Read Aunt Dimity's Christmas Online

Authors: Nancy Atherton

Aunt Dimity's Christmas (10 page)

“‘I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”' I'd learned Psalm 23 for a drama class in high school, and it had stayed with me ever since. “Are any other corners folded down?”

Willis, Sr., closed the prayer book, then began at the beginning, inspecting each page for folded corners or minuscule handwriting, but discovered nothing more.

I took the prayer book from him and returned to the coffee table, where I gazed down at the canvas bag. “‘There was a war in heaven …”' I began.

“‘… and the great dragon was cast out,”' Willis, Sr., finished.

“Prayer book … praying,” I murmured. I had a sudden, vivid vision of Kit standing before the memorial window in the church where Anne Somerville had found him. The window's words came back to me as easily as those of the Twenty-third Psalm: “‘The people of these villages cared for the airmen…. They watched for them”'—I thumped the prayer book with my fist—”'
and prayed for them
,”' I swung around to face Willis, Sr. “
That's
what Kit was doing at the airfield. He was praying for the souls of the airmen who never returned from their war with the dragon.”

“Lori,” Willis, Sr., said patiently, “you are theorizing in advance of the facts. We do not know if Mr. Smith marked those pages or added Psalm Twenty-three to the burial service.”

I'd already picked up the telephone. “I have to call Julian,” I told Willis, Sr. “I have to tell him that Kit wasn't watching for phantoms, he was praying for very real men.” I dialed directory assistance, requested Saint Benedict's number, then hung up and stared at the phone, perplexed.

“Well?” said Willis, Sr. “Are you going to telephone Father Bright?”

“I can't,” I said. “His phone's been disconnected.” I gripped the prayer book in both hands and looked at Willis, Sr., imploringly.

“Go,” he said, with a wave of his flawlessly manicured hand. “But you must promise to return by four o'clock. The rehearsal for the Nativity play begins at five.”

“I won't be late.” I kissed the boys, then ran to grab my shoulder bag and cashmere coat, and, as an afterthought, a tinful of angel cookies.

Saint Benedict's Hostel for Transient Men was located in a run-down redbrick building in a seedy neighborhood in East Oxford. The area was more than a bit rough. An empty lot littered with beer cans, broken glass, and discarded syringes stretched away from the side of the building, and graffiti covered the walls. It was hard to believe that such squalor could exist within hailing distance of one of the world's finest universities.

I parked the Mini directly in front of the hostel and left it with no little trepidation. As I approached Saint Benedict's front door I glanced across the empty lot, saw a small boy peering out of a broken window in a neighboring building, and thanked God that I'd brought my sons to Finch.

My timid knock was answered by a wizened little man with a green stocking cap and a distinctive body odor.

“I'm looking for Julian Bright,” I said, breathing shallowly.

The little man gave me the once-over, then motioned with a clawlike hand for me to follow him. Clutching my shoulder bag tightly, I stepped into the hostel.

I felt as though I'd descended into one of the lower circles of hell. The decay besetting Saint Benedict's wasn't merely skin deep. Everywhere I looked I saw cracked plaster, water-stained walls, and peeling linoleum. An attempt had been made to keep the place tidy—the floors were swept and the windows sparkled—but it would have taken more than a broom and a squeegee to correct Saint Benedict's myriad defects.

The air was redolent of the rank aromas of boiled cabbage, damp wool, and unwashed flesh. The fug was so oppressive that it made me long for the Radcliffe's antiseptic tang, and the residents made me long for blinders. The derelicts who observed our progress as we walked down the central corridor seemed to possess every facial deformity known to man. I was so alarmed by one fellow's mashed nose and cauliflower ears that I missed my footing and nearly fell. My clumsiness won a round of guffaws from my audience and a sneer from my escort.

“You're new here,” he observed in a gravelly voice.

“Brand-new,” I admitted.

He gave me a jaundiced glance. “You won't last a week.”

I agreed with him wholeheartedly.

