December 4. I think I’ve found case number six. Today, I ate breakfast at the Sunny Deli in the village of Valley Springs. From my usual spot in a corner, I watched the other diners. As I was preparing to leave, a disheveled young man walked through the door. Oddly, he had a Roman Collar a little askew, not exactly like Bing in The Bells of Saint Mary’s.
He seemed dejected as he picked at the plate of pancakes Lucy brought him. An older lady came in and patted him on the shoulder. I was close enough to hear them discuss the vandalism at Saint Anselm’s. Someone trashed the Nativity twenty days from Christmas. The kids earned money for a year to buy it but the pastor, Father Gus Healy, had no funds to replace it.
Beezie walked up the sidewalk to Saint Anselm’s sizable rectory. At one time it must have housed a pastor and many assistants. The vacant school was huge, too. Big enough for a couple of hundred students.
When the young priest answered, Beezie met a man distracted and impatient at her knock.
Beezie said, “Hello, Father. I’m sorry to bother you. I heard someone wrecked your outdoor Nativity.”
Father Healy said, “Yes. What’s your name?”
“Beezie. Beezie Thomas. Do you have a minute? I’m a writer for a national paper.”
“Okay. Come in, please.”
Intriguing décor. A little 1950s with a technology upgrade and piles of books on every surface.
Beezie said, “You were the victim of vandalism. What happens now?”
“No idea. I guess I should at least try to replace the Nativity . . . No. What am I thinking? I don’t have the money and even if I did, it’s too late for this Christmas.”
Watching the priest run his hands through his hair, Beezie saw a grieving, tired young man. From the looks of it, Saint Anselm’s had fallen on hard times. Why was the Nativity so important? Sure, it’s a sign of hope. She remembered growing up and seeing the meager crèche in her parish. A bit shabby but it looked happy and promised a bright future.
“Sorry to ramble as I think. There are a few sainted parishioners who’ll help. Forget it. It‘s a bad idea to ask for money.”
“The roof leaks. The carpet in the church is so worn you can see the cement underneath it. I have more projects and problems than I can fix. I’m sorry but I’m pressed for time, Beezie.”
“A few taglines?”
“To raise money, the kids had bake sales, a 5k run, pledge days, you name it. They raised over two-thousand dollars. A year’s work, for nothing. We just put it out on Saturday. The kids were joyous. Me, too.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but why was a new Nativity so important?”
“I grew up in Saint Anselm’s and the Nativity was meaningful to the parish and our neighbors. On Christmas Eve, we walked with the Baby from church to church of every stripe, and synagogue, too. Everyone welcomed us and then joined the procession. We celebrated together in our church hall. The adults worked together on common projects and the Christmas Eve party was where they discussed the next year’s work.”
“What a wonderful story. I’ll include it in my article.”
“A fire destroyed the storage barn and the old Nativity. We didn’t have money then, either. The procession fell to the wayside and so did our community projects. Beezie, I need to run.”
“Okay, Father. Did you plan a procession for this year?
“Yeah, it’s canceled. The vandal set the Baby aside, but we have no manger for him, and no one has the heart for it.”
“I understand. Can I buy you lunch at Joe’s Diner tomorrow? One o’clock?”
“Let’s meet Friday. Tomorrow, I’m going to court for the vandal‘s sentencing.”
Hurrying off to say Mass, Father Healy wondered why this woman cared. But her article could give them a boost. What should he tell her to write? In the big scheme of things, a roof came first. Or was it the foodbank? One out of every ten families at Saint Anselm’s was homeless. He had to help them find jobs. Catching the odd expressions on the two altar servers, he smiled at them as he wiped the tears away.
Beezie walked with her eyes down to keep from tripping on the broken sidewalk. The village was a ghost town. Not even a dog was barking, it was so quiet. The only living being she noticed was a scrawny cat sunning himself on the hood of a car on blocks. After a three-block hike, she found the police station, a short, squat, ugly building sporting a Halloween decoration in one window.
“Hello, Officer,” said Beezie. “I’m writing an article about the mischief at Saint Anselm’s. I was wondering if I could talk to Detective Smith?”
The desk sergeant said, “Smith retired. Look for Detective Douglas in Room 214.”
Beezie shook her head. 214 was a large, open office, and it smelled of stale cigarette smoke though every wall had a No Smoking sign. Seeing no one, she turned to go.
“Hello, can I help you?” said a male voice somewhere in the corner.
