Lula Belle Smithers, possessing a booming voice and a bosom any sea going vessel would be proud to have on its bow, narrowed her eyes and pointed at the clear evidence of a crime. “It’s obvious, isn’t it?”
“What’s obvious?” Hutch asked, appropriately serious.
“That they took it!” Mrs. Smithers’ sister-in-Christ, Eugenie McKechnie, fumed. She crossed her arms over her sensible brown cloth coat, the small brown hat complete with a brown swallow bouncing slightly on her stiff black hair.
Hutch took the bait, damn him.
“Those people across the street.” Mrs. Smithers sniffed contemptuously, waving a hand to the right as if she couldn’t quite look in that direction. Her enormous black beehive hairdo quivered in sympathetic indignation. Or it could have been the wind. “They kidnapped our Lord Savior.”
Across the street was the Temple Beth Shalom on 95th and Washington, with the six-foot menorah in the front. Directly opposite the emerald green lawn of the Church of Jesus the Savior, which currently hosted a nativity scene, complete with plastic lambs, cows, angels, shepherds, wisemen, and the Holy family–minus one.
Starsky stared at the empty wooden crib for a moment longer before facing Mrs. Smithers and the Women’s Auxiliary standing among the barnyard animals. “When was the last time you saw the Christ child?” he asked politely.
First time he’d ever had to ask that question. If he’d had his way, he would not have touched this case with a ten foot pole. Or to put it another way, this five-foot-ten-inch Jewish Pole would rather go before the Bay City Metropolitan Police Internal Affairs Review Board rather than mediate in a religious stand-off between Protestants and Jews. Especially on December 20th, five days before Christmas—with Chanukah in full swing.
“Last night,” Mrs. McKechnie said, touching the statue of the Virgin Mary reverently. “I was the last one out after choir rehearsal—we’ll have a full complement of Christmas hymns on the 24th at 7pm, if you are interested to come.” She looked expectantly at Hutch.
Probably knows she has a traitor in her midst, Starsky thought uncharitably.
“We’ll all be in the choir,” piped up a diminutive woman dressed warmly in a blue wool coat with a brown fur collar.
Looks like she’s wearing her cat around her neck.
“That’s terrific,” Starsky remarked, staring at the back of Hutch’s head. His partner was not being as supportive as usual. Probably because Hutch thought this was funny. Starsky could tell from the way he bent over to examine the wooden manger—Hutch was shaking and it wasn’t from the mildly chilly weather. He was laughing, the smart ass.
“But to get back to the—” should he even call it a theft, or was that playing right into their hands? “The missing crutch figure.”
“Crèche figure,” Hutch corrected absently, straightening. “Why was Baby Jesus put into the manger five days before Christmas?”
Ah, good point. He hadn’t even considered that angle.
Hutch’s comment further ignited the women’s already righteous indignation. Mrs. Smithers and McKechnie both raised hands to heaven like Christian soldiers prepared to slay the heathens. A slender woman in a plaid coat hung her head, the little lady in blue patting her sympathetically.
“Young man,” Lula Belle Smithers proclaimed with a furious exhalation. “We are keeping Christ in Christmas.”
“This is not a birthday party!” McKechnie added. “It has religious significance!”
Hutch pressed his lips together, the muscles in his jaw tensing, and took a slow breath. Starsky recognized it as the centering crap he’d been practicing lately.
Apparently, it worked wonders. Hutch responded in a solemn and professional tone. “What makes you think one of the members of Beth Shalom took the Baby Jesus?”
“Because they oppose us!” Mrs. Smithers proclaimed, advancing on Hutch so suddenly that he retreated two steps.
Backed up against Joseph, Hutch stopped. “Why do you say that? You’re both God-fearing congregations; can’t you get along in the holiday season?”
“They objected to our beloved Nativity scene,” Mrs. McKechnie explained with a peeved toss of her head. The little bird nearly flew right off her hat.
“Not all of them,” the diminutive woman said, glancing at the other three women behind her. “Their—what do you call him, not a priest?”
“Rabbi?” Starsky offered, jamming his hands into his leather jacket pocket so he wouldn’t be tempted to strangle someone.