After what seemed like several centuries, we reached a steamy kitchen, and Julian Bright. The priest stood at a deep double sink, scrubbing a stockpot. He wore a bibbed white apron over a black T-shirt and black jeans, and his fringe of graying hair lay in damp curls along the back of his neck.

“Lady to see you, Father,” my guide announced.

Julian dried his hands on his apron as he turned to face me. “Why, Rupert, this isn't just any lady. This is the lady who saved Smitty's life.”

“You saved Smitty?” Rupert's whole demeanor changed. He pulled off his green stocking cap, revealing a greasy thatch of black hair, and said gruffly, “You done good, missus. God'll bless you for it. If there's ever anything I can do for you …”

“You can keep an eye on her car, for a start,” Julian advised.

“Will do, Father.” Rupert replaced his stocking cap and headed back down the corridor.

Julian peeled off his apron and threw it on a scratched stainless-steel countertop. His T-shirt was plastered to his chest and I wondered, fleetingly, how often he worked out.

“I can't believe you're here,” he said, with a warm smile.

“I tried to call, but …” I tore my gaze away from his finely honed pectorals and reminded myself sternly that he was a man of God and I, a happily married mother of twins. “Did you know that your phone's been disconnected?”

“Has it?” he said, in mock surprise. “No wonder His Holiness hasn't been in touch lately.” He wiped the sweat from his brow. “Let's go to my office, shall we? It's less tropical than the kitchen.”

Julian's office was a cramped and ill-lit oblong box overlooking the empty lot. A bank of four-drawer file cabinets occupied one side of the room; a gray steel desk, the other. On the desk sat an aged computer flanked by neatly stacked file folders, and the wall above it was covered with bus schedules, train schedules, posters, and maps. The windowsill held a spindly potted seedling pine crowned with a tinfoil star.

Julian went to the dining room to fetch a chair for me, and when he returned I saw that he'd exchanged his black T-shirt for a black turtleneck.

“Are you warm enough?” he asked, as he hung my coat on the back of the door.

“I'm fine,” I said. I was wearing silk-lined pleated wool trousers and a soft, raspberry-pink lamb's wool pullover.

“The color suits you,” Julian observed, eyeing my sweater. “It's very cheerful. Just what Saint Benedict's needs.”

That's not all it needs, I thought, glancing up at the water-stained ceiling.

Again, Julian seemed to read my thoughts. “There's nothing glamorous about my work, Lori—no round-eyed kiddies or fluffy puppies to attract high-profile patrons. Our poster boys are toothless old men who drink too much and bathe too little. Saint Benedict is the patron saint of beggars, you know, and beggars are, as a rule, a rough lot.”

“I'm sure you can handle them,” I said, “and find a cure for what ails Saint Benedict's.”

“Is my arrogance so obvious?” Julian said lightly.

“Your compassion is obvious,” I told him.

Julian laughed, a sudden explosion of sound, harsh and mirthless. “Neither arrogance nor compassion will keep our doors open much longer. It's a miracle they haven't closed us down already.”

“Who?” I asked.

“The same bureaucrats who rescinded our government funding five years ago.” Julian motioned toward the files on the desk. “I've done my best to encourage private donations, but it's been an uphill battle. As I said, Saint Benedict's isn't a glamorous cause. No one wants to pose for snaps with men like Rupert.”

“Why doesn't the church help out?” I asked.

“The church doesn't consider Saint Benedict's a priority,” Julian replied. “It's already supporting two soup kitchens and another shelter.”

“Then the men will have somewhere else to go if Saint Benedict's does close,” I pointed out.

“There are other shelters,” Julian agreed, “but since all of them are overcrowded and understaffed, most of my men will end up sleeping in doorways—until the police run them off. Then they'll go under bridges, into back alleys…. Wherever you find stray cats, you'll find my flock.”

“But it's winter,” I protested. “They'll freeze to death.”

