The singing was bright and clear and easy to follow as Leyland crossed the next street and turned the corner. He wasn’t surprised to find Harold on his stool and joyfully finishing up his song.
“Glo-ry to the newborn King!”
A couple of elderly women politely applauded from a few feet away. He bowed to them before stepping down. One lady produced a bill, which she handed to him directly instead of dropping it into his sardine can.
“You keep singing, son,” Leyland overheard her say to him. “God may not have given you a perfect voice, but when the song comes straight from the heart, it’s more than beautiful.”
Harold thanked her as he took the bill and placed it in the can.
Leyland started to confront the child but thought better of it. His real concern was for the boy’s wellbeing. I’ll follow him instead, he decided. Maybe I can find out where he lives. When I do, I’ll notify the authorities and let them know, and let them take it from there.
He was careful to remain out of sight. Sometimes ducking inside a doorway when Harold glanced his way. Most of the time keeping others in front of him as a shield.
They must have covered about three blocks. All the while the kid continued on straight as an arrow, staying on the same road, even when crossing at the lights. Which was why he was surprised when the child suddenly turned inside a gated entrance. Leyland halted and looked up to see the carved stone façade of St. Bridget’s Church.
He caught a glimpse of white before one of the tall front doors closed. Leyland smiled to himself. It was good to know the kid was finally seeking a little shelter from the cold.
He remained outside the gate as he waited for the boy to exit. But after fifteen minutes without any sign of the kid, Leyland decided to go in himself. Maybe the boy was practicing for a Christmas pageant or something. Regardless, he figured he could wait just as easily from a pew in the back where it was decidedly warmer than standing out in the cold and snow.
The first thing he noticed when he opened the door was the lack of sound. Nope. No choir rehearsal today, he noted to himself. Unless it’s already over and everyone’s left. But if that’s the case, shouldn’t I have seen people coming out?
Despite the total absence of sound, the place didn’t feel menacing. Just the opposite. The huge old cathedral gave Leyland a sense of calm. A welcoming sereness.
A trail of wet, child-size footprints led past a font of holy water and into the next alcove. There, in front of several rows of votive candles, some of which were lit, sat the sardine can with its collection of coins, including the five-dollar bill he’d seen the old woman give the boy.
“Can I help you?” a warm voice gently inquired. Still, Leyland jerked in surprise when he turned around to see the man standing in the doorway leading into the nave.
“There was a young boy dressed as an angel who came in here a few minutes ago.” Seeing the man’s expression grow concerned, he tried to explain. “It’s not what you’re thinking. I and a friend of mine have seen him standing out in the cold singing for change, and we’re worried about him. He doesn’t have a coat, and he’s barefoot. I spotted him out in front of a store over on Palfrey and I thought I’d try to follow him to see where he lives. The authorities need to know about him. See if they can’t find out why his parents are allowing him or making him go out in this weather without anything to keep him warm.”
That look didn’t leave the priest’s face, and Leyland couldn’t blame him. The guy didn’t know if he was a predator or honestly trying to help. “You’re certain he came in here?”
“Yes.” Leyland pointed to the sardine can. “That’s the can he always carries with him. I thought he was giving the money to his folks, but it seems he’s giving some of it to the church.”
The priest walked over to look for himself, and his expression softened. “So it’s a boy child leaving that for us?”
Leyland gave the man a raised eyebrow. “He’s been here before?”
“Oh, yes. Several times, but only during the Christmas holidays. In fact, we can almost set our calendars by him. He starts leaving his…earnings, I guess you could call it, on the eve of Advent, and the last time he, or rather, the money appears, is on Christmas Eve.” The priest snorted softly. “I see this year he’s using a sardine can. Last year it was a Spam can.”
“I don’t understand,” Leyland confessed.
Picking up the can, the man shook the meager contents and single bill into one hand before setting the container back on the votive table where it had been placed. “Come with me,” the priest invited, gesturing for Leyland to follow him.
The man led him behind the back row of pews and up the aisle on the left side of the building. As they walked, the priest explained. “By the way, I’m Father Peter. And you are?”
The man nodded. “I take it you’re not Catholic.”
“Nope. Raised Episcopalian, though.”
Father Peter cast him a knowing eye. “We’ll forgive you for that,” he jested. “I also take it it’s been some time since you were inside a house of worship.”
“You’re two for two, Father.” Leyland lightly chuckled.
