Michael pulled open the dark oak door. It took a moment for our eyes to adjust to the subdued lighting inside the church. Michael pulled a handkerchief from his coat pocket and wiped his face.
"December 23 and the place is like an oven out there," he grumbled.
"I'm afraid the weather control is not as sophisticated in Aldrin as it is in Armstrong, but we are assured that we will have snow for Christmas," The small man in clerical garb pumped our hands bowing slightly as he did. "I am Father Vishnu Singh. I know, Vishnu is an odd name for a Catholic priest, but my parents were Hindu. And you are the famous Carolyn Masters and Michael Cheravik. Would you like some tea. I have an excellent Ceylon."
I was not sure I liked the idea of being famous. So, we solved a couple of crimes, but if I had known it would make us "celebrities," I might have let the crooks go. However, I did like a good cup of tea. Mike? Not so much.
"You called and said something was stolen. What is it?" Michael considered himself direct. Others called him blunt. I say he is an acquired taste.
"Oh, certainly. You are busy people. Very busy. If it weren't Christmas… But it is… And the children you see."
As he spoke not quite finishing any thought, he led us to the front of the church. He quickly genuflected and then pointed to a nativity scene. The baby Jesus was missing.
"This is terrible. Why would anyone steal… Why now?"
"Father, perhaps the figure was valuable." I tried to be gentle. I had the feeling this priest didn't think much about the material aspects of life.
"I – I never thought of that. But it isn't. Not really. We are a poor parish. Most of the people are transient workers. They come to the moon to work the mines and the big agricultural domes. Three years ago the people sacrificed to buy these. They were not expensive by the standards of Armstrong or Collins, but the people are proud to have done what they could."
I understood Aldrin. It was a company town. Cheap housing, company-owned businesses, half the pay chips tuned to be used exclusively at the company stores. I grew up in its twin on Earth.
"These people. They are hard workers. What little they make they send home to their families. The few families we do have live on the edge of poverty. Not like Earth, of course, but still it is a hard life. I do what I can to help. But they are a proud people. The Marquez family, for instance, has a son, Colin who suffers from a degenerative spinal disease. He needs stim braces or even a wheel chair so he can get around. I offered to ask the Diocese in Armstrong, but Adrian, the father, declined my offer, even though his wife and Colin's brother Gabriel begged him to relent."
"Sometimes people too proud to accept a gift are not too proud to steal."
I wanted to slap Mike for saying it, but it is true.
"No, No. I cannot believe that of the Marquez family. Besides, Adrian is working the silicon mine this week. It's so far out of town the miners sleep on site."
"Well, I think we've seen all we need to see here." Mike turned to leave.
"Uh- sir – ma'am. Don't you want to take fingerprints and all that?"
Before Mike could put his foot in it again I said, "Father, your door is open all the time. I am sure many people in reverence have touched these figures. Dusting for prints would just make a mess in your sanctuary and not help us find your stolen property."
The tea in the tiny rundown coffee shop in the tube station was adequate, but the grimace on Mike's face told me his "cup o' Joe" was not.
"I don't see what we can do. That place is open to everyone. And you know Aldrin. The second highest petty crime rate on the moon. Can’t you work some FBI profiler magic?"
My FBI years were way behind me. I much prefer parsing out historical trends in pop culture to investigating crimes.
"One thing bothers me. If this theft was about money, why take the baby Jesus and leave the rest. You don't fence one figure from a Nativity Scene. And why leave the silver candlesticks?"
"Yeah, I thought of that. For some reason someone wanted THAT figurine. Think something's hidden in it."
"Maybe, but what? It's not a great hiding place. Maybe we should consider victimology."
"The baby Jesus as victim?"
"Sort of, in a homicide we always ask 'why this person at this time.' Let's do that now. Why the baby Jesus at Christmas."
"I see where you're going."
"I think we can clear this up before the next tube leaves for Armstrong."
The homemade wind chimes fashioned from old tubing clanged as I lifted the knocker on the pressed wood door covered by a type of plastic wood look veneer. We could hear a baby crying. The crying approached the door.
A woman about thirty, whose eyes looked much older, with a baby pressed against her shoulder opened the door. "Hello, what do you want?"
"I am sorry to disturb you, but could we speak with Gabriel. Father Singh asked us to check on something, and we think Gabriel could help us."
"Father Singh, eh. He's a big guy. He should be able to take care of his own business."
"Mrs. Marquez, Singh is a short guy that a strong breeze would blow away. Now, if you are satisfied we actually talked to him, we need to talk to Gabriel." Sometimes Mike's bluntness was just what was needed.
Mrs. Marquez pulled back the door. "Gabriel, aqui, ahora!"
A boy about 10 came running from around a corner and then caught a throw rug and slid to a halt in front of us.
"Mi hijo. One of these days you will fall and break your neck doing that."
Gabriel didn't seem worried.
"These people want to talk to you. Father Singh sent them."
The smile on Gabriel's face faded and he looked down.
"I didn't mean no harm. Really. I would have taken it back."
"Mi hijo, what did you do, now?"
"Mrs. Marquez, let's sit down and discuss this. I think we can clear everything up."
"All I have is some horcha in refrigerator. Would you like some?"
"Yes, thank you," I said. Even though I knew this was probably the last of the coconut milk, and the family would be drinking water for a week, I also knew that to refuse would be an affront to the dignity of a woman who had little left but dignity.
We sat around a plastic table in the kitchen. Gabriel fingered his glass of horchata.
"Mi hijo, tell these people the truth. We may not have much, but we have our honor. But there is no honor in lying."
Gabriel looked at his mother and then us then he looked back toward a bedroom.
"I had to do it. Colin wouldn't get to see him otherwise."
"See who?" The mother was doing a better job of interrogation than we could.
"I don't understand."
Gabriel hung his head. "You see, Daddy is the only one strong enough to carry Colin to church. He won't be here this Christmas. So.."
I decided to help the boy out, "So, you decided if Colin could not go to Jesus, you could bring Jesus to Colin."
Gabriel nodded without looking up.
"Mi Hijo, where is it? What did you do with it?"
"I was going to bring him here for just a few minutes and then take it back. Mama, I washed my hands real good, even put some holy water on them. But when I went back, town security was there."
"Well, Gabriel Joseph Anthony Marquez, you know what you have to do?"
"Yes, Mama." Gabriel left his glass of horacha on the table untouched. His mother carefully poured it back into the bottle. He returned with the figure, wrapped in a blanket carrying it like a baby. We walked back to the church together.