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“Melchior! Give Caspar back the frankincense! And Balthazar, if you don’t stop throwing myrrh at the shepherds, I’m demoting you to junior sheep!”
I gazed sternly at the three middle-schoolers who were playing the wise men in this year’s church Christmas pageant. Wise persons, actually, since we’d given the role of Caspar to one of the girls. Melchior and Balthazar assumed implausible expressions of innocence, and Caspar wisely postponed any vengeance she’d been planning against her rowdy fellow Magi.
I turned my gaze on the shepherds, who quickly pretended that they hadn’t been about to start yet another fencing match with their crooks. And then on the Virgin Mary, who was chewing gum again. Her jaw froze, and then she swallowed hard.
“We only have three more rehearsals left.” I spoke calmly, but with the precise enunciation that should warn any child who was even halfway paying attention that they were all on very thin ice. “If anyone has decided that appearing in the Christmas pageant is too much work, just speak up and I’ll find someone to replace you.”
The faces of the younger cast members—the ones playing sheep, assistant shepherds, or junior angels—took on an eager, hopeful look as they glanced around to see if any of the older children with larger roles were having second thoughts. The older children all assumed expressions of injured dignity.
Well, except for my own twin eleven-year-old sons. Both of them regularly appeared in children’s roles in local theater productions and prided themselves on being young professionals in the dramatic arts, well on the way to following in their father’s footsteps. Josh, who played Joseph, was doing a fair imitation of my stern parental manner. Jamie, the angel Gabriel, was contemplating his fellow cast members with an expression that tempered melancholy disappointment with celestial forgiveness.
I stared at the cast for a few more moments, letting my words sink in. Then I gave them a brief, approving smile and clapped my hands.
The children swarmed to take their starting positions. The sheep and shepherds milled stage right. Joseph, Mary, and the angel Gabriel formed a semicircle around the manger. The wise persons clustered stage left, followed by the half-dozen children who’d be playing their camels. The camels had been behaving quite angelically ever since I explained to them that the three best-behaved among them would get to wear the camel heads while the remaining three would play the camels’ rear ends. I needed to find similar leverage over the rest of the cast. Since my notebook-that-tells-me-when-to-breathe, as I call my giant to-do list, wasn’t within reach, I made a mental note to brainstorm on the matter.
Mary knelt beside the straw-filled manger and bent tenderly over it. Then she snapped her head up and shuffled backward a foot or so, still kneeling.
“Baby Jesus needs a new diaper,” she said, wrinkling her pert, freckled nose.
Josh bent over, sniffed, and nodded.
“We don’t need Baby Jesus,” I said. Several shepherds tittered. “I mean, we don’t need to have him lying in the manger this early in the rehearsal. We don’t want him getting tired and cranky.”
The central role of Baby Jesus was to be played by four-month-old Noah, the son of the Reverend Robyn Smith, Trinity Episcopal’s rector. At least that was Robyn’s idea. I was more of a pragmatist when it came to children. Noah might be cherubic-looking, but he was also colicky. I didn’t think the congregation was ready for the spectacle of a red-faced infant Messiah shrieking loud enough to drown out the choir. I planned to make sure we didn’t lose track of Noah’s understudy, a highly realistic life-sized baby doll.
And since Noah had neither lines nor blocking to learn, we certainly didn’t need him at rehearsal.
“Robyn?” I turned and scanned the sanctuary. “Has anyone seen Reverend Robyn?”
“Right here.” Robyn bustled in through a side door. “Do you need Noah now?”
“We don’t need him at all today,” I said. “Could you take him back to your office?”
“Of course.” She turned to leave.
I was about to ask why she was leaving without Noah. Then I realized—she was holding Noah. And bouncing him up and down while he uttered a few of the choking noises that usually signaled his intention to begin howling like a banshee.
I turned back to the stage. If Robyn was holding Noah—
“That’s not Noah,” Jamie said, shaking his head hard enough to make his halo bounce.
“What child is this?” Josh proclaimed dramatically.
I could see the shepherds and wise men starting to inch closer to get a better look.
“Everybody, stay where you are,” I ordered.
I hopped up onto the stage and swept aside the thick tangle of straw to peer down at the infant. Definitely not Noah—this child was blond. Although I estimated he was probably about the same age, four months, give or take a little. He, or more probably she, was wearing a pink onesie. Not that the color necessarily meant anything. When Josh and Jamie were infants, Michael and I had received a few pink and purple hand-me-downs. Michael had initially turned up his nose at these, but the week both boys came down with a stomach bug—and shared it with us—even he had given up his objections to the girly clothes when we’d run out of more masculine outfits.
I could figure out the baby’s gender when I did the diaper change, which was definitely needed. Though the child was happy at the moment, smiling angelically, the way many infants do once they’ve accomplished a particularly smelly bowel movement.
Unlike Noah, who could be heard out in the hall, screaming his lungs out.
“Look.” Jamie, who was leaning over the back of the manger, pointed to something—a note attached to the baby’s clothing with a large safety pin. It was folded once, and there was nothing written on the outside, but presumably there was a message inside.
I lifted up the top flap of the note with the edge of my finger, something I realized I’d picked up from my cousin Horace, a trained crime scene investigator. Probably overkill in this situation, but still.
I read the note and froze.
I let the note fall closed again and looked up at Josh and Jamie.
“What does it say?” Jamie asked.
Josh was busy frowning at Mary, who was lying back on one of the decorative hay bales gagging and breathing heavily, as if to suggest that the mere smell of the infant’s diaper had triggered a life-threatening illness.