“That’s right, because Jewish priests are of the Levite family and are Sadducees.” A man with frizzy white hair strolled up, a Bible under his arm. “And there haven’t been any Jewish priests in centuries.”
A man who knew his stuff. “Mr–?” Starsky began.
“David Josephson.” He offered his hand with a slight nod, glancing curiously around at the group of women. “What’s going on, Lula Belle?”
“We arrived to decorate the church with the greens, Reverend,” Mrs. Smithers indicated a pile of evergreen boughs on the steps of Jesus the Savior, “and found that Jesus was missing.”
“You are the pastor of this church?” Hutch asked, holding up his BCPD detective’s badge.
“Guilty as charged,” Reverend Josephson said with a gentle smile. “Why did you call the police on this matter, Lula Belle?”
“Because we suspect them of taking his Holiness,” Mrs. McKechnie replied, pursing her lips and sending malevolent energy across the street.
“His Holiness is the Pope, Eugenie,” Josephson explained. “Since we aren’t Catholic, I doubt he’d come round. Why do you think Rabbi Yosef would take a plastic figure of Jesus?”
“Exactly what we asked,” Starsky put in. At least the preacher was on their side. “Detective David Starsky and my partner, Ken Hutchinson.”
“Thank you for coming, gentlemen,” Josephson said, peering at the plastic sheep as if expecting to hear their testimonies on where the Almighty had gotten to.
“You are well aware that there were words last year when we erected the Nativity scene,” Mrs. Smithers said tightly. “From their side of the street.”
“Not from the Rabbi.” Josephson looked over and gave a friendly wave to a small, blond man walking up to the front steps of Beth Shalom. “I consider him to be a very sensible man—and an excellent opponent at Monopoly.”
“You play Monopoly?” Starsky asked, his respect for the Reverend increasing with every moment. “Race Car or Battleship?”
“I’ve always had an affinity for the Iron,” Josephson said.
“Interesting choice.” Hutch cut into Starsky’s tangent. “If we could get back to the theft?”
Starsky rolled his eyes and turned away from the increasingly restive group of women. He was reminded of a gaggle of birds—chickens or maybe geese—all cackling in a flock. They were whispering among themselves with expansive gestures, the swallow on Mrs. McKechnie’s hat twitching around like a live thing, although the small woman in the blue coat was rearranging the sheep into size order.
“You’re sure Jesus was here last night?” Hutch asked, pulling out a notebook. He patted his pockets until Reverend Josephson handed him a blue pen.
“Of course!” Mrs. McKechnie said quickly, dragging another woman through the group to stand beside her. “This is Dinah Bishop. She was in charge of the display. She set out the figures yesterday morning.”
“Eugenie…” the slender woman wearing a plaid cloth coat murmured plaintively. “I don’t think—”
“Nonsense, Dinah. You did a marvelous job and we have to take a stand here,” Mrs. Smithers boomed. “We can’t be taken advantage of at this very special time of year.”
“The church doesn’t have much storage space so I keep them in my garage all year,” Mrs. Bishop said softly.
Starsky visually swept the street, grimly deciding to take this case at face value. If this really had been a robbery, why? He immediately dismissed the congregation of Temple Beth Shalom, and not just because he’d celebrated his Bar Mitzvah twenty four years ago. He hadn’t stepped inside a synagogue in the last decade, but logically, the Jews were last people who would have any reason to take a doll representing the Baby Jesus.
It made more sense—if there could be any here—that a Christian took the figure. Again, why? What motive would there be?
Rabbi Yosef had come back outside the synagogue and was screwing a large light bulb into the fourth candlestick on the enormous metal menorah erected in front of his building. There were already three light bulbs for the first three days of the Festival of Lights, plus a fake Shamash candle in the middle with a reddish bulb. Starsky mentally made a note to call his mother and wish her Happy Chanukah. She didn’t worry about such things as taking a phone call after sunset on a Friday.
A small girl sat under the tree in the yard next door to Beth Shalom. Bundled in a bright blue parka, her head wreathed in black braids decorated with red and green barrettes, she was playing with several dolls. She was also clearly watching the goings on at Jesus the Savior with rapt interest—as were a number of other neighbors on 95th.