“Yes, I’m Beezie Thomas. Are you Detective Douglas?”
As Beezie shook Nitro’s hand, she saw a pleasant-looking young man with a limp and diamond in one ear. Clean shaven and close-cropped hair. Tattoos peeked below his shirtsleeve.
Beezie said, “Is Nitro a nickname?”
“Yeah, from another life. Nitro Douglas at your service.”
“Great! I’m writing a story about Bain Kukilov.”
“I can give you the details about his latest artwork. Sad, too.”
“I’m interested in the arson of twenty-two years ago.”
“Smith was the man on that one. Let’s dig up the files in the archives.”
“You have time?”
“The crime here is petty, and I put it to bed pretty quick. The hard-core criminals work in the neighborhood to our west. Murder, armed robbery, the usual. We’re so poor here, they share their booty with us.”
“You have a great sense of humor, young man,” said Beezie. “Are you a veteran?”
“Yes, Ma’am, Army explosive ordinance, hooah. How’d you guess? My limp?”
“You’re squared away, disciplined, and neat. But yes, the limp, too.”
“IED. They detonated it remotely before we could defuse it. I lost my leg and two soldiers.”
“I apologize. I didn’t—?”
“No worries. I’ve come to terms with it thanks to Father Healy. My nightmares faded after he pulled me into a grief therapy group. I feel miserable for him. His kids worked hard to raise the money.”
“Did you investigate the vandalism?”
“Yeah. I was taking pictures at the crime scene when Kukilov walked up and said, I did it. This little old, gray guy. I started to laugh, and he got in my face and yelled so I cuffed him. Then he said, it’s my MO.”
“The article in the Village Advocate said he tried to torch Saint Anselm’s twenty-two years ago. Nitro, why does the neighborhood around the church look deserted?”
“Over one hundred families were forced out when the interstate took the subdivision above the church. Those who stayed are dirt poor. A few live in their car because a developer bought many of the homes and jacked up the rent.”
“You’re kidding! Why?”
“He’s an outsider who’s been trying for years to turn Valley Springs into an interstate rest area. The church and library stand in the way because they’re on the National Register of Historic Places.”
“Thanks for the info. Now I have two articles to write. Who’s the developer?”
“Dixon Enterprises over in Lowtown. Fred’s a nasty guy. Here we go. Spread the case file on the table while I order subs and coffee.”
The bailiff said, “All rise. The Court of Common Pleas of Severe County is now in session, the Honorable Judge James More presiding.”
Judge More said, “Mister Kukilov, this court has convicted you of felony vandalism and arson. I’ll sentence you today but first we’ll hear from the victim’s representative. Does anyone wish to speak about Mister Kukilov or the crime?”
“I do, Your Honor.”
“State your name and make your statement.”
“I’m Father Gus Healy, the pastor of Saint Anselm’s. Your Honor, I agree Mister Kukilov committed a crime, but he had no choice. To save money, the state released him with thirty days of insulin. He’s eighty-three years old and has no job, place to live, or health care. Please send him back to the same prison. It’s his only hope and his family.”
Judge More said, “Thank you, Father. If there’s no one else . . . Okay. Mister Kukilov, you’ll finish the eight years on the original conviction plus fifteen more for the vandalism at the Lowtown Correctional Facility.”
The look of relief on Kukilov’s face made Beezie’s head swim. Wasn’t a halfway house better than prison?
As she walked to her meeting, Beezie squelched her desire to lay into the priest. She worried for Kukilov, but confrontation wasn’t fair either.
“Hello, Father,” said Beezie. “Let’s go to Young’s Dairy for ice cream after we talk.”
“Good idea. Maybe it’ll revive my Christmas spirit. Thanks.”
Beezie noted the relief in his eyes. He was expecting a quarrel.
“Beezie, I caught your disgust at Kukilov’s sentencing. My advice was the best given his health. I looked but couldn’t find a halfway house for him. He has nothing. No children or family. He can’t buy insulin. I spoke to him before the sentencing and . . . I know it’s hard to believe . . . he wanted me to urge the judge to send him back to jail.”
“Why in the world!”
“Three squares a day, a cot, medical care, and friends. A library. It’s all he knows.”
“You‘re right. I expected you to plead for mercy and leniency. Father, I have what I need for the article. My soul is screaming for ice cream.”
“Beezie, I have a favor to ask. Please interview Kukilov. Get his opinion on his sudden release. Question why he vandalized the Nativity. His reason for the arson is an interesting story. What he won’t mention is the trust fund he setup for his Mom. He has a good heart.”