“I’ll tell you later.” I flicked my eyes around as if to suggest that the note’s contents were a secret for their ears alone. Both boys got the point immediately.
“Stand back, everyone,” Josh shouted. “The kid needs air.”
“He might be contagious,” Jamie added—in a tone that was softer, but still designed to carry.
The other children, who had been inching closer, jumped back. No one wanted to catch anything less than a week before Christmas.
“Josh, Jamie,” I said in an undertone. “Look around to see if you can spot anyone who might have dropped off this baby. Josh, you check the grounds. Jamie, search inside the church.”
Their faces lit up and they dashed out.
“Kirstie, can you take charge while we break?” Kirstie was the Virgin Mary’s real name—unless I’d been calling her by the wrong name since the first rehearsal. She didn’t always respond to it.
But she did this time. Her respiratory problem disappeared immediately as she stood up and gazed around, checking to see if anyone was doing anything wrong that she could pounce on.
“Take the children to the back of the sanctuary,” I told her. “Don’t let anyone go near the manger. Run lines with them if you like. I’ll be back as soon as possible.” I picked up the infant and headed for Robyn’s office, through a foyer littered with the snow boots everyone had taken off on arrival. At least the snow itself had stopped for the time being.
Robyn was already in her office, pacing up and down while bouncing Noah vigorously on her shoulder. The bouncing didn’t look like anything a baby would enjoy, but Noah did, and she’d figured out it was the only thing that placated him.
“We have a problem,” I said as I entered.
“You know where the diapers are.” Robyn pointed to the changing station she’d set up on her credenza.
“A bigger problem,” I said as I laid the newcomer on the plastic mat that now covered the credenza. “I’ll explain in a minute.”
“Whose baby is it?” Robyn asked. “I don’t recognize her. Or him.”
“That’s part of the problem. Someone just left the poor thing in the manger.”
“Oh, dear,” Robyn murmured. She tucked her white clerical collar back where it belonged, only to have it pop out immediately. And her black clerical vestments were spattered with blobs of what I hoped was merely baby food. She looked frazzled already. “Perhaps it’s just a practical joke. Or perhaps someone in the congregation resents our using Noah in the pageant and wanted to suggest that her baby would be a better choice.”
As if protesting this, Noah let out an unusually loud shriek.
“They could have a point,” Robyn added with a sigh.
“Do we have anyone else in the parish with a three- or four-month-old baby?” I asked.
“Not that I’m aware,” Robyn admitted. “And I think I’d have remembered if I’d seen a baby that adorable anywhere around town.”
“Then I think Noah’s role is safe, provided he can learn not to have temper tantrums during the Adoration of the Magi.”
“Hmm.” Robyn sounded dubious. Maybe I was starting to get through to her.
I turned my attention to the unknown baby. Who did, indeed, need a change of diaper. Badly. She could also have used a bath, but I made the best of it with a small mountain of diaper wipes.
“We should alert Chief Burke,” I said when I had the diaper situation under control. “I already sent Josh and Jamie to scout around, in the hope that they could spot whoever dropped the kid off. And—”
“But Meg,” Robyn said, gently. “If some poor unfortunate woman came to the realization that she was unable to care for her child and thought Trinity would be a safe refuge in which to leave the poor innocent lamb, we don’t want to undermine our reputation as a sanctuary. In fact—”
“If that’s what had happened, I’d agree,” I said. “But I don’t think so. She had this pinned to her.”
Using a tissue so I wouldn’t leave fingerprints on the note, I gently tore it off the safety pin and held it up for Robyn to read. Its block-printed contents were already engraved on my memory:
I can’t afford to take care of her, but from what I hear about Mutant Wizards I guess you can, so she’s yours now. Don’t blow it this time!
The note was unsigned. It was written on a scrap of pale blue paper about four by five inches, that looked as if it had been rather carelessly cut from a larger sheet.
“Oh, dear.” Robyn shook her head. “I see what you mean about a problem. Are we sure she means your brother, Rob?”
“Why else would she mention Mutant Wizards?” There were probably other men named Rob working at my brother’s highly successful software company, but Rob, as its CEO, was the one who was well known as a financial success. And, I had to admit, something of a ladies’ man—though less so in the last two years, when to everyone’s surprise—and Mother’s relief—he’d found a steady girlfriend.
“And there’s no signature,” Robyn added.
“If what she says is true, Rob should have at least a vague idea who she might be without any signature. And if it’s not true—well, she definitely wouldn’t sign the note in that case. There’s probably some kind of a law against making false paternity accusations.”
“So you think…” Robyn’s voice trailed off.
“We won’t know till we ask him.” I picked up the infant and set her in the portable crib Robyn kept in her office. It wasn’t as if Noah was going to calm down and want to sleep in it anytime soon. “So as soon as I’ve notified Chief Burke, I’m going to call Rob.”
“Oh, dear. I wonder how Delaney will take this,” Robyn said softly.
I could have said “badly,” but I figured Robyn already knew that. Delaney McKenna was Rob’s girlfriend. She was smart, creative, personable, beautiful, and already a favorite with the entire family. Rob had sworn me to secrecy before confiding that he was planning to ask her to marry him sometime over the holidays and enlisting my help in figuring out the optimally romantic setting. I didn’t tell him that pretty much everyone we knew had already figured out the way things were heading. I was expecting general rejoicing when he shared the news of their engagement.
But even Delaney had a few faults—a temper that matched her fiery red hair and a jealous streak a mile wide. As I dialed 911, I found myself looking down at the little blond stranger, already fast asleep in the portable crib, wondering if she was going to derail all of Rob’s plans.
Copyright © 2018 by Donna Andrews