The street was a nice, middle class area, neat wooden or stucco houses set onto small plots with green lawns and groupings of shrubs. About half had some Christmassy display out front—a plastic Santa, Rudolph with a blinking red nose and a Nativity scene featuring the Peanuts characters as the Holy Family. Starsky suspected that if he asked around, there hadn’t been so many 95th Street residents weeding or mowing their lawns at the same time ever. Clearly, the disappearance of the Christ Child was the biggest sensation to hit the block in ages.
“I think that’s all the questions I have at the moment,” Hutch was saying when Starsky tuned back into the conversation. “Thank you, Mrs. Smithers, Mrs. McKechnie, Reverend.”
“What are we going to do if Jesus isn’t found before the 25th?” Mrs. Smithers roared, clutching at the large gold cross around her neck in horror of such a calamity.
“Use a substitute doll?” Josephson said mildly, shivering as a breeze brought a wintery chill. “Dinah, your daughter has quite a collection. She must have a doll of a similar size?”
“I suppose,” Dinah said quietly with a glance at her fellow Ladies Auxiliary members.
“It would not be proper!” Mrs. McKechnie huffed, pulling a yellow muffler around her fleshy neck. Several of her entourage nodded in agreement.
The small woman in the blue coat wandered back to the church. “I’ll put on a pot of coffee. The detectives are sure to be cold by now.”
She was right about that. Starsky tipped his head back to examine the clouds overhead. According to the weather, the temperatures had dipped to nearly freezing the night before and would go below thirty-five Fahrenheit again tonight. Although both he and Hutch had been raised in far colder climes, this weather was unusual for Bay City. Too cold to be standing around staring at plastic shepherds herding plastic sheep.
Instead of going with her friend, Dinah Bishop turned to walk across the street toward the little girl. Her daughter? There was a resemblance: slight and slender, wide dark eyes, and full bottom lips.
Starsky peered more closely at the assembly of dolls around little Miss Bishop. He wasn’t an expert, but at least two of them were large enough to be the missing baby in the manger. Maybe he was indulging in a bit of whimsy but last night would have been really cold for a nearly naked baby—even a plastic one—with only a painted on swaddling cloth.
“Now, ladies.” Josephson patted Mrs. Smithers on the shoulder, ushering Mrs. McKechnie toward the sanctuary. “There’s much work to be done and not a lot of time to do it. Jesus will always be with us, even if the manger is empty on such a chilly night.”
“Amen,” murmured several of the women.
“Hutch.” Starsky only had to say his name and Hutch turned to him. Appeared that their mind-lock was working once more. About time! “What’s say we—”
“You need to talk to Rabbi Yosef!” Mrs. Smithers came across the sidewalk like a schooner in full sail. “Demand that he explain his whereabouts on the night of the crime!”
“Mrs. Smithers,” Hutch said, raising his forefinger. It wasn’t pointed at her, but that was a near thing. “We know how to conduct an investigation…”
“I should hope you do!” she announced triumphantly and crossed her arms over her stately bosom.
“Shall we?” Starsky asked Hutch, stepping off the curb.
At the synagogue, Rabbi Yosef had checked the placement of the bulbs on his menorah and switched the lights on and off. Starsky suspected he was waiting for his interrogation.
“You don’t actually think the Rabbi did it?” Hutch asked, horrified, walking across the two-lane street.
Gratified that Hutch and he were on the same page, Starsky shook his head. “Nah. There are eight days of Chanukah. The guy’s busy enough at this time of year without adding B and E.”
Starsky risked a glance at the little girl talking to Mrs. Bishop. Either the mother had no idea, or they were in on the plan together, which Starsky doubted. “But I do have a suspect. I’m just biding my time.”
Hutch cut his eyes to the right toward the Bishop house and then back at the menorah. “Timid Mrs. Bishop?”
