the white pillowcase behind her head, she did not look good.
He put his hand on her forehead, hot and clammy.
He took his hand away and her eyes opened. Her fevered gaze found him. “My children.”
“Are fine.” He put his hand back on her forehead, and stroked his thumb over the frown lines between her big, brown eyes. “Sleep.”
Perching on the window seat, he reviewed the information he had. No ring on her finger, but four kids probably meant single mother or divorced. Could also be a widow. If there was a man in the picture, he couldn’t see him allowing a sick woman to drive four kids across the country. At least not any sort of man he’d call friend.
They came from Philly, so she must have been traveling for a solid few days now. He didn’t imagine you made good time with kids in tow. He guessed money was tight, with what Brinn had dropped in the kitchen about affordable daycare.
Poppy, not the sort of name you heard everyday.
Ma scratched on the door. “Doc Cooper is here.”
“Okay.” He had a hundred things to do, not one of them sitting and watching Poppy Williams sleep, yet here he sat.
Bald, craggy, with a careworn face, Doc Cooper hadn’t changed a day in the years Ben had known him. He’d pretty much looked that old since Ben had gone to him as a kid. Retired now, his son had taken over from him a few years back. Far as Ben knew, nobody really knew how old Doc was, but they all agreed on his doctoring skills. If Doc said they needed a trip to the emergency room, that’s what they’d do.
“What you got for me, Ben?” He dropped his black doctor’s bag on the end of Poppy’s bed.
“Running a fever, seems a little delirious.”
“Whelp, that baby had himself a tidy hundred and three degree whopper going on.” He unclipped his bag and took out his stethoscope and thermometer. “You need to watch that. If we don’t get it down, we’re gonna have to take him to the pediatric unit at County General until we get it under control.”
Doc examined Poppy neatly and efficiently, pausing to hum and frown every now and again. Standing up, he stripped off his latex gloves. “Whelp! She’s sick all right. Running close to hundred and five so she might be drifting in and out. Lungs are clear though, which is the good news, but she’s way too thin and looks plain wore out. I don’t think that’s helping matters.”
Anger for Poppy lit a slow burn inside him. How did a woman get into this state? How come nobody was looking out for her, taking care of her, making her world a good place to be?
“The poor thing.” Ma smoothed the covers beneath Poppy’s chin.
“Gonna give my boy a bell and tell him what’s what.” Doc packed up his bag. “Pop over to the clinic, and they’ll have a script ready for you when you get there.”
Poppy muttered, eyes flying open. Her gaze found his and he nodded. “You’re okay.” Or she would be, because he intended to make it so.
Poppy closed her eyes.
“That’s the best thing for her, I reckon.” Doc hauled out an ancient brick of a phone. “Looks like a virus to me, but it’s a doozy, so watch her tonight and the baby, and give me a bell in the morning. Let me know how they’re getting on.”
“We’ll do that, Doc.” Ma sent Ben a look that meant he would be helping.
Damn straight he would be.
“Right.” Doc rocked on his heels. “That’s about all I can do. If she don’t show signs of recovering, we’ll take some bloods and poke around a bit further.”
“Thanks, Doc.” Ma ushered him from the room, hands fluttering. “Let me get you a slice of my coffee cake before you go?”
“Dot, I thought you would never ask.” Doc’s chuckle drifted down the passage.
Poppy muttered and quieted down again. Ben settled down to watch.