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It's a cold, snowy December in the upstate New York town of Millers Kill, and newly ordained Clare Fergusson is on thin ice as the first female priest of its small Episcopal church. The ancient regime running the parish covertly demands that she prove herself as a leader. However, her blunt manner, honed by years as an army pilot, is meeting with a chilly reception from some members of her congregation and Chief of Police Russ Van Alystyne, in particular, doesn't know what to make of her, or how to address "a lady priest" for that matter.
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It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby. The cold pinched at Russ Van Alstyne's nose and made him jam his hands deep into his coat pockets, grateful that the Washington County Hospital had a police parking spot just a few yards from the ER doors. A flare of red startled him, and he watched as an ambulance backed out of its bay silently, lights flashing. The driver leaned out of his window, craning to see his way between cement rails.
"Kurt! Hey! Anything for me?"
The driver waved at Russ. "Hey, Chief. Nope. Heart attack stabilized and heading for Glens Falls. You heard about the baby?"
"That's why I'm here."
Kurt continued to back out, almost to the end of the parking lot. "Jesum, hard to imagine sumpin' like that here in Millers Kill—" The rest of his commentary was lost as he heeled the ambulance into the road. Russ waved, then pushed open the antiquated double doors to the emergency department.
His glasses fogged up within seconds in the moist heat of the foyer. He pulled off the wire frames and rubbed them with the end of his scarf, mentally cursing the myopia that had finally led him, at forty-eight, to cave in and wear the damn things full time. His stomach ached and his knee was bothering him and for a moment he wished he had taken that security consulting job in Phoenix like his wife had wanted.
"Hey! Chief!" A blurry form in brown approached him. Russ tucked his glasses over his ears and Mark Durkee, one of his three night-shift officers, snapped into focus. As usual, the younger man was spit-and-polished within an inch of his life, making Russ acutely aware of his own non-standard-issue appearance: wrinkled wool pants shoved into salt-stained hunting boots, his oversized tartan muffler clashing with his regulation brown parka. Hell, Mark was probably too young to get a cold neck, even with the back of his head shaved almost bald.
"Hey, Mark," Russ said. "Talk to me."
The officer waved his chief down the drab green hallway toward the emergency room. The place smelled of disinfectant and bodies, with a whiff of cow manure left over by the last farmer who had come in straight from the barn. "Man, it's like something out of an old Bing Crosby movie, Chief. The priest at Saint Alban's found the little guy bundled up at the door of the church. The doctor's checking him out now."
"How's the baby look?"
"Fine, as far as they can tell. He was wrapped up real well, and the doc says he probably wasn't out in the cold more'n a half hour or so." Russ's sore stomach eased up. He'd seen a lot over the years, but nothing shook him as much as an abused child. He'd had one baby-stuffed-in-a-garbage-bag case when he'd been an MP in Germany, and he didn't care to ever see one again.
Mark and Russ nodded to the admissions nurse standing guard between the ER waiting room and the blue-curtained alcove where patients got their first look-see. "Evening, Alta," Russ said. "How's business?" The waiting room, decorated with swags of tired tinsel and a matching silver tree, was empty except for a teenager sprawled over one of the low sofas.
"Slow," the nurse said, buzzing them into the emergency treatment area. "Typical Monday night." The old linoleum floors carried the rattle of gurney wheels and the squeak of rubber-soled shoes.
"Over there," Mark said, pointing. Framed by limp white curtains dangling from ceiling tracks, an athletic-looking woman in gray sweats was leaning on a plastic incubator, writing in a pocket-sized notebook.
"Who the hell's that?" Russ asked. "I swear, if they let a reporter in here before we've cleared the facts I'll—" he strode...
In the Bleak MidwinterBy: Julia Spencer-Fleming