Copyright © 2016 by Olivia Hardin
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
To Father Daleo.
I heard the door behind me open and close, and I glanced up to make sure it wasn’t a customer. No, it was just my partner coming back with a bag that I was sure contained something greasy and delicious from the burger place across the street. The backwards reflection of our names on the door, Pollard & Guillory, made a shadow on the wall in front of me, and I took a few moments to stare at it. I still marveled a little from time to time that I’d actually done it. I’d retired from the force and decided to become a private investigator.
With a sigh, I lowered my head again and continued hunting and pecking on the laptop in front of me. I figured I was probably one of the slowest typist in all of history. But who the hell cared? Time was mine now, and I could waste it however I wanted.
“What are you doing there, Bob? Christmas cards?”
I only grunted, glanced at my address book, then back at the computer screen.
“Bit late for that, isn’t it? Christmas is tomorrow.”
“So they get ‘em after Christmas.”
My officemate leaned over my shoulder and peered at the screen. “Please don’t tell me you’re typing labels for those? What kind of Christmas spirit is that?”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “It’s the day before Christmas, and I’m just now getting these in the mail. They’re lucky they’re getting anything from me anyway.”
“Bob, seriously, you need a wife. I mean, I never have to worry about stuff like this. Claire takes care of all of it for me.”
Continuing to type, I made a grunting sound in the back of my throat.
Pollard sat his ass onto the edge of the table and opened the paper sack he’d been holding, unwrapping his burger and taking a huge bite. Still chewing, he added, “You should ask Eva to marry you.”
I finished the last address then hit the print key before standing and smacking him in the arm with the back of my hand. “We’re not even dating.”
“But you should be. I mean, how old are you, Bob? Fifty-one? You should be married by now.”
“I’ve been married. Once was enough.” I shot him the “cold, dead look” and hoped he would drop the subject. My first wife had termed that phrase early on in our marriage. She’d started it as a funny endearment. In the end, she wished I was dead.
“Bob, first marriages suck. It’s just the way it is. But second marriages. Man, that’s the ticket. But you shouldn’t wait too long. Time’s tickin’ away.”
“You’re sixty-two, and you just got remarried last year.”
“Yeah, but I waited too long, Bob. I mean, any longer and I wouldn’t have been able to attract a great gal like Claire.”
“Whatever you say, oh wise one.”
He pursed his lips and rolled his eyes at me, then turned to the mini-fridge and grabbed a diet soda. I grabbed my labels off the printer, then sat down to get them ready to go in the mail. When the phone rang, I ignored it. Pollard was closer, and I was busy. He didn’t seem in any hurry to grab the cordless receiver from its cradle.
“Pollard and Guillory. Well, merry Christmas to you, too, Eva! How the hell are things at the department? You on duty tonight?”
I didn’t pause in labeling my envelopes, but my attention was drawn to the caller on the other end of the phone. Eva Lipton was a detective sergeant at the station from which I’d retired. The truth was, we’d gone out for coffee a few times since I turned in my badge. I knew she would have liked to try for something serious, but I was pretty much terrified of commitment after the way my first marriage had ended. Even after fourteen years.
Still, Eva was an attractive woman with a particularly incredible rack that I’d admired since the day she joined up. In those early days, she’d worn her hair cut short in a sort of bob. Now her thick raven locks were long and wavy, trailing almost to her ass when she wore them in a ponytail at the nape of her neck. That seemed to make her even sexier.
“Guillory! Wake up, man. It’s for you.” He set the phone onto the table and shoved, sliding it in my direction.
I raised my hand and shot him the bird, then picked up the phone. “Hey, Lipton, what’s up?”
“You on a case at the moment?” There was something about her voice that made my blood heat up. Not just in this moment, but any time the woman breathed two words to me.
“Nah, pretty quiet around here.”
“Well.” She shifted the phone around. “I’m on my way St. Paul’s, and I wondered if you have time to come down here.”
“To church?” I’m ashamed to say I strangled a little on the word. I hadn’t been to church since … I hadn’t been in a long time.
“It’s a robbery call, but there’s someone there who asked for you.”
“Hope Sheffield,” I said, tucking the receiver onto my shoulder. “You’re back in town.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line, then a tenuous breath. “I’m sorry, who is this?”
“Oh, Eva Lipton. Sorry, I don’t think we formally met back when you were still living here. I worked with Detective Guillory.”
“I hope nothing’s happened to him.”
I snorted a laugh, hoping she hadn’t heard me. “Nah, he’s alive and well. Retired from the force just after your case.”
Another pause, and I could just about imagine her thoughts. She was wondering whether Guillory had been pushed out of law enforcement because of her. He hadn’t, but to admit that would require more of an explanation than I thought it was my right to give.
