“He’s staring at me.”
I chucked Ricky on the chin. What a cutie. “They all look that way. See? The sheep and lambs are looking, too.”
I tucked the nativity display brochure into my purse as I waited for my nephew to process this information. His red knit cap with peppermint swirl flourishes bobbed as he shook his head at me. “They’re not real.”
“Right,” I agreed. He was six and while I babysat at my sister’s request a few times, that was a few years back. Before I went on my tour of duty. Before he was talking like a little person.
“Huh,” Ricky grunted as he tossed a few small marshmallows from his snack bag of Snowman Poop and Reindeer Follies. They flew surprisingly far, landing on the swath of fabric draped over the figure of Joseph’s shoulders, one bouncing off his nose.
“Oh my gosh, seriously?” I clutched my nephew’s arm, pulling him out of range. “Don’t do that!”
“I want him to stop staring,” he insisted. “He’s mean.”
“No, he’s not, he’s Jesus’s step-dad,” I explained. It had been a long time since I had stepped inside a church, but that much I remembered.
“His name isn’t Joseph,” Ricky informed me. “I saw him on TV last night. They called him the Church Thief.”
Things went in slow motion after that. The life-sized statue of Joseph leaped from where he was standing over Jesus and Mary, hurtling over the half-fence used to cordon off the display. He tossed the fabric swath on the ground, revealing a black duffle slung over his shoulder and sprinted through the gathering crowd of merry-makers.
“Stay here!” I shouted. My brain went on autopilot as I tossed my purse in my nephew’s general direction and took off running. If the guy pretending to be a part of the nativity display was the Church Thief, that bag would be full of the Christmas collection and there was no way I’d let him take it. I had been forced to stand by and watch a lot of atrocities in my time in service, but there were some things that just weren’t okay.
I darted between two elderly women dressed in matching green sweaters that – I would swear but didn’t have the time to confirm – lit up and blinked. The fake Joseph had a head start, but I was wearing my sneakers and they were easier to run in than combat boots.
As I gained on him, he threw his wig at me. I kept running, closing the gap. With a burst of extra energy, I grabbed the strap on his bag and yanked with both feet planted on the asphalt of the parking lot the church had converted into a holiday display covering Thanksgiving to Twelfth Night.
Children’s voices singing “O Holy Night” rose in the air, their song filling the night with sweetness and surprising talent.
As hoped, gravity helped me drag fake Joseph down, slamming him into the ground at a wise man’s feet, who was propped up near a faux camel. Pretty impressive for a small town church. Where does one even get something like that? Much less store it?
“Get off,” false Joseph growled. His arm swung up from the ground but had no real strength behind it. He tried to roll, but I had more experience than he did at one-on-one combat.
“Not a chance,” I replied as I smashed my fist down into his face, knocking him out cold. I yanked my scarf from around my neck and hog-tied the guy.
A smattering of applause rose as the Sunday School class climbed off the stage, the choir performance over. I wasn’t sure if their parents were applauding the concert or my takedown of the thief.
Two cops with hot chocolate strolled over. “What’s going on here?” the older one demanded.
I explained as the younger cop, a buff guy with dark hair and a blank expression, wrestled the unconscious body into the back of the patrol car he had eased through the growing crowd.
“Is it him?” I asked when I was through answering his questions.
“Looks like it. Thanks for the assist.”
“No problem, officer,” I replied. Then adrenaline jolted through me. Ricky!
I raced back to the nativity, searching for the red beanie. My heart slowed when I saw my nephew standing where I left him, guarding my purse and finishing his snack. Man. My sister trained him well.
“You get the bad guy?” he asked.
“Cool. Can I have some hot chocolate?”
“Why not? I’m in the mood to celebrate.”