“Not her,” Starsky said sotto-voce, since they were nearly to the rabbi. “Check out the little girl’s dolls.” Closer now, he was absolutely certain. There were three small dolls, in pastel dresses, propped around a checkered tablecloth spread on the ground and set for tea. The two larger dolls were wrapped securely, one in a pink blanket, the other in blue.
“The one in the blue receiving blanket—” Hutch mused, tapping his lower lip with the finger he usually used to point with. “His head looks…”
“Baby Jesus usually has a gold halo,” Hutch continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted. “I can see a glint of gold paint in the gap of the blanket.”
“Gentlemen?” Rabbi Yosef said with a friendly smile. He had bright blue eyes and wheat gold hair, only slightly darker than Hutch’s. There was a small black yarmulke pined on the back of his hair. “Rabbi David Yosef. How may I be of assistance?”
“Happy Chanukah, Rabbi,” Starsky said, shaking his hand. “Sergeant Dave Starsky, and this is my partner, Ken Hutchinson.”
“We’re looking for Jesus,” Hutch added.
“And right away, you thought the local synagogue is the place to start the search,” Yosef said with a lift of one eyebrow.
Going for the wisecrack first. Starsky liked him immediately—as he had Reverend Josephson. Maybe he should start going back to temple? His mother would be thrilled. “You do comedy on the side?” He snorted.
“Despite certain accusations, we’re pursuing other suspects than you,” Hutch said formally.
“Mrs. Smithers?” The Rabbi nodded knowingly. “There’s one just like her—and her minion—”
Starsky laughed at the play on the word minyan, or the required ten men to pray together in a synagogue. Hutch raised an eyebrow inquiringly and Starsky reminded himself to give Hutch a crash course in Jewish trivia.
“—here at Beth Shalom,” Yosef said with a ‘what can you do’ shrug.
“Did they protest the Nativity scene at the church?” Starsky asked.
“Mrs. Klein and a few others wrote a note to Reverend Josephson, but that was all.” Yosef hooked a thumb at the menorah. “We both have our symbols of the holidays—we live across the street from one another, we have to get along. That was a year ago. Are there still concerns?”
“Actually, we were hoping you might have observed any activity in front of the church last night?” Hutch asked.
Starsky turned around to observe the Nativity scene from this angle. He could see far more than when he was standing alongside the figures. Mary and Joseph leaning lovingly over the empty manger with an angel hovering overhead—actually nailed to the roof of the wooden lean-to. Three shepherds to care for four sheep seemed excessive, but one of them was only a boy carrying the sheep around his neck. Three Wisemen carrying gifts for the baby. Why would a baby need gold boxes? Wouldn’t diapers be more useful?
Yosef bit his bottom lip thoughtfully. “In the vicinity of the manger?” He turned to watch the little girl feeding one of the baby dolls a spoonful of air.
“That would be correct.” Hutch followed the Rabbi’s line of sight. “Someone who lives next door?”
“I was out after prayer on Thursday.” He indicated the house next to Jesus the Savior. “I live there. I saw Malondra taking a walk near the Nativity scene,” Yosef said.
“Malondra?” Hutch repeated.
“Your prime suspect.” Yosef touched the side of his nose like a New Jersey mobster. “My daughter, Jerusha’s, best friend.”
“It was really cold last night,” Starsky observed, watching Malondra tip a small baby bottle back and forth. He’d seen those before—when held upright, it appeared that there was a full bottle of milk. Yet, when turned upside down, the milk disappeared.
Kind of a miracle. And why did that seem weirdly significant?
“Exactly,” Yosef said. “Be gentle with her; I’m sure she meant no harm. She’s an imaginative child.”
“Thank you, Rabbi,” Starsky said, feeling the need to assert his heritage. “L’Chaim.”
“Chanukah sameach,” he replied with a delighted smile. “Are you a Fiddler on the Roof fan or went to services as a kid?”
“Haven’t practiced my Hebrew since 1958,” Starsky admitted ruefully.
“We have ways of bringing you back into the fold,” Yosef joked, looking up at the four electric menorah candles blazing in the middle of the morning. “You’re both welcome to come to worship tonight, if you’re interested. We’re having a special Shabbat meal for the community and invited the whole neighborhood.”