“An arsonist with a good heart?”
“Yeah. The trustee for the fund died and the lawyer couldn’t find Kukilov to appoint another trustee until he ran across Bain’s name in the paper. Of the four-thousand left in the fund, Bain told the lawyer to give himself a thousand and the rest to Saint Anselm’s. Now I have the money to buy a new Nativity and pay a few bills. A change of heart in the season of hope.”
Beezie woke up, book in her lap, and cell phone tingling. Where had the day gone?
“Ida, it’s two o’clock in the morning.” said Beezie.
“I know but I had to call. Kukilov got fifty-thousand dollars for the arson job from Prunk Holdings, LLC. Whoever set it up was pretty darn good at hiding identities, but he missed one form. The owner is Fred Dixon—”
“Fred Dixon! I can’t believe it.”
“He’s a developer who’s trying to acquire the Saint Anselm’s property and everything around it. It doesn’t make much sense, though. The arsonist from long ago and the vandal are the same man. Why not torch the church last week?”
“You’ll figure it out.”
When he walked into the interview room, Beezie had to look twice to see it was Kukilov. He looked years younger. A night and day difference.
“Mister Kukilov, thanks for seeing me. I’m Beezie Thomas and I’m writing an article on the Nativity. I hope it doesn’t offend you.”
“No, I’m glad. Please call me Bain.”
“Okay. Father Healy said I should ask your opinion on your early release.”
“The state has a budget. I’m a drain on it because of my health problems. Most are happy to get out, but not me. I want to die here with my friends around me. Listen, let me tell you about the arson and then if you have time the vandalism.”
“On the night of the arson, I didn’t walk the property before I started and I missed the couple making out in a car behind the church. They smelled smoke from the fire in the barn and called 911.”
“Timing is everything. Tell me why you did it.”
“You were paid to do it?”
“Yeah, from Fred Dixon through an offshore company. Prunk or something, a weird name.”
“Prunk Holdings. My investigator told me the cash they gave you disappeared out of your account just before the cops arrested you. Did Dixon take it back?”
“You’ve done your homework. No, I did with it what I wanted before he reacted.”
“What did you do with it?”
“My Mom had Alzheimer’s and was living in a nursing home owned by Dixon. He knew she was broke and he threatened to turn her out if I didn’t do the job. I squeezed him for the fifty-thousand with a lie. I told him I recorded our talk over a wire and was going to the FBI. He folded his hand because he was running for Congress. After I put the pay-off in a trust and moved my Mom out of state, I confessed to the arson.”
“Why? They had no proof.”
“I had to protect myself. Dixon’s vindictive and always gets his way.”
“I’m interviewing him later today.”
“Be careful. He’s nasty.”
“Thanks, Bain. Take care of yourself.”
The man standing before her surprised Beezie. He said he was Fred Dixon. Middle-aged, near 60, pleasant, and athletic. From the photos on the wall, he had a long career in the Navy. Was he the Fred Dixon of twenty-two years ago?
“Hello, Mister Dixon. I’m Beezie. I won’t take much of your time.”
“Beezie, my assistant said you want to talk about the interstate rest area project. What’s your hidden agenda? Most journalists don’t approve of the plan.”
“The recent vandalism caught my attention. Tell me what you think.”
“I don’t care. Why would I? The truth is the church and the village are rundown. It’s time to raze it. We can bring jobs with the rest area.”
“Maybe. The interesting fact is the vandal is the same man who tried to burn Saint Anselm’s years ago. Bain Kukilov.”
Watching Dixon’s face, Beezie sensed he’d never heard of Kukilov or the attempted arson. Is this the Fred Dixon behind it or his son? Grandson?
“One fine fellow, I’m sure. Now what is it you want from me?”
“I’ve seen the plans at the county engineer’s office, but I want to understand your view of the project.”
“My dream is to make my Grandfather’s vision a reality. He had it right. Clean up the neighborhood and create jobs.”
Dixon couldn’t believe his eyes. Beezie Thomas wrote a positive story about Saint Anselm’s, Valley Springs, and Kukilov, but damned Dixon Enterprises with faint praise. Why?
Something was odd, too. The article said Kukilov was a criminal who took money from a bankrupt, offshore company, Prunk Holdings, LLC. Prunk was his long dead dog’s name.
“Perry, have you heard of Prunk Holdings, LLC?”