Only a handful of people knew the story about what Guillory had done for her. It had all begun over two years ago, when Sheffield’s best friend, Justine Taggart, had gone to prison. Taggart’s infant daughter was placed into her parents’ custody, despite Justine’s allegations that her father had sexually molested her.
Sheffield had hatched a crazy scheme to kidnap the baby and then fake their deaths to throw the cops of their trail. But Guillory had a sixth sense about things, and he knew they weren’t dead. So he’d kept searching. And the same intuition that told him they hadn’t died also warned him that there was more to Sheffield’s story than met the eye. He’d eventually enlisted his friend Johnny Pollard to help him. The investigator had tracked down Taggart’s long-lost sister.
So when Guillory had finally found and arrested Hope Sheffield, he also had a name, address and phone number for the only witness who could possibly help her get out of the hefty charges she was facing. And he’d handed that information over to her attorney.
If not for Robert Guillory, Hope Sheffield would be calling from the Texas Department of Corrections instead of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
“So what can we do to help you, Ms. Sheffield?”
The woman cleared her throat. “Rawley. It’s Rawley now. I was married last year.”
I knew that, but to me, the woman would always be Hope Sheffield. “They said you were calling from the church downtown?”
“Yes, we’re in town for the holidays, and we were here for Mass. But there’s been a theft, and I was hoping Officer Guillory might be able to help. It’s not a big thing, at least not in monetary value. But it’s something that means a lot to the church.”
“Well, you’re in luck, Mrs. Rawley. You’ve reached us in a moment of calm before the storm. I’ll be right down there.”
The church was adorned in colors of red, green and yellow in honor of the coming holiday. Banners hung from the pillars, each bearing different names for the God-child come to earth. Oh, Emmanuel. Oh, Yeshua. Oh, Wisdom. There were strings or greenery adorning all of the windows, and as I approached the altar area of the church, I saw a man and woman standing in front of a large Nativity scene. My heels clicked on the floor, and two pairs of eyes turned to me.
“Detective Lipton, thank you so much for coming.” The priest smiled, putting his hand out to me. I shook it, inclining my head. “I’m Father Andrew Bertaut. I believe you know Mrs. Rawley.”
Sheffield looked different than the last time I’d seen her. She’d been very pregnant, and her hair had been dyed. And she’d looked pretty terrified by her situation, too, though who wouldn’t have been with the type of charges she’d faced. Now, however, she had a poised strength about her that was unmistakable.
“I wouldn’t say we know each other.” She shook my hand.
“If you’ll step right over here, Detective.” I followed Father Bertaut towards the scene of the birth of Christ. The pieces were large; the figures that were standing were nearly three feet tall. Clearly they were old, with the paint chipping and faded. The shepherd standing behind the stature of Mary was missing part of his cane, and one of the Wise Men stood a little off-center because his base had been broken. But the most distinctive thing about the scene wasn’t what was there, but what wasn’t.
The infant Jesus was missing.
“When did you notice this?” I asked, crouching low and examining the place where the child should have been. The manger was filled with hay, and I doubted there would be any fingerprints, even if I were to call in a team for forensics. During the call, I’d been given details about the scene. It was a ninety-dollar duplication of the scene of Bethlehem. Parishioners had taken a collection to purchase it over eighty years ago, and although it was old and worn, it was beloved by the members of the church. They took great care in putting the scene up each year for the celebration of Christ’s birth.
“I discovered it just after the six thirty Mass.”
“Was it there before?”
Bertaut shrugged, peering down at his feet. “I don’t know. I didn’t look before Mass. But it was there last night. I’m sure of that.”
I pulled out a pad and began jotting down notes. “How late do you keep the doors unlocked?”
A gentle grin played out on the priest’s face. “All night.”
“Hmmm.” I glanced behind me at the empty pews. “So a thief could have just walked in at any time.”
“Indeed. We welcome thieves.”
“And kidnappers,” Sheffield chuckled, cutting her eyes to Father Bertaut with affection.
“Did anyone else notice whether it was there before the six thirty?”
“Yes, one of the altar boys, Cecil, says he’s sure it was there before. His mother’s supposed to bring him back here to talk to you in just a few minutes. She had to run a quick errand.”
“What do you think it’s worth, the statue?”
“Only a few dollars…” He paused and leaned to the side to look behind me. “We could easily get a new one, but it means a lot to the people. It’s the only Jesus many of them have ever known. It just wouldn’t be the same.”
“Well, hello there,” Sheffield exclaimed.
I presumed it was Guillory finally arriving, and I turned with a smart comment on the tip of my tongue. That died the moment I looked at him. It had only been a little over three weeks since I’d seen him. Coffee and bagels three weeks and two days ago to be exact, though who was counting?
