Lost Children

A Phillip Angelo Mystery

By Brian Lawrence

The Christmas shopping crowd parted as Phillip Angelo strode toward the toy store, his long gray overcoat billowing behind him. The crowd, as well as his coat, collapsed around him when he stopped. By the entrance to the toy store, near the display of wind-up animals including a yapping dog doing somersaults and a snorting, circling pig, he saw them. Three of them, the tallest only half his six-feet-four.

"They're the ones," the Spirit whispered.

"And who am I, the Wizard of Oz?" Phillip muttered.

No answer, just an intense feeling of guilt for his snide comment. While he waited, he repented. It wasn't easy shedding forty years of cynicism and bitterness.

The short woman waddled toward him, her stumpy legs pumping, her arms spread, each hand grasping one of her mentally challenged girls, who tried to wander in different directions. The mother scolded them softly, urging them to stay by her. The shoppers gave wide berth, staring at them with disgust or pity.

Mentally challenged. Phillip smiled at the politically correct euphemism. Three years ago, like most of the crowd, he'd have given the "retarded" girls and their dwarf mother a disgusted look. Now, he felt overwhelmed by an intense love and sorrow for them.

Phillip knelt and gestured with his arm. A path to him opened. All but one of the shoppers made a wide circle around him as they bustled by. Phillip ignored both the one who hovered near and those who gawked as they passed.

The two girls, the oldest maybe ten, the other a couple years younger, stared at him with wide, slanted eyes. Smiles lit their flat faces. The mother approached with head bowed.

When they were within an arm's reach, the tiny woman said, "You look