“Latkes and a dreidel?” Starsky asked, memories of his childhood Chanukah gatherings flashing through his brain. His parents had never given gifts every night the way families did these days but there had always been hugs, laughter, and good smells from the kitchen.
“That’s the plan!” Yosef laughed, humming the Dreidel song. “I’ve laid out lots of gelt, as well.”
“Anyone from Jesus the Savior coming?” Hutch asked curiously.
“Yes. Davy Josephson and at least five or ten others from his congregation.”
“Mrs. Smithers?” Starsky inquired. He couldn’t quite see her tucking into brisket and fried potato pancakes with the local Jews, which made him sad.
“I pray she will join us in good fellowship, however…” The Rabbi glanced at his watch. “Time’s wasting. I have to go unfold chairs and tables.”
Hutch poked Starsky in the ribs with his elbow. “You hooked Starsky with the latkes. We’d be happy to come.”
Starsky grinned. Hutch knew him too well.
“Terrific!” Yosef said. “Yarmulkes free to all who enter. Malondra and her mother will be spinning the dreidel with Jerusha, and those girls are determined to win some chocolate.” He hurried into the building.
“Thanks, Hutch,” Starsky said, walking close enough to bump hips with him. “Never been on a Shabbat date with a goy.”
“Gotta go with Mrs. Starsky approved venues,” Hutch dead-panned. “How do you want to work this with Malondra?”
“Carefully,” Starsky answered. Mrs. Bishop had disappeared, probably into the house, but Malondra was diapering one of the dolls dressed in lavender. By law, cops were not supposed to talk to children without their parents present, but in this case, talking to the girl privately would reduce embarrassment to the Bishops and the church.
Malondra had obviously tracked their investigation from one side of the street to the other. Singing quietly, she pulled the doll wrapped in a blue blanket into her lap, watching them approach. Starsky recognized that old Christmas favorite Away in a Manger. Appropriate under the circumstances.
“Merry Christmas,” Hutch greeted.
“Merry Christmas,” she said automatically, dark eyes flicking between the two of them. “Not supposed to talk to strangers.”
“We met your mom,” Starsky said. “She was okay with us talking to you.” A half truth, but it would suffice. He shivered. The chill wind coming up would have signaled snow if this was anywhere but Bay City. They must be getting a little spill-over from some storm in Canada. The edges of the picnic cloth ruffled in the breeze, knocking over the pink tea cups.
“I’m Ken and this is Dave,” Hutch introduced them, squatting down to her height. “What’s your name?”
She regarded them steadily, suspicion flitting across her face. Apparently, they passed muster because she tucked the blanket more firmly around the baby. “Malondra Elise Bishop. It’s my birthday this week.”
From the missing bottom teeth, Starsky guessed she was in first grade. “Will you be seven?”
Malondra gaped at him, astonished. “How did you know?”
“I’m a detective.” Starsky sat on the cold grass beside her. From his angle, he could see that the large doll was stiff, wearing a gold halo and holding one chubby plastic hand up in a blessing.
“What day is your birthday?” Hutch set the pink cups into place. “May I?” he asked as if they’d been invited to a party.
She nodded. “Christmas.” That brought out two dimples in her creamy cheeks.
“Like Jesus?” Hutch was concentrating on pouring the pretend tea.
Starsky let him lead, content to observe. Kind of strange that they were talking to a six-year-old about stealing Jesus, but maybe it was a seasonal thing. Hutch had the upper hand here, anyway—he’d read the Bible. Starsky had only watched the abbreviated version of Jesus’ birth—The Peanuts Christmas special every year. He always liked the way Linus lisped reciting the passage about the angels.
Malondra ducked her head so all they could see were her red and green barrettes. “I had to,” she whispered, voice quivering. “He wasn’t s’pposed to be there yet.”
“What?” Hutch asked, gently taking the doll out of her lap. “You took very good care of him, Malondra.”
“But he was cold, wasn’t he?” Starsky touched her shoulder and she burst into tears.
“Am I going to jail?” she wailed.
“Ssh. Nobody goes to jail at Christmas time.” Starsky hugged Malondra, feeling the sobs shake her narrow body. “You were doing the best you could, keeping him safe.”