“Yeah. Link Moura set Prunk up in the Cayman’s for your Grandfather over twenty years ago. I found it when I was cleaning up your Father’s estate. It’s of no importance now, bankrupt. I think it was the reason your Dad left the company.”
“Why the look of surprise, Perry? Is there a scandal? What did my Grandfather do with Prunk? I loved him but his dealings weren’t always the most ethical if I recall correctly.”
“Prunk was, well, immoral. The good news is the statute of limitations is long past.”
“Statute of limitations! Are you kidding!”
“Are you sure you want to know? It’s not good.”
“Yes, tell me, now.”
“Your Grandfather paid Bain Kukilov fifty-thousand to torch the church.”
Dixon felt his head exploding. No way! The ends never justified the means. What else had the old man done?
“Put every scrap of information about Prunk, Saint Anselm’s, the village, and the project on my desk by 10am. I mean everything, the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
Dixon cried after he closed the folder. His Grandfather had become blind to everything but greed. He paid Kukilov to burn the church. He bribed county officials. And, more.
At least there was positive news. A grassroots group, Rebuild the Village, had good plans. Beezie Thomas’s article said someone pledged seven-million to their cause but only if they could raise the balance, another three-million.
Shops, jobs, and a revitalized, family-friendly, neighborhood was better than his Grandfather’s vision. Rebuild the Village believed businesses would return if young people came back to live. They were right. The village was near the city financial center and university as well as the interstate and a big bus and subway hub.
Vowing to do whatever it took to make up for his Grandfather’s sins, Dixon decided to match the donation dollar for dollar. The fifteen-million in the company’s slush fund covered the pledge and more. He’d sell renovated houses for cost and give low-interest loans to lure businesses to the empty strip malls.
Positioned along a side wall, Beezie scanned the crowd until she spotted Fred Dixon. Was he here to recommend the rest area as a life saver for Valley Springs? He looked anxious and cringed after a few glares and ugly looks.
“My friends,” said the president of Rebuild the Village. “Thanks for joining us. I’m Michael James. Tonight, let’s brainstorm ways to raise three-million. I think we can, but we have a lot to do and the deadline is six-months.”
Dixon said, “Excuse me, I—”
Michael said, “Settle down. I won’t stand for catcalls or ugliness. All views are important . . . and welcome. Mister Dixon, we want to brainstorm first. Do you have an idea?”
“Please take my money. I’ll match the anonymous pledge.”
Michael said, “You—what?”
“Yes, dollar for dollar. My Grandfather had a hand in—to be fair, he’s the reason your village is falling apart. I want to make amends for him. I think your plans will succeed better than any interstate rest area. You’ll have jobs and a nice place to raise kids. I can build businesses with good employees.”
Shocked along with everyone in the room, Beezie couldn’t believe her ears. An uproar of approval followed a stunned silence. Dixon matched the pledge! Rebuild the Village had the money to make its plan work.
The look on Father Healy’s face made her smile. She had plenty left in her lottery winnings. She’d give the priest what he needed to replace the church’s roof and rehab the school as a community center and shelter. What a great Christmas!
Father Healy laughed as the adults and older children marshaled the youngsters into a parade. They had so much energy he expected they‘d fall asleep at Midnight Mass. He hoped the other churches, the mosque, and the synagogue joined in but if they didn’t, he knew they’d still have a ball.
“Okay, everyone,” said Father Healy. “Let’s be quiet for a moment before we set out. We’re going to walk a few blocks and then we’ll circle around for a party in the parish hall. Be careful with the Baby and stay in line. No running. Just a slow walk on a starlit night. Listen for the angels. Altar servers, begin. I’ll bring up the rear.”
As he turned the corner, he stopped dead in his tracks at the sight. As far as he could see, the villagers had set out luminaries on the sidewalk. People from the synagogue were dressed as shepherds and carried lanterns. They surrounded the whole procession and helped the children and older adults make it safely. The faithful from the mosque joined the procession carrying baskets of flatbread for the potluck.
The procession was a ragtag mess from start to finish. Adults and children from every faith community marched along after solemnly accepting the Baby. At Saint Anselm’s, the Baby had switched hands ten times.
The church hall overflowed with people, noise, great food, and fun. Certain a better future had dawned, Father Healy watched the party from a table near the Baby. Adults huddled in groups to talk about projects just like the old days. Next year they’d have a new Nativity, but in Gus Healy’s opinion, this was the best Christmas he, Saint Anselm’s, and the village had had in a long time.