Backstory on the inspiration for the story: One cold, cold evening earlier this month I stopped at a RedBox (movie rental kiosk) outside a grocery store. A young man was there with the Salvation Army singing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” as I walked up. During the course of my business he sang quite a few verses, and I told the Dearliest later that it made quite an impression. Most people only know the first, maybe second verse.
Combine that with having watched a LOT of Columbo this year, and you have the starting point for this short story.
When Angels Sing
Irena shivered and wrapped her small arms around herself, curling up into the smallest ball she could. She wasn’t cold under her winter coat, but the dim light cast spooky shadows on the brick walls and it scared her. Her tangled hair stuck to trails of drying tears, and she fought back a whimper. She wanted her mom and dad.
If only she hadn’t left her friends to admire the red sled in the shop window. “You come straight home from choir practice,” her mother had said. “I have to pick your father up from the airport today, but Sandra will be home to let you in.”
Surely by now Sandra would know Irena was late and the housekeeper would call someone. What time was it anyway? Irena glanced about the large, barren room for the third—or was it fourth—time and saw the same thing as before. A table, a lamp, two men playing cards, a mini fridge, a space heater, and the crummy mattress beneath her. No clock. It must be nearly dinner time, she was starving.
“I’m sorry I was disobedient, God,” she whispered. “I’m sorry I didn’t listen to Mom. Please take care of her. I love her. I love Dad. Please get me home.”
The tears came again, and she closed her eyes tight. Maybe if she slept, this would turn out to just be a bad dream.
“Detective Coleman, the parents are here.”
“Thanks, Molly.” Det. Coleman rose from his cluttered desk and maneuvered the floor to the front of the station.
“You must be Mr. and Mrs. Braily,” he said, shaking their hands. “Please follow me. We can use the office over here.”
After twenty years on the force, Detective Coleman had seen his share of kidnappings, not all of which ended well. Fortunately they didn’t happen too often in this town, but that didn’t make it any easier. He took one look at the little girl’s picture, and he knew he wouldn’t rest until she was home safe with her family. She reminded him of one of his grand-daughters, those inquisitive eyes and bright smile. No, he wouldn’t rest, especially with Christmas two days away.
“We know she left the church at 3:00,” the detective said, pointing on a map of the neighborhood. “She walked with friends up to here, and that’s where the trail gets tricky. We have officers checking the stores along this street, hoping someone saw her or anything suspicious. There’s been no call? No ransom demand? Forgive me for saying, I know this is hard, but you’re a high-profile family and it’s the best working theory at the moment that your daughter was taken for money.”
Mr. Braily shook his head. “Not yet.”
“It’s three blocks to home,” Mrs. Braily managed around a handkerchief. “We normally have Frank—he’s our chauffeur—drive her, but I needed him to take me to the airport and I didn’t think…it’s three blocks. How could this happen in broad daylight?”
Det. Coleman didn’t voice the answer. Evil was evil, day or night. It didn’t discriminate. He squinted down at the map. God help him, this was one evil he planned to eliminate.
Irena woke slowly, her eyes crusty and her mouth dry. Swallowing was hard, and her lips cracked when she tried to lick them. She wished the ringing in her ears would stop.
“Could I have some water, please?”
The men still sat at the table, smoking cigarettes and talking over their cards. They must not have heard her. Irena sat up, carefully cleared her throat, and tried again. “Excuse me? Can I have some water please? I’m very thirsty.”
One of the men scowled at her. “Don’t do it. Give her water, then she’ll need to use the bathroom. Nuisance.”
The other one retrieved a bottle from the fridge and tossed it across the room. It landed on the mattress next to her, and she twisted the cap off without hesitation. Oh, how good that cold felt on her desert of a throat…
“We might be here a few days,” he said. “Does no good to us if she’s damaged or dead. She’ll need food next.”
“Me too,” the first man said. “We haven’t eaten since Greta’s Cafe. I’ll go order up some pizzas or something if that’s okay Boss.” He pulled a cell phone when the boss nodded approval.
“While you’re at it Joey, go downstairs to the bar and check the news. See if anyone’s paying attention to our ransom demand yet.”
Joey, Greta’s Cafe, the bar. Irena filed it away. She knew the restaurant, which meant they hadn’t taken her too far from home. Maybe she could find a way to escape, find her way back. Why was her head still ringing?
She made an effort to listen better. It wasn’t her head after all but a bell. A soft, clear bell dinging in unsteady rhythm. It sounded cheerful and hopeful, and Irena thought if she could hear the bell, perhaps the person holding it would hear her if she yelled. But not while Boss watched her through his shroud of cigarette smoke.
Someone started singing outside. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” rolled off a beautiful low voice, and Irena sucked in a quiet breath. She closed her eyes, straining to hear, wishing that just for a moment she could turn the space heater off. The singer sang in time to the bell, verse after verse. She didn’t know there were so many verses.
The lamp winked out and the heater faded. The boss grumbled under his breath, something about a fuse, and activated the flashlight on his phone. “I’ll be right outside,” he grunted to Irena. “Gotta get the heat back on. Don’t try anything, there’s no place for you to go.”
The moment the door clicked behind him, Irena bolted to her feet and peered out the small window above her mattress. She had to stand on her tiptoes, but she could make out the street below—two, three stories maybe?—she was terrible with distance.