Today he had on a pair of loose, well-worn jeans and a black sweat shirt. He was the epitome of casual relaxation. He’d grown a bit of a beard since that day in the coffee shop, and it suited him. The grey peppered in his hair carried down to the hair on his face, and it made him all the more attractive to me. And then there was the beautiful little golden-haired girl holding his hand as he walked into the door. My heart melted in a very un-police like way.
Sheffield bent into a crouching position, putting out her arms. The child’s face split in a huge smile, and she ran to her mother, leaping into her arms.
“Ah, here is Cecil now, too,” Father Bertaut remarked, touching my shoulder. I grudgingly turned my eyes from the others to the young altar boy. “Come this way where we can sit down.”
I followed Father Bertaut to the sacristy, the room where the priests would change into their vestments for service. He motioned the boy to sit while his mother stood guard right behind him.
“Hi, Cecil.” I knelt down to face him. “Thanks so much for coming back around so I could talk to you. Father Bertaut said you saw the stature of the child Jesus this morning after the six thirty service.”
“Yes, ma’am, at least I think I did. I’m not sure I looked, but I think it was there.” He was a clean-cut kid, about ten years old. There was a spattering of freckles across his face, and his two front teeth looked too big for his face.
“If you didn’t look, why do you think it was there?”
He shrugged, glancing up to his mother. She nodded her head and put her hands on his shoulders. “Go ahead, Cecil.”
He cut his brown eyes back to mine. “Aw, I don’t know why. It’s just a feeling I got. I would have known if Jesus wasn’t there so I think he was.”
“I see.” I nodded, with a gentle expression. “And after the six-thirty, did anyone stick around? After most everyone left the church?”
“Some of the women. They always stay long.”
Raising his shoulders again. “I don’t know. Women always take longer. Girls talk a lot, even to God, I guess.”
I sucked my lips into my mouth to hide a smile. “Anyone else?”
“Mr. Can Man was still here when I went to put out the candles and hang up my surplice.”
“Cecil…” Father Bertaut’s tone was chastening, and the boy lowered his eyes, cheeks pink.
“Sorry. Mr. Collins was still here. The boys call him Mr. Can Man ‘cause he’s always collecting cans to take to the recycle place. Carries ‘em around in a big cart sometimes. The name just slipped.”
“I understand, Cecil. So was Mr. Collins still here when you got finished putting up your surplice?”
He nodded. “I saw him leaving from the side door of the church with a bundle in his arms.”
My interest was definitely peeked now. “A bundle? How big?”
Cecil put his hands out in front of him about twelve inches apart. I glanced up at Father Bertaut, and his brows were pinched together in a serious frown. Thanking Cecil and his mother, I took down their contact information and let them leave. As Father Bertaut and I walked back out into the church, I turned to him.
“Do you know Mr. Collins’ full name?”
“Yes, he’s a member of the church. Douglas Collins. It’s hard to believe he’d take the statue though.”
My eyebrows raised. “The kid said he collects cans. He must be down on his luck. Can’t be too difficult to believe.”
A sad smile crossed the priests face. “There’s no doubt Mr. Collins has been down on his luck, for many years in fact. But he’s a faithful member. It is very hard to believe.”
As we got close to Sheffield and Guillory, his eyes caught mine. He continued watching me even as he opened his mouth, speaking to the woman and her little girl. There were little crinkles at the corners of his eyes, which meant either he was enjoying the conversation or maybe, just maybe, he was glad to see me. He put out his hand to me and I shook it.
“Guillory, glad you could come out.”
“Good to see you too, Lipton. So I hear we’ve got another kidnapping.”
Sheffield laughed, switching her daughter to her other hip. “Let’s hope this one has a happy ending, too. Now come on, Michelle. Let’s go find Daddy and sister. I bet they’re starving.”
Tough guys generally avoid emotional situations. I like to think of myself as a tough guy. When Eva called me, I should have known this would prove to be one of those situations. But I’m a tough guy, and we don’t run, so here I was.
I saw Brennan Rawley as soon as I stepped out of the car. He had his younger daughter Melody on his shoulders while he crawled along the ground after Michelle, his adopted daughter. Both girls were screeching and laughing as their daddy made growling sounds and pretended to be a wild animal. I put my hands in my pockets and watched them a moment.
Funny to think of where we’d all been a few years ago. Me searching for Hope Sheffield, now Rawley, with the intention of arresting her for Michelle’s kidnapping. It was a damned good thing I had strong instincts, or it might have been the biggest mistake of my career.
When Brennan Rawley noticed me, he grabbed Melody’s legs to hold her, then sat up, a smile playing on his face. “Detective Guillory. Good to see you again.”