“It happens every day.” Julian's mouth hardened briefly; then he hung his head, repentant. “Forgive me, Lori. I shouldn't speak so bluntly. I keep forgetting that you're not accustomed to such things. Apart from that …”

Julian's voice faded as the distant howl of a bitter wind grew louder, blanking out all other sounds. I hunched my shoulders, shuddering, and pressed a trembling hand to my forehead.

“Lori?” said Julian.

“Y-yes?” I managed, as the wind's roar faded.

“You went away.” Julian peered at me closely. “Where did you go?”

“Just … daydreaming.” I gave myself a mental shake and took the tin out of my shoulder bag. “Here. I brought you some cookies.”

Julian's eyes told me that he, too, knew an evasion when he heard one, but he took the tin with evident delight. “How kind of you,” he said. “I can't remember the last time anyone brought me such a treat. Is that why you came here today?”

“Yes … no.” I took a calming breath. “I've come about Kit. I think I've figured out why he went to the airfields in
Cambridgeshire.” I pulled the prayer book out of my shoulder bag and told Julian about the pages Kit had marked and the psalm he'd added to the burial service.

Julian listened intently, read through the marked pages, and finally nodded. “So … you believe that Kit visited abandoned bomber bases in order to hold prayer vigils for the souls of lost airmen.”

“That's right,” I said excitedly. “He wasn't just standing there in the rain, looking for ghosts. He was praying.” When Julian said nothing, I went on. “Don't you get it? He wasn't acting on some crazy impulse. He had a reason to go to the airfields.”

“It's a reason,” Julian acknowledged. He leaned forward and added, very gently, “But would you call it a sane reason?”

Julian's words hit me like a body blow. I'd been eager to share my discovery with the priest, confident that he'd interpret it as I had, as yet another example of Kit's essential goodness. Instead, he'd twisted the evidence to suit his own agenda. If he had his way, Kit would spend the rest of his days cleaning the stable yard at Blackthorne Farm. A surge of fierce protectiveness brought me to my feet.

“You want to know what arrogance is?” I said. “Arrogance is thinking you know all of the answers when, in fact, you don't know a damned thing.”

Julian flinched, but I wasn't finished yet.

“I think you
want
Kit to be insane,” I snapped. “I think you're jealous of him because he's a better man than you. You should be ashamed of yourself, Julian Bright.”

Frowning furiously, I seized my coat, stormed out of the building, and got behind the wheel of the Mini. Before I quite knew what was happening, I found myself walking through the entrance of the Radcliffe Infirmary.

I
was halfway across the lobby when a familiar voice sang out my name.

“Lori! How are those handsome sons of yours, and where's your wanderin' husband?”

Luke Boswell came charging toward me, pushing a trolley filled with books. Luke was a middle-aged North Carolinian who'd come to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and never left. He owned Preacher's Antiquarian Bookstore, just off Saint Giles Road. I'd spent many hours in his shop, sipping black-currant tea and discussing his latest finds.

As Luke drew closer, his amiable expression became sober. “Your boys aren't ill, are they?”

“They're fine, Luke—and Bill is, too,” I replied “Everyone's fine.”

“Not everyone.” Luke leaned forward, his elbows on the trolley. “'Tis the season to be jolly, but you look mad enough to spit tacks.”

“It's a long story, Luke.” I noted a red plastic badge
pinned to his argyle cardigan. “I didn't know you did volunteer work here.”

“I didn't, until about a month ago,” Luke informed me. “A customer talked me into it, and I have to say I'm glad he did. Makes me feel like one of Santa's little old elves.” He patted the trolley. “Nothin' like a good book to distract a body from what ails it.”

“I hope you've thanked your customer,” I said, managing a smile.

“Well, now, he's not a customer, exactly,” Luke temporized. “A customer spends money, and this fellow has none to spend. He's what we used to call a
road
scholar, if you take my meanin'. Nice fellow, though. Good-hearted as the day is long. Strange, when you think that all he reads about is war.”

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