It was after dark, streetlights lit up fat snowflakes drifting down, and beneath one light post stood the singing man. Snow dusted his top hat and the shoulders of his long black coat, and a thick white scarf hung around his neck. Bell in hand, a red Salvation Army bucket beside him, he proclaimed the Christmas message. In the dark silence of the room, Irena heard him perfectly.
“Fear not then,” said the Angel
“Let nothing you affright.
This day is born a Saviour
Of a pure Virgin bright.
To free all those who trust in Him
From Satan’s power and might.”
O tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy.
The lamp flicked back on, the heater whirred to life. The singer glanced up briefly, and Irena took a breath to yell for help. She raised her hands to pound on the glass, but the door slammed open before she could make a sound.
“Hey! You get down from there!”
The boss made angry strides at her, and Irena dropped like a stone to the mattress. After a long stare out the window, the boss glared at her. “You stay away from there.” He continued muttering back to the table.
Irena released a breath. He wasn’t going to hurt her. She listened again for the singing and the bell, but they weren’t there anymore. That was okay. She’d heard what God had wanted her to, she was sure.
“Fear not then…
This day is born a Saviour…
To free all those who trust in Him
From Satan’s power and might.”
Detective Coleman stood on the street corner, the early morning light sparkling in the fresh snow. The shops would be opening soon, but for now everything was quiet save Greta’s Cafe. He pulled out a small notepad and flipped a couple pages, stopping at the message he’d taken down at the station.
“A Salvation Army volunteer working the convenience store thought he saw a small person in a second story window of the old bank,” he mumbled to himself. “He didn’t notice the lights being on until they went off. And then on again. Went home, couldn’t sleep for thinking about it, called first thing this morning.”
The detective walked down the sidewalk past retailers, the convenience store, and the Canters Inn Bar. He stopped at last in front of the long abandoned bank building and studied the brick walls. His gaze then fell to the ground, where footprints came and went out the alley, partially filled in by snow but still obviously there. Craning his neck down the narrow space, he confirmed his suspicions. The only side access down here went to the bank, not the bar. Someone had been in there, and recently.
Detective Coleman moved back to the small convenience store. He paused at the three-pronged indents of a Salvation Army bucket and looked back at the brick building, right into a second story window.
Maybe that bell ringer really had seen something.
His phone rang. “Coleman here.”
“The lab boys just finished analyzing the ransom call, and they identified the sound in the background. Near as they can figure, it’s some kind of bell ringing.”
Det. Coleman pocketed his phone and shook his head. There was no maybe in his mind anymore.
Half an hour later the Brailys sat with several officers in Greta’s Cafe, waiting anxiously and watching a monitor as a SWAT team prepared to breach the old building down the road. It didn’t take long—less than a minute—and they were in, confirming Irena was alive and two men in custody. Mrs. Braily immediately began to cry.
“Thank you God!” Mr. Braily said, wrapping his arms around his wife.
When Det. Coleman delivered their daughter some minutes later, they clung to each other in overwhelmed relief. “Medics checked her out,” he said to them. “She’s fine, just a little dehydrated and hungry.”
“Oh thank you, Detective!” Mrs. Braily said. “Thank you so much.”
Irena smiled at Det. Coleman, her eyes weary but happy. “Yes, thank you, sir. Do you know where the angel is?”
Mrs. Braily blinked at her in confusion. “Who, darling?”
“The man who sang and rang the bell so I wouldn’t be scared.”
“She means Kevin, ma’am,” the detective said. “He’s a young man with the Salvation Army. Saw her in the window and tipped us off. This whole thing would’ve taken a lot longer if not for him. I’ll fetch him if you like, he insisted on waiting outside.”
Irena didn’t wait. She ran out of the cafe and immediately focused on a man in a long black coat standing by a patrol car. She barreled into him, her arms wrapping around him tightly.
“Thank you, mister.” His rough wool coat muffled her words. “You’re the angel who sang ‘Fear not.’ I trusted in God and he saved me from Satan’s power, just like the song said.”
She looked up at him but didn’t understand the tears in his eyes.
“I’m glad you’re okay, Irena,” he said, kneeling down to her level. “I’m glad God kept you safe and am humbled He used me to help.”
“You must come home with us tonight for Christmas Eve dinner,” Mr. Braily said, finally catching up to his daughter. “My wife insists, and if you have time come by tomorrow. Come to church with us if you like.”
“Oh, well, thank you sir,” Kevin replied with an awkward nod.
“Is your family in town? They’re welcome also.”
Kevin shrugged. “As it happens, I’m on my own this year. Everyone else is caught up elsewhere.”
“Then you’ll come home with us?” Irena smiled and slipped her hand into his. “Let’s go tell Mom! And get some pancakes. I’m starving.”
“Can we talk you into joining us too?” Mr. Braily asked Detective Coleman.
“Oh, no sir,” the detective replied. “I mean I appreciate it, but the wife you know has a big dinner planned with all the local and out of town family and as for me, well…I plan to go home and sleep right up until the roast is out of the oven.”
“I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more,” Mr. Braily said.
Det. Coleman chuckled. “You know, last night when I told my wife that I was working a case and wouldn’t be home, she knew. She somehow knew it was a missing child and you know what she said? She says to me, ‘God picked you to find them, and I know you will.’ It was a comfort, I’ll tell you that. Kept me going when the leads seemed a dead end. What a night. What a day.”
“A true Christmas miracle, Detective,” Mr. Braily said.
And it was.
Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas
All other doth deface.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy.
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this story. Needs to be published….AK💖
I’m so glad you enjoyed it! 😀
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