I snorted and shook his hand, holding onto it and helping him to his feet. “Bet there was a time you thought you’d never say that.”
“You’re not wrong there. We truly appreciate what you did, you know. Back then I could never have foreseen we’d be where we are now, but it’s such a relief not to be in hiding anymore.”
I could only imagine. “So where’s that wife of yours?”
“She’s inside with Officer Lipton and Father Bertaut. There was a statue stolen from the church this morning. A statue of the Christ-child.”
“Hmmm.” I chewed on that a minute, bringing my hand up to my new beard and stroking it. “Guess I’ll go on in there and see what’s going.”
“Mommy’s in there,” Michelle told me, walking right up to me with big trusting blue eyes. “Can I come?”
“Oh, baby, Officer Guillory has work to do.”
I shook my head and put my hand out for the little one. She clasped my big finger with a beaming grin. “Nah, she can come along. Besides, I’m not an officer anymore. I’m retired.”
While I walked with the little one, I had the feeling she was wrapping her little fingers around my heart. Tough guy, eh? I chided myself.
“Well, hello there,” Hope exclaimed as I entered the church. Little Michelle let go of my hand and ran to her momma, letting the woman lift her up into her arms. When Eva turned and looked at me, I was mesmerized by her. Her blue eyes widened as she assessed me from top to bottom.
She looked good, even in a plain black pant suit with a very modest button-down beige shirt underneath. I suspected she tried to downplay her feminine traits for the job. When we’d gone out for coffee, it was usually after she’d been on duty. She would leave the jacket behind and open up the top few buttons on her shirt. I would testify in a court of law that the hints of sexy tan skin she teased were enough to drive any man wild.
So intent was my attention on Eva as she walked away with Father Bertaut that I didn’t realize Hope was moving in close to hug me. She wrapped her arms around my waist and leaned in to brush her cheek against mine.
“I wanted to go see you after the trial, you know.” She smiled as she stepped back, heaving Michelle up to adjust the girl’s weight. “Van thought it wasn’t a good idea, at least not until my probation was over. Then we moved, and things got so busy. But I wanted you to know how much we appreciated what you did. If not for you …”
My grin was sheepish, and my cheeks felt heated. Tough guys don’t blush. “Don’t mention it, Mrs. Rawley. How is Van, anyway?”
Her defense attorney was an out-of-towner, which could have proved bad for Hope. Our local judges didn’t care for big-city Dallas attorney pushing their weight around. But Van had charisma and was impressive in the courtroom.
“Oh, well, he and Kay were married earlier this, year you know.”
“Lucky SOB.” I shook my head, remembering the attractive blonde attorney he’d had by his side in the courtroom. She’d also just happened to be Brennan Rawley’s cousin.
“I think he’d agree with that assessment.”
We both turned when we heard footsteps, and my eyes clashed with Eva’s again as she and Father Bertaut approached. I still had a smile on my lips, and it only got a little wider as she headed straight for me.
“Guillory, glad you could come out.”
“Good to see you too, Lipton. So I hear we’ve got another kidnapping.”
I winked at Hope, then we all said our goodbyes as she left the church. “So what have we got?”
Eva slapped her pad against her palm. “We’ve got a person of interest, so to speak. Father, do you know where we could find Collins? Where does he work?”
The padre frowned, slipping his hands into his pockets. “He doesn’t work, not for about a year now. Got hurt in the oil field. The last I heard, he was staying at the men’s house. You know, the one out west of here.”
I nodded, crossing my arms over my chest. “I know where it is. The one the Salvation Army used to run?”
“That’s it. It’s privately operated now. I can’t recall the name of it.”
“Thanks, Father,” Eva told him with a smile lovely enough it warmed my insides. “We’ll let you know what we find. C’mon, Guillory. Might as well put you to work.”
I followed her out of the church, then we paused just the other side of the door. She glanced left and stared at my green Jeep a minute, then turned right where her black car was parked. Finally, she pointed at mine.
“You want to drive?”
“Hell, yes, I do.” I took the lead and headed to the left. “I make it a point never to be a passenger where a woman’s behind the wheel.”
She snorted, her clipped steps behind me getting a little quicker and louder. “You’re a pig, you know that?”
“I’ve been told that a time or two.”
I waited for her to get into the passenger seat and buckle her seat belt. I made a point of adjusting the mirror so that I could use it to take a few extra seconds to look at her. I wasn’t being a creep about it, either. I knew her top was buttoned up good and I wouldn’t get a glimpse of any cleavage. No, I was watching the way the sunlight was playing on her dark locks and how she chewed her lip when she didn’t think I was watching.
“So why am I being brought in on this case, exactly? I thought I taught you enough you could handle a little petty theft.”
She cut her eyes to me and grinned like a cat that ate the canary. “It’s Christmas Eve, Guillory. Any minute I’m going to get called out on a priority. Baby Jesus needs to be back in his manger before services tonight.”
“Ah.” I raised my head and dropped it slowly. “So I get to waste my holiday tracking down a two-bit thief, is that it?”
She elbowed me. “What else would you be doing? Do they make frozen Christmas dinners?”
“Geez, Lipton, you’re such a smartass. Also, that hurts. I do have some cooking skills you know.” Even as the words left my mouth, I remembered the turkey and dressing meal in my freezer. I’d been saving it especially for tonight.
“Well, maybe we’ll get lucky and find our man and the statue of the child in time, and then you can put those skills to work and make me some dinner.”
So I’d all but invited myself over to his apartment. The pregnant pause after I’d said the words made me nervous. But he was driving so I told myself that maybe he was just concentrating on his direction of travel.
It wasn’t that the man wasn’t attracted to me. He totally was. And I’m not being a narcissist about it, either. There were plenty of men out there who didn’t want me, but Robert Guillory wasn’t one of them. Countless times, I’d seen his eyes linger on my boobs. I’d even caught him in the coffee shop window watching my ass as I walked ahead of him.
But it wasn’t just attraction. There was some mutual comfort we shared. In those times we’d met outside of work, we’d connected. When he’d stared into my eyes as I’d talked about my big family down in South Texas, he wasn’t just listening, he was absorbing. And the day he’d told me about how awful his marriage had been and how it ended, I knew he’d shared something he didn’t tell a lot of people.
But for some reason, the guy was fighting these feelings every step of the way. I was tired of waiting. I was ready to progress things to the next level. The call today from Hope Sheffield Rawley was the excuse I’d been looking for to call him.
“You do know that we’re never going to find baby Jesus in time for Christmas, right? I mean, even if this guy Collins took it, he hocked it somewhere. By the time we find him, haul him in and get him to cough his guts up, the pawn shops are going to be closed.”
“Don’t you have any faith at all left in you, Guillory? I mean, if anything, I thought the Sheffield case would remind you of a time when you did have a little positivity in that hard-boiled brain of yours.”
He mumbled something that sounded a lot like a curse, then put his foot on the gas to ensure he made the light up ahead of us. I glanced at the speedometer and side-eyed him. “Also, I am on the job, you know. You’re speeding.”
He edged his foot off the accelerator and looked over at me, a lop-sided smile playing on his lips. “Yes, ma’am.”
The men’s home, formerly the old Salvation Army shelter, was a rundown building that had seen better days. When Guillory swung the door open, it squealed in protest. Inside was in a similar state of disrepair, but there were Christmas decorations everywhere. Greenery followed the bannister up to the second floor, and a tree about seven feet tall stood in the foyer. There were men’s voices singing off-key holiday songs coming from an anteroom to the right of the front desk.
“Hiya.” The balding man there greeted us, reaching to push his glasses up on his face. “What can I do for you two?”
“We’re looking for Douglas Collins. Does he stay here?” Guillory asked, leaned against the desk and scanning the room instead of making eye contact with the guy.
“Yeah, he sure does. You friends of his?”
I had my badge in hand and I flashed it for him. “Police officer. We need to talk to him. Is he here?”
“Is he in some kind of trouble? I hope he’s not. It would be really bad timing.”
Guillory looked him in the eye. “Why’s that?”
“Well, we put on a Christmas program every Christmas Eve. Doug plays the piano for us. The guys are in there practicing right now, but they’ll sound really good tonight when he plays with them.”
“This is just a routine investigation,” I assured him, slipping my wallet back into my pocket. “Is he here?”
“No, he’s gone right now. Said he’d be back in a few hours.”
I walked to the doors where the men were singing, glancing inside. “Where’s his room?”
“Upstairs. You need to check it out? I’ve got a key.”
I shook my head. “We don’t have a warrant.”
Guillory spoke next. “Do you know where he went? It’s real important we talk to him.”
“No, sir. I don’t have no idea. We don’t keep tabs on the guys. This ain’t a halfway house.”
When I looked again, I saw that Guillory was giving him the cold, dead look. It was something that was almost mythical to the people on the force. It always seemed to break a perp down. The front desk fellow was looking really nervous about now.
“Really, I don’t know where he is. I hope he’s not in any trouble, though.”
“Why would you think he might be? Has he been before?”
I approached them again, putting my hands into my jacket pockets as I waited for the guy to answer Guillory’s question.
“Well, he had some hard times. All the guys have. He did some time, I think. Something about breaking into houses or something. But that was a long time ago.”