They reached a juncture where a narrow hallway led farther into the rear of the church. Instead of going that way, the priest stopped in front of a small wooden box adhered to the wall. Lifting the lid, he dropped the coins and bill inside. “Let’s go to my office,” the man invited.
More curious than ever, Leyland followed him through the door located at the end of the hall behind the box. The office was small but tidy. It contained only a desk and a single chair, a filing cabinet, and a short lectern where a large Bible lay open. The priest pointed to the chair. “Have a seat,” he offered and went to sit behind his desk.
Leyland sighed loudly as he sat. He didn’t realize how long he’d been walking until his bottom met the cushion. Stretching out his legs felt good.
Clasping his hands and placing them on the desk mat in front of him, Father Peter leaned forward. “You said it’s a boy angel who’s leaving the sardine can of loose change in the vestibule?”
“He’s dressed like an angel, with the fake wings and all, but it’s not enough to keep him warm in this weather,” Leyland explained. “And he’s barefoot, on top of that.”
“What does he look like?” the Father inquired.
“Oh, I’m guessing Harold’s about ten years old. So high.” Leyland held a hand parallel to the floor. “He’s got light brown hair that looks like it’s never seen a comb and green-gold eyes.” He chuckled. “You should hear him. Kid can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but he’s so enthusiastic. I mean, he comes across so happy when he’s belting out a tune, it’s infectious.” He noticed how the priest studied him, and he wondered what was going on inside the guy’s head.
“What kind of music does he sing? Christmas songs, I assume?” Father Peter asked next.
“Yeah.” Leyland nodded. “The religious ones. Not the secular ones like ‘Jingle Bells’ or ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’ Not those kind.”
“And you say his name is Harold?”
“Don’t know for sure. That’s what we call him because his favorite tune seems to be ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.’” Leyland cocked his head. “What I can’t figure out is why he’s leaving the money he’s earned here, instead of giving it to his parents?”
The priest smiled at the question. Opening his top side drawer, he withdrew a piece of paper and held it out to Leyland, who took it. On the piece torn from a sheet of lined notebook paper were three scrawled words:
for the por
Leyland glanced up at the man. “For the poor?”
Father Peter nodded and reached out to take back the message. “That’s how we read it, too.”
“And he’s been doing this for how long?”
“We first noticed a can of coins appearing at that station a few years ago. That message was also included.”
“How often does he leave the can? Maybe he takes some of it back home,” Leyland suggested.
“It appears three times a day, and it’s always left by the votive station, but there seems to be no set timetable. All we know is the last one always appears before dark, and every time the money is in a can. One year it was a discarded pork and beans can. Another year it was a chicken noodle soup can. And always just a few coins.” The man shrugged slightly. “Sometimes there’s a bill or two. We put the money in the coffers, and come morning the can is gone.”
“But you’ve never seen Harold personally?” Leyland clarified.
The man shook his head. “This is the first time we’ve learned anything about our benefactor. Over at the rectory, we refer to him as our Canning Benefactor.”
Leyland waved an arm toward the ceiling. “What about cameras?”
Father Peter’s smile thinned slightly. “This is a house of God, Mr. Scott. We trust Him to watch over us.”
Leyland felt slightly chagrined by the remark, but he refused to let it get to him.
The smile returned to its prior warmth. “Thank you for finally filling in the pieces of the puzzle we’d been missing. Will you do us a favor? In return for a favor?”
“We’ll keep our eyes open for Harold and let you know if we discover anything if you’ll do the same for us. Now that we know who we’re dealing with, we’d like to find out who his parents are, too, and see if there’s some way we can get the boy a coat and a pair of shoes. Do you think if we left the items at the front where he leaves the can, that he’ll take them?”
Leyland shrugged. “It wouldn’t hurt to try. At least we’ll know you tried.”
“Excellent.” The priest got to his feet and held out his hand to shake Leyland’s. “Thank you again for your help, Mr. Scott.”
“I’m glad I came in,” he admitted with a chuckle.
The priest led him back to the nave. “When you do find out something, just call the church office and leave word. And leave your phone number with the secretary so we can contact you.”
“I will.” Giving the man a nod, he turned and returned to the front entrance. On his way out, he happened to glance over at the stand of votive candles.The sardine can was gone. A trail of small wet footprints led from the front door to the alcove. But there were none leading back outside.