High Stakes
By Cindy Gingrich

Ed Green shivered and zipped his parka up closer to his chin. He might live to regret this. The cold morning air had him fully awake. He looked at his watch. 6:05 am. The hour didn't bother him. He had seen many early mornings these last few years -- at least today's would not involve any homicides.
He opened the trunk of his well-worn Dodge to check one more time that he had all that he needed. Suitcase. Boots. Blankets. A box containing a tire wrench and a flashlight. He even had some flares. His cell phone was in his pocket. That should be enough for any trouble, enough even to satisfy his overprotective sister Kayla. He placed his holstered Glock in the box next to the flashlight and slammed the trunk lid. It yawned back open lazily. He sighed. A harder slam. He really needed to start thinking seriously about a new car. Maybe in the spring. Maybe.
He climbed behind the wheel and started the engine. At the early hour, he had no trouble getting out of the city and was soon headed north on the Merritt Parkway. In about three hours, he would be in Hadley, Massachusetts, the home of his oldest sister and her family.
Traffic was light and gave him time to contemplate the coming weekend. He had always visited Kayla, Sam, and the kids over the President's Day holiday. This year he was especially looking forward to it. It was his other sister Cass' idea actually. For she and Ed to take the kids to Vermont to snowboard, and give their parents a weekend alone. A late Christmas gift. Everyone had loved the idea.
He wasn't much for ski resorts; in fact, he wasn't much for winter. Snow was nice to look at, in the right circumstances -- with a warm woman, in front of a blazing fireplace, for instance. Otherwise, it made his life worse -- the city was a mess, his job, harder. He much preferred to spend his free time near the ocean. Atlantic City, actually. But he adored his niece and nephews, and relished the idea of a weekend of play. Maybe some comfortable après-ski.
He flicked on the radio, searching for some music. All he could pull in at that hour was a scratchy Don Imus on WFAN. No. Next car, a CD player. Maybe in the spring.
On the day after he had received his detective's gold shield, he had emptied his savings account and upgraded his wardrobe. Four good suits and an Italian wool overcoat. It was important to him that he look good on the job. Earning that shield was the only thing that he had ever done of worth in his life. It had gotten him the respect that he craved, and he needed to look worthy of that respect. Many of the other detectives didn't seem to care about the image they set forth. To Ed, it was paramount. He was a New York City police detective. The Dodge would serve him well while his bank account recovered.
The time passed quickly and he soon found himself on the road into Hadley, and on his sister's street. He turned into their drive. Kayla ran out to meet him, a sweater around her shoulders. She looked upset.
"Eddie, there's a problem."
"Nice to see you too, Kay --"
"Cass can't make it!"
"Okay, okay. You're shivering -- tell me about it inside."
Inside, in the warm, he greeted his brother-in-law and hugged the kids. They looked at least twice as excited as their mother looked upset. Ed grinned. Tamara, thirteen, was intelligent and assertive, and just becoming pretty. Her brothers, Jason and Jesse, nine year old twins, were bright and mischievous. Ed saw an awful lot of himself in Jesse. He bet his sister did too, and that it scared the hell out of her.
"So what's the problem?"
"Cass' theater group -- the tour was extended. She can't leave."
"That's great. It's what they were hoping for."
"But the kids were looking forward to this with you!"
"I can still take them."
"Ed, no. Sam or I will have to go."
A long look. A bit of a scowl. Then softly, "Don't you trust me?" He waited for an answer, holding her gaze.
She did not. She never had.