“Way before he got here. I don’t know nothing about it really. Just rumor.”
We left my card with the guy after he gave us a few leads on where we might find Collins. After grabbing some coffee, Guillory and I started searching. Hours passed and though lots of people knew Collins, no one seemed to know where he was. I was feeling pretty dejected when my cell phone rang.
“Hey, Eva. Where are you? I’ve got a call I need you to look into.”
I could see the way Eva’s expression fell that the call wasn’t the one she wanted. Her eyes got that disappointing look a kid gets on Christmas when there aren’t any more presents to open. She walked away from me, juggling her phone against her shoulder while she took notes on her pad. When she walked back, it was with a sad smile.
“I’m guessing you’ve got to run.”
“Yep, another theft. This one at the mall. Want to tag along?”
I considered that while we approached my Jeep. Finally, I shook my head, “How about I drop you off at your car and then keeping looking for Collins? Maybe I’ll turn up with something.”
Her face turned radiant. “Why, Guillory, you do have a little of that positivity in you, don’t you?”
I wanted to smack her. No, I wanted to kiss her. That would shut her up. Instead, I turned on the ignition and drove her back to the church. After she got out, I leaned over with my arm on the passenger seat and watched as she walked to her car. She had a very shapely backside, and I couldn’t help but admire it. When she dropped her keys and bent over to pick them up, I groaned.
Keeping her at arm’s length was getting harder and harder. Literally.
She drove off, and I went on searching. But an hour and a half later, I was no closer to finding Douglas Collins than Eva and I had been together. I stopped at a burger place and grabbed a meal, mulling things over as I stuffed fries into my face. When my cell rang, I answered it on speaker phone.
“Herwo.” My mouth was still full.
“Let me guess. Burger, French fries and a Dr. Pepper.”
I swallowed down gulps of soda. “Hey, Lipton. Any luck?”
“He’s at the shelter, and I’m on my way there.”
“I’ll beat you.”
I could hear her huff into the phone. “You don’t even know where I am. I might be just down the street.”
“Mark my words, Lipton. I’ll be there before you will.”
I started the engine and hit the road. I was about ten miles from the men’s home, which would be about fifteen minutes under most circumstances. I glanced at the dashboard clock. 7:17. I vowed to be there by 7:27.
My Jeep pulled into a parking space up front just seconds before Lipton’s drove up beside me. The clock read 7:25, and I laughed as I turned to gaze at her. Her eyes were narrowed, and there was an annoyed smirk on her face. I wanted to rub my thumb across those drawn lips just before claiming them with mine.
I was so caught up in those thoughts that I didn’t even realize she’d exited her car and walked up to my window until she rapped her knuckles on the glass. “You coming or what, Guillory?”
Douglas Collins was a simple looking man of fifty-four, though he looked at least sixty-five. He was sitting in the lobby area, a newspaper open in front of him. His pants were tattered at the hem, and his socks were both dark, though one had more of a black tint than blue like the other. He had almost no hair left on his head, but what he did have was combed straight back.
I knew his exact age because Eva had handed me his rap sheet before I followed her into the men’s home. He’d had five charges of theft and burglary, only two of them convictions. In total, he’d served about four years in prison. But all of that had been nearly ten years before. Had he gone back to his old ways?
“Mr. Collins, can you tell us what you did today?” Eva asked, after introducing herself to him. She stood over him, probably to appear as imposing as possible.
“I was around.” He folded his arms over his chest, hugging himself as if seeking protection.
“C’mon, Collins.” I shouldered into his line of sight where I could be a damn sight more imposing than Eva.
He reached up a shaky hand and rubbed it over his face, pursing his lips and refusing to say anything.
“Did you go Christmas shopping?”
His eyes made a darting motion back and forth, and the muscle at his temple twitched. Still, he didn’t speak a work.
“I understand you aren’t working anymore, Mr. Collins? What did you do for a living?”
“You know so much,” he huffed, turning to the side to avoid looking at us.
I cocked my head at Eva, frowning like a bear. She took a deep breath and nodded her head up and down. “Okay, Mr. Collins. Let’s go down to the station so we can talk.”
“You can’t arrest me. I have to play tonight. I can’t go.”
“She’s not arresting you,” I told him. “But we need some answers, and you don’t seem to want to give us any here. Maybe you’ll be more willing to talk downtown.”
He was shaking his head, though the movement was small enough it looked more like a shudder. “I don’t know how to tell you. How to say it.”
Eva and I both took a step back, and she gently motioned for him to sit again. He did, holding his knees in and then wrapping one arm about his middle. As I watched him, I knew instantly we were barking up the wrong tree. Whatever it was that Collins was afraid of, it wasn’t anything to do with a stolen baby Jesus.
“Jimmy said I could borrow it,” he told us, licking his lips and looking out behind us where his friends were starting to gather for the men’s home Christmas party. “He said if I needed it to come tell him.”
“Okay.” Eva spoke in a soothing voice as she sat down in a chair across from him. “What happened then?”
“He didn’t answer the door. I just needed to borrow it a little while. They were selling bags of those specialty nuts down at Market Street. Two for one. You know the ones. Cinnamon and sugar or some with honey. The guys here all like those nuts. I didn’t want to miss the deal, so I took it. The keys were in it.”
“A car?” I blurted, starting to make a little sense of what he was saying.
“I don’t have a lot of cash. But I like to give the guys all something. Two for one, so …”
Eva dropped her head into her hands a moment, then brushed her fingers through her hair. When she looked back at Collins, she leaned in to force his eyes to connect with hers. “Did you bring it back? Jimmy’s car?”
“Yeah, didn’t he say I did? I should’ve known he’d call the cops. He was pretty mad I took it without asking.”
I was back in Guillory’s car, my mood sour as he drove me back to the church. I’d made a quick call to the station just to be sure Collins’ friend Jimmy hadn’t actually made a report of car theft. There was nothing, so we let the man get to his Christmas piano playing. He’d hugged me before rushing to join his friends.
My cheeks were still burning from that. It never failed that when I was trying to maintain professional police decorum, some person would hug me and I’d go all gooey inside. I only hoped Guillory hadn’t noticed it.
Now we were sitting in the parking lot, and I could tell he was just as reluctant as I was to break the news to Father Bertaut. Finally he turned to me.
“Did I tell you I called some pawn shops?”
My head was down, and I shook it a little, then peered out into the darkness. “I did, too, while I was waiting to interview the guy we picked up at the mall. I guess you had no luck either, huh?”
“How much could someone expect to get from an old baby Jesus anyway?”
“Yeah.” He’d turned to look at me. I met his gaze and got a little uncomfortable. He was staring at me in a funny way, the furrowing of his brow creating dark lines across his forehead in the shadows of the night. “Eva?”
“I really can cook. I can make a mean omelet.”
A wide grin spread across my face, and I bit my lips to try to soften it a bit. “I’m a pretty critical omelet judge. You’ll have to be on you’re A-game if you want to try me out.”
“I’m not worried. I have complete faith in my omelet-making abilities. They are absolutely superb, even if it has been a while since I made one.”
We stared at each other for what seemed like minutes, though it was surely no more than seconds. I knew good and well neither of us were talking about omelets anymore. I wanted to lean over and kiss him, to finally taste those lips of his. I wondered about his new beard and how it would feel against the soft skin of my face.
“Let’s go talk to Father Bertaut.”
Just as I might have made a move, he turned away and exited the car. A curse was on the tip of my tongue, but I just rolled my eyes and followed him inside. There were candles lit all over the huge cathedral, and the smell of incense was heavy. A choir was practicing against the far wall, finalizing holiday hymns before the midnight Mass began in just a few hours.
Father Bertaut noticed us as we entered, a kind hint of a smile in his eyes as he inclined his head and motioned that he would be right with us. We waited near the nativity without speaking as the songs of Christmas echoed on the walls of the church.
“Thank you for waiting,” Father Bertaut said as he got close. “There always seems to be some last detail as we get ready for these special celebrations.”
“We understand, Padre,” Guillory told him, and I thought the way he said the moniker had a tone of reference.
The priest glanced at both of us, then to the empty crèche behind us and dropped his head, probably to hide his disappointment. When he brought his eyes up to us again, he sounded resigned. “I knew it was a long shot, to hope you might find the statue of the Christ child before the service. I’m sorry if you’ve wasted your Christmas Eve looking.”
“We’re sorry we couldn’t help you, Father,” I said, my chest feeling heavy. “You were right about Collins. He didn’t steal the statue.”
“We checked some of the pawn shops,” Guillory added. “Nothing there.”
“The church truly appreciates your help.” His smile looked so wholesome and true that it hurt my heart a little more. “I’ve got a parishioner who’s on standby to bring a replacement for the nativity. A child’s doll, I believe. It’s all about the spirit of the season, anyway, right?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but the sound of the heavy wooden doors of the church opening caught our attention, and all three of us turned in that direction. A man stood there a moment, and I saw him turn back and down where a little girl of about seven peeked around his legs. She had a big backpack which she pulled up on her shoulders, then he motioned to her, and she started down the aisle towards us.
The man, her father presumably, followed close behind, his steps slower as he was using a cane. Both the girl and her dad had black hair, though his was cropped very short on the sides and hers hung in thick waves down her back. They were the spitting image of each other.
“Mark!” Father Bertaut exclaimed. “You’re home. We thought you still had several months left on your tour.”
“Got an early ticket, Father. Thanks to some shrapnel.” He took hold of the pew beside him for support and tapped on his booted leg with his cane.
The priest shook his hand, then glanced down at the little girl and placed his hand gently on her head. “Merry Christmas, Annabelle.”
“Anna’s got something she needs to tell you, Father.”
I watched as Annabelle let her bag slide down her arms where she gently took it and opened the zipper. She reached her tiny hands inside and emerged with a bright pink blanket wrapped round the statue of the baby Jesus.
Father Bertaut knelt down to her level and waited. Annabelle hugged the statue to her chest, kissed its cheek, then handed it reverently over to the priest.
“Where did you find this, Annabelle?”
Tears welled in her big brown eyes, and she looked up at her father. He nodded, then she brought her gaze back to Father Bertaut. “I prayed to baby Jesus, Father. Just like you said.”
“That’s good. Jesus loves for you to talk to him.”
“I wanted Daddy to come home so we could go see the Christmas lights. Mommy said he wouldn’t get here in time. But I asked Jesus to please let him come early. And I promised that if Daddy took me to see the lights that he could come with us.”
Father Bertaut’s face split with a smile, then he reached out his hand and placed it against Annabelle’s cheek. “Did you and baby Jesus get to see those lights?”
She nodded. “I’m sorry I took him from the church. Stealing is bad.”
“Yes, Annabelle, stealing is bad. Did you know that you were stealing when you took the baby Jesus?”
This time her head moved side to side.
“Did Daddy explain it to you? Do you understand?”
The small head went up and down this time.
“Good! It makes Baby Jesus so happy when we learn. And I’m sure He loved watching the Christmas lights with you.”
Then the priest took the little girl in his arms and gave her a big hug. Taking her hand, the two of them walked together to the Nativity, Father Bertaut talking to her in soft tones so that the rest of us could no longer hear.
Mark hobbled a little closer to Guillory and I. “We didn’t know she had it until we got home from seeing the lights. I felt so bad for the church that we got in the car as soon as we could to bring it back.”
“All’s well that ends well,” Guillory said. The only thing I could do was nod. My own eyes were filled with tears, and I was trying not to break down and cry. For the first time this holiday I was suddenly missing my family. With my schedule, I wouldn’t get to go down South to visit until after New Year. It felt like an eternity right at that moment.
Guillory took a few steps to get next to me, then slowly dropped his hand down and took mine. I slipped my fingers between his and squeezed. With a swallow to force away the lump in my throat, I turned to look at him.
The hubby and I just love to listen to the old dramatic programs from the 40-50s on satellite radio. Dragnet is one of our favorites. There are two familiar Christmas programs from that early Dragnet series: one called “A .22 For Christmas” is a tragic story, and hubby and I have a hard time listening to it because it is so sad. The other, “Big Little Jesus,” makes me cry, too, but in the way that any good holiday story does when it touches your heart.
This story is a fanfiction of sorts based on “Big Little Jesus.” If you’d like to hear to it, click this link to access it on .
“The Big Little Jesus” aired on December 24, 1953 on television, and according to my research, it is the only Dragnet episode based on a case outside of Los Angeles. This particular case took place in San Francisco. If you’d like to see rather than listen to the episode, you can see it here on .
Enjoy and Merry Christmas!
It’s funny how things work when you’re a writer. I penned this story, passed it on to my editor, and it wasn’t until I was going through those edits that I realized I knew Father Bertaut! He is very much the priest who saw me through my childhood. I will always have affection for Father Joseph Daleo’s beautiful temperament, his soft-spoken manner and his patient willingness to teach his flock. When I was probably no more than 8 years old I wrote him a letter because some of my friends weren’t being kind to another girl in our circle. I was having a hard time standing up to the temptation of “following the crowd.” To this day I still carry his response in my bible. His words gave me the strength to stand up to that temptation and even now I lean on them to me to remind me of the lesson of true friendship and discipleship. Thank you, Father Daleo.
Of course none of my stories would be what they are without my good friend Tawdra to help me polish them up. And as always thank you to my husband, Danny for being my steadfast support.
Former police officer Robert Guillory's life has changed since he arrested Hope Rawley for kidnapping. Only his closest friends knows about his last case before leaving the force. Eva Lipton is one of those close friends, but she's been trying to get even closer ever since his retirement. When the chance to work with him on a church theft drops into her lap, she doesn't hesitate to call on him. Can a little holiday miracle give Eva the Christmas gift she's been hoping for?