Malondra shuddered and wiped a shaky hand across her cheeks. “I play with Him when my mom’s not home, all year.”
“Cause He’s in your garage,” Hutch concluded with a sad smile.
“In the House of the Lord,” Malondra said reverently, pointing to the garage door covered in holly printed paper and adorned with a red bow like a giant gift. “He’s my friend, even when Jerusha’s at Hebrew school and we can’t play.”
“So when your mom set Him in the manger on the 19th of December, he wasn’t ready, because it wasn’t his birthday.” Starsky put all the pieces together. It made so much sense. Far more than Mrs. Smithers accusing the Jewish congregation of taking a figure that had only minimal importance to their faith.
“‘Xactly,” she said, getting back her moxie. She reached over and pulled the blue blanket away from His face. “He’s the only boy in our house. We even got a girl cat.”
Very European-looking Jesus, Starsky thought privately. Blue eyes and blond curls—looked a lot like David Yosef, actually.
“He needs to go back to Reverend Josephson—for the Nativity scene.” Hutch put the doll up to his shoulder like he was going to burp the Baby Jesus.
“Not until Tuesday,” Malondra said firmly, standing strong in her red Keds. “He’s not borned yet.”
“You should be a lawyer when you grow up,” Starsky said, imagining her addressing the jury with her braids, missing teeth, and scruffy sneakers. “All in the details, huh?”
“Can you do it?” Malondra wheedled, the tears still glistening in her chocolate eyes. She even clasped her hands together over her tummy.
Starsky was no push-over but this girl had powers he couldn’t resist. “Sure. We’ll talk to the pastor for you. But you got to do something for me.”
What?” she asked suspiciously.
Hutch was regarding him with curiosity, oddly paternal with Jesus on his shoulder, blond hair against plastic yellow curls.
“Ask your mom to invite the entire Ladies Auxiliary to the Shabbat tonight,” Starsky said shrewdly.
Hutch laughed with delight.
“Mrs. Battleax and everybody?” Malondra scoffed, rolling her eyes.
No need to ask who Mrs. Battleax was. “We’re coming, too. Remember the old saying, it’s better to give than to receive?” Starsky continued. “Everybody from both faiths givin’ each other a gift.”
“Oh.” Malondra smiled, as pure and radiant as an angel. “Gift of friends and love. Like Jesus wants.”
“You got it, schweetheart,” Starsky chucked her under the chin. “We won’t tell them who took Jesus.”
“It’ll be our secret,” Hutch promised.
“Merry Christmas!” Malondra touched Jesus’s foot. “I’ll see Him on his birthday.”
“We’ll see you before then,” Starsky promised as they set off across the street.
Singing to himself, Hutch pulled the blanket up over the doll’s face to hide the evidence as they traipsed the short distance to Jesus the Savior.
“We’re good; closed this case in under an hour,” Starsky bragged, only half listening to Hutch’s lullaby to the doll.
All the curious neighborhood gardeners had disappeared while he and Hutch were talking to Yosef and Malondra. There hadn’t been any shoot-outs, screams, nor running like on a TV cop show. They’d even responded to the original 211 call in Hutch’s old beater, without the lights and sirens. Nothing to see.
It took a moment for Starsky to realize that Hutch wasn’t singing a lullaby. It was Silent Night. Sentimental turkey. As if he didn’t bitch about euphoric sentimentalism when the Christmas season rolled around.
“All is calm, all is bright,” Starsky sang along with him. “Round John Virgin, mother and child…”
“Starsk,” Hutch said with a hint of irritation, stopping at the side door in the church buildings that the Ladies’ Auxiliary had used.
“Wait a minute, who exactly is Round John Virgin?” Starsky asked.
“Nobody you know, Detective Malaprop,” Hutch groaned good-naturedly. “Or should I say Sergeant Mondegreen? It’s round yon virgin mother—”
“How can anyone be a virgin mother?” Starsky retorted opening the door because Hutch had his hands full of Jesus.
“That, Starsky, has always been the mystery,” Hutch replied.