Talent and looks ran strong in the Green family. Kayla, eight years Ed's senior, was beautiful and brilliant, a professor of African American Studies at nearby Amherst College. Cassandra, a year older than her brother, was a singer and dancer in an off-Broadway theater troupe.
Ed had gotten the family looks, but a talent only for trouble. Growing up in inner city Philadelphia had not been easy. He was the baby, the brat, the underachiever. A problem child at an early age. At twelve, a fight had left him with a broken jaw and a slur to his speech that he had never totally corrected. By fourteen, gangs and drugs beckoned. He had dabbled in both. That is, until the day of his sixteenth birthday, when an uncle taught him poker and about odds-making. He had been intrigued. He was hooked.
In high school, though intelligent, he had not applied himself. Though athletically gifted, he had not bothered with sports. Instead, he had learned more about gaming. He combined his talents and money, and gambled. Twice in his senior year he had been suspended for bookmaking.
Discipline at home was swift and harsh. And with Ed, useless. The day after graduation, he left home to find his fortune one hour east, in Atlantic City. Convinced that he could live the life of a professional gambler, he slept by day and fed his addiction on the gaming tables at night. It was intoxicating.
And for the first six months, it had been simple. Winning was easy, and success brought him fine things. Powerful friends. Beautiful women. Drugs. Cocaine blurred his mind, and he needed to be sharp, so he stayed straight. He was on top of the world.
But his luck changed. Losing begot more losing and desperation followed. Women and friends and power turned their backs. He tried now to ease the pain, and change his luck, by getting high. Late one night, totally stoned, totally oblivious to the danger in the city's back alleys, he had been beaten and robbed of all that he had left. He crawled home to Philadelphia, broke and broken, and scared. His life over at nineteen years of age.
After a year of sullenness and self-pity, he had been talked into applying to community college. Police Science101 was a course used to fulfill a humanities requirement. It was there that he found himself.
Ed was a good police officer, smart, sensitive and aware. He gained a reputation for being tough and no nonsense. He was quick to feel -- whether it was empathy with a victim, or fierce anger at a suspect. There had been a few rough spots -- some disciplinary inquires -- but overall, his work record was solid.
As a uniformed officer in his first precinct, he had watched the detectives with envy. He knew that it was what he wanted and that he could do the job well. He worked hard, and studied, and passed his detective examination with ease.
After two and a half years in the Department's Gang Unit, he was now in Homicide at the 27th Precinct, and quite content. He liked the work and his fellow cops. He had great respect for Anita Van Buren, his commanding officer, also an African American.
Ed had never totally banished the lure of the casinos. He felt that his gambling was under control. A hobby. The other cops only smiled when they watched him prepare for a trip to Atlantic City, carefully separating out his gaming money. Addictions were addictions, and handled as one could. It had never been a problem with Ed. Van Buren had laughed when hearing the rumors of her detective's card playing prowess. She knew that he could wear nothing close to a poker face. His eyes always belied what was inside of him.
Receiving his gold shield had regained Ed what he had lost at nineteen. It had made his parents proud, and, to him, had elevated him in their eyes to the level of his sisters. But though he was 35 years old and a grown man, Kayla, eight years older and eight years wiser, still saw him as wild and irresponsible.

"Look, what do I need to do? You want to examine my credentials? Check my car? I'm your brother, for God's sake!" Pausing to calm himself, he saw that Kayla's eyes were tearing up. He softened. "I'll take good care of them. You and Sam go off and have your weekend together."
"It's just -- it's just that I've never let my babies go away for a whole weekend alone."
"With me. You think I'd let something bad happen to them?"
The kids had been watching and listening anxiously. Finally, Jesse could take it no longer. "Mom, if Uncle Ed can't take care of us, then no one can! He's a cop!" This loyal proclamation both warmed Ed's heart and brought a smile that he could not hide from his sister.
"Okay, okay." She turned to the kids. "Go get your stuff." Their delighted faces made her feel a bit better.
"Are you sure that you don't want to take the Volvo?"
"I had my car checked out last week."
"Sam's got chains --"
His exasperation was creeping back. "Look, I'll show you. Get your coat --"
Outside, he gave her a quick tour. Tires in good shape. Full tank of gas. He opened the trunk. He figured the flares would do the trick.
"You brought your gun?" Her eyes narrowed.
"I'm a cop." Then, mockingly, "I think the kids know that."
"I don't want them near it!"
"Kay. The safety's on. It's okay, really."
"Why do you need it?"
"Because I do. Because I'm a cop." He took a deep breath, fighting the anger. He would not yield on this one.
The standoff was interrupted as the kids came out, hauling their suitcases.
"Kay, we'll be fine. We'll have fun. They'll be safe, I promise you. Trust me, just this once." He grinned at her. She finally relented.
"Okay, guys, let's go!" And they were off.

The boys chattered non-stop from the back seat. Tamara, up front with Ed, was quiet, seemingly absorbed in the music coming from her Walkman. There was a bit of shyness in her that he had also noticed at Christmas. She was at a tough age, where the wrong comment could do serious damage, but the right word could be a guiding force. He smiled and let her have her solitude. He didn't know that the reasons for her shyness included a strong crush on her uncle.
They got to Stratton Village in plenty of time to get settled into their condo and get the three snowboarders to their first session of snowboard camp. Saturday passed quickly. Ed spent the time relaxing in the base lodge. He perused the small book shop, picking up Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Appropriate reading for this temperature and setting. Sunday was fairly mild, and he spent some of the day hanging around outside, enjoying the scenery.
Dinner Sunday night in the lodge restaurant was family style, with other vacationers. Ed thought that the kids might enjoy trading their day's adventures with other young snowboarders. He was hoping himself to spot the attractive redhead from the bookstore the previous day.
Talk turned to the weather, not uncommon at Stratton Mountain. There was speculation about an impending storm, a potential classic "nor'easter." Ed questioned the possibility, considering the day's temperature, and a gray-haired man took the floor, regaling them with tales of past nor'easters, especially The Storm of 1978. Ed listened to the stories with some skepticism. He hoped that the guy hadn't scared the kids when reciting the statistics of how many unfortunate people had been killed in 1978.
Tamara and the twins were quiet on the walk back to their condo. Tired, Ed figured. His own mind kept wandering to Krakauer's book, and his accounts of the freezing Everest climbers. He was wishing a bit that he had chosen another book to read.
"You think we'll get a bad storm, Uncle Ed?" Tamara's voice broke into his thoughts.
"Don't know. We'll get up early and check, okay? If it's snowing, we can just head home." Surprisingly, he got no argument from her or the boys. "You're not going to have bad dreams tonight, are you, Tam?" He smiled down at her. She did not smile back.

He woke the next morning with a start and immediately jumped up to go to the window. A light snow was falling. Not too bad, he thought. They just needed to pack up and get going. To hurry a bit. It was only 90 minutes to Hadley. The words of the old-timer from the night before played in his head -- "They gambled with their lives. It just snuck up on everyone. No one was prepared...." He shook his head. He rousted the kids and got them some breakfast, then made himself some coffee, extra strong.
While Tamara had laid her clothes over the radiator to dry out over night, the boys, being boys, had piled them in a heap in the corner. Their jeans were wet, and their parkas, hats and mittens were still cold and snow-crusted. Ed frowned. How would he keep these two warm and dry in the car?
"Okay guys, what other clothes do we have here?" He quickly went through suitcases and came up with flannel pajamas and sweats, still dry. It would have to do. He admonished them to dress quickly, trying to walk the thin line between keeping them serious and causing alarm. He gave his gloves to Jesse and Tamara donated her spare mittens to Jason.
Ed had to smile in spite of his worry. The boys looked silly in their get-ups. It would be a good story for their parents -- Uncle Ed letting them wear their pjs in the car.
He watched the kids finishing breakfast, feeling more and more unsettled. Something bothered him about this light snow that looked so unthreatening. He dug in his suitcase and found his cell phone, quickly dialing the precinct. His own partner, Kerry, was off on the holiday, but he guessed that Lennie and Mike would be around.
"Briscoe." The voice, a bit annoyed, a bit tired already at the early hour, instantly made him feel better.
"Lennie --"
"Hey, Ed. I thought you were skiing."
"Well, I am. Or I was. Look, the weather's turning bad up here and I just wanted to let someone know, you know? We're heading out in a few minutes and I just wanted to tell someone."
"You okay?" He sounded unnerved, and Ed was rarely unnerved.
"Yeah. It's just -- last night, some of the locals were talking about this snowstorm that's coming -- of course, there's always a snowstorm up here -- and they were talking about that big blizzard in 1978. Guess a fair number of people up here got stranded. Some died out on the roads. It got the kids a little worked up."
And their uncle, too, Lennie thought, glad that Ed could not see the slight smile on his face. "So how long should the trip take? You wanta call and check in?" He heard Ed sigh.
"I feel ridiculous, like I've never been in snow before. It's only a 90 minute drive. It's just that I have the kids --"
"Maybe you should wait it out."
"Nah. It's snow. We'll be fine."
"Okay. Just check in, say, in two hours? How's that sound?" He was doing his best to convince Ed that it was he, Lennie, who wanted the reassurance. To his surprise, Ed fell for it.
"Sure. Good. That'd be good." A quick laugh. "Thanks, Lennie."
"No problem. Be careful."
He hung up, still smiling. He saw Van Buren headed his way, and turned in his chair toward her.
"That was Ed." He explained the situation.
"So why didn't he just stay there?"
Lennie shrugged. "'Cause he's Ed."
"How old are the kids?"
"Not sure -- the oldest maybe fourteen. The boys nine."
Van Buren frowned. "Well, I've never known Ed to be irresponsible. But that storm in '78 was terrible. People froze in their cars."
"He said it wasn't too bad at the moment."
She nodded. "Keep me informed. I know some people up there -- I'll call and see what they're thinking."
Lennie got up and collected his third cup of coffee. He certainly wasn't going to complain about not going out in the cold driving rain. He'd keep an eye on Ed from the warm, dry precinct.

7:15 am. The Dodge's engine sprung to life and he let the motor run and the car warm up as he loaded the trunk. He put the three kids in the back seat and wrapped blankets around them. The car heater was doing its job, and the defroster was keeping ahead of the ice on the windshield. With a quick scrape of the side windows, they were ready to go.
As they pulled away from the condo, he noticed that the snow was no longer falling lightly, but had become heavier. Okay, no problem. They were on their way. The twins were already clowning around and he turned to his niece. "Tam, you gotta keep the boys in control. I need to think about driving..." He smiled to allay any fear that his voice may have stirred in her, but she quickly warned her brothers to behave. The drive became quiet, almost too quiet. The kids seemed to sense Ed's concern, his almost unnatural fear.
He stopped in Bondville to fill his gas tank. A sign hung in the gas station window, "CLOSING AT NOON -- SNOW." He paid for his gas and also for three cups of hot chocolate. Occupy their minds a bit and keep their hands warm, he thought.
"Heading out today?" The owner said cautiously.
"We're getting an early start -- we just need to get to western Massachusetts. We're gonna let the snow chase us."
"You're taking a bit of a gamble -- in '78, it came in fast and furious. No getting around that storm."
"We'll give it a shot."
"Well...be careful then."
Ed nodded his thanks and headed back out to the car. Was everyone here paranoid or was it him?
The next half hour went slowly but surely and he started to relax. Then the snow turned to sleet and he watched as a sheet of ice crept farther and farther across the windshield with each pass of the wipers. Damn, he did not want to stop. But soon his field of vision was nearly closed.
"Okay guys, hang tight -- I just gotta stop and scrape the windshield. Just a minute or two --" He pulled off the road as best he could and struggled out against the wind. The sleet slashed at his face, and he scraped mostly by feel, closing his eyes against the torrent. Back in the car, he wrung his hands painfully -- they were nearly stiff with cold, burning. Tamara crawled forward and wrapped her mittened hands around her uncle's. He looked at her face -- anxious, but not afraid. Trusting. Totally.
"Thanks, honey." He smiled at her. He might need her fearlessness.
As soon as the feeling returned to his fingers, he took his place again behind the wheel. He could see clearly now, see that the sleet was coming down even heavier than before. Carefully, he pulled out onto the highway. They struggled along, an occasional skid making everyone tense. But there were no cars to skid into -- everyone had taken the storm seriously. Well, everyone else.
They should soon be at the Massachusetts state line. Home free from there. An abandoned car, way up ahead, caught his eye. He had to stop. He slowed, hoping to pull up behind the vehicle, but they skidded, coming to rest in front of the car. Damn, he had hoped to use his headlights to light the other car. His annoyance turned to anxiety when he realized that his only remaining source of light was his flashlight. Which was in the trunk. The opening of which require a key -- the one in the ignition. His stomach tightened.
"I'm gonna check this out. I'll have to stop the car, okay? The flashlight's in the trunk." He wasn't sure why he was telling them this. They couldn't understand that once he turned off the engine, there was a good chance that it might not start up again, due to the cold.
He stopped the engine. The resulting silence was ominous. He quickly got out and found the flashlight and trudged back to the other car. A minute of scraping and his light revealed no passengers. Footsteps, nearly obliterated by the snow, led in the direction of Bondville. He sighed. Good for them, he hoped, bad for us. He hiked back to the car and got in.
"No one there," he said, more tensely than he wanted.
Holding his breath, he turned the key. Nothing. A second time. Nothing. He felt a cold sweat break out on his neck. The car had to run, they needed to get out of here, they needed the heat. He tried a third time, knowing it was hopeless. Nothing. Maybe it was just flooded. Doubtful. The only sound was the wind whipping against the windows. A strong gust buffeted the car a bit and he heard a whimper from the back seat.
He turned. "Hey, hey -- this is no big deal -- the state cops will be out patrolling, they'll see us. It won't be long --"
He tried to calmly go through what he knew about cold weather survival. He had the cell phone, but knew it would be useless in the wind. What was in the trunk? Flares. Dirty clothes. Wet clothes. What else? His Glock. Useless. For the first time in his life as a cop, his gun gave him no comfort.
Okay. He'd put out the flares, see if there were any more usable clothes in the suitcases and get the kids bundled up, then wait a few minutes and give the engine another shot. No problem. Someone would come by, right? This wasn't the middle of nowhere, right?
"I'm gonna light some flares -- they're in the trunk. I won't be long."
"Don't go!" Jason whined. The twins' fears were starting to feed off of one another.
"It's okay, guys. I'll just be a minute --"
The wind lashed in at them when he opened the door. They heard the creak of the trunk, then the pop of the flares. The flames threw an eerie glow through the fogged windows. He climbed back in, shaking off snow.
"Uncle Ed, please stay with us now--"
He nodded at Tamara's request. "It'll be okay, I promise you. We'll have a good story to tell, that's all." He hoped he sounded more convincing than he felt. He turned the flashlight on so that he could see the kids better. Tears were rolling down the twins' faces. "Jess, Jas, com'on." He leaned over and rubbed a wet cheek with each hand. "Let's get you bundled up a little more -- I'll try the engine again in a few minutes." That is if I get up the nerve, he thought. If it doesn't turn over, we're stuck here.
He helped them pull on the additional clothes, then rewrapped the blankets around them. They were trembling a bit now, from fear he hoped. "Better?" Jesse nodded bravely.
"Uncle Ed, try the engine." He met Tamara's eyes. She was always one to face things squarely. He nodded, then turned and took a deep breath. The engine whined loudly, then sputtered. Then stopped. He closed his eyes. Oh God..
"It's okay --" Her young voice was gentle. She was not afraid. He turned and crawled back to them. Sitting on the floor, he rubbed the small arms and legs, trying to warm them. Tamara started to shiver and he pulled off his own parka and sweater. He pulled the sweater over her head and wrapped the parka around her.
"You boys climb up close to your sister. You can all get inside the coat."
The wind again shook the car and he gathered them together, to him. "I'm sorry --" He held them tightly, feeling their breathing. How could he have let this happen? How could he have been this careless with these tiny bodies, these three beings that he loved, his own flesh and blood?
His mind flashed back to the terse conversation with Kayla, over him taking his service piece. Useless to him after all. "Why do you need it" she had asked.
"Because I do. Because I'm a cop." No, he thought painfully, I need it to put to my temple after I've lost your three babies. After I've destroyed your life. I'm sorry, Kay, I'm so sorry. You were right about me all along."

Van Buren was back at Lennie's desk before Ed's two hour call in period was up. "Any word?" Lennie shook his head. "Lt. Jacobs of the Windham County Patrol told me that it had the potential to get bad."
Lennie guessed, correctly, that Van Buren was more concerned about the three kids than she was about her detective. And he suspected that if any of the three came down with as much as a sniffle as a result of Ed's decision, there would be hell to pay from his sister and his boss.
"You want me to call him?" She nodded. Waited. "No connection -- it didn't ring. It's Vermont, it's mountains. Maybe the snow is interfering."
She nodded. "We'll give him another hour."

After a silent 55 minutes, she phoned the Vermont State Police.

Ed prayed for the cops. For a passerby. For a sign of help, of the storm letting up and freeing them from this tomb of ice. He prayed for what seemed like hours. His call went unanswered.
The bodies he held were cold now and he himself was starting to feel numb. He couldn't even feel the tears running down his face.

It must be a dream, he thought. He swore he heard the familiar static of a police radio. Then voices. Jesse. Then Jason. He took a deep breath and winced a bit at the pain this brought. He hurt everywhere. He felt bruised. A hand was at his cheek, and he opened his eyes to the touch. Jason's eyes were wide.
"Detective Green." Ed looked toward the voice. He tried to speak, but could not. He nodded slowly. "Welcome back. You're going to be fine. I'm Dennis Curry of the Vermont State Police." The man smiled. "Here, drink this -- let's start warming you up from the inside, too."
Ed drank from the thermos that the man offered. Warmth spread throughout him. He felt a bit better, a bit more lucid. Then a shudder ran down his back.
"The kids --" he whispered.
"They're all in good shape. You did a fine job out there, Detective." Ed looked at him, not comprehending. He took a slow look around him. They were in a utility vehicle of some sort. His body was wrapped in a thermal blanket, his hands bandaged. They throbbed. He could see that it was still snowing hard, but they were moving, slowly. The twins were at his side, being surprisingly quiet. And now he saw Tamara, hiding behind the officer.
"Tam --" She silently buried herself in his chest.
"You have some frostbite -- are your hands numb or do they ache?"
"They ache."
"Good, then it's probably not too serious. We're taking you to Brattleboro Memorial to let them look you over. Your kids are fine."
"My sister's kids -- I gotta let her know that they're okay -- she's never gonna forgive me for this."
"For saving her children's lives?"
"I shouldn't have tried to drive out of there."
"The weather around here is beyond predicting -- it can get real bad real quick and real good real quick. The only thing that you did wrong was not being more careful with yourself." The statement was both praise and admonishment. "It was a bit closer with you than we like to see." He held the thermos to Ed's mouth again, to prevent any reply. "You did fine. Give us your sister's name and phone number -- we'll notify her."
"There was another car..."
"And we found the passengers. They're okay."
"But -- how did you find us?"
"You had a very anxious woman badgering me to go out and look for you." Ed shook his head, not understanding. "Anita Van Buren and I go way back." He smiled and Ed nodded wearily.
"Try to rest now, okay? It's about 30 minutes to the hospital."
Ed nodded. He felt Tamara's body shaking a bit and bent to kiss her forehead. She looked up, tears running down her cheeks.
"It's okay, honey. We're all okay." She laid her head back against him and he felt the twins dig themselves into him on his other side. He closed his eyes, feeling the warmth of the blanket and of the heater. But mostly feeling the warmth of the kids.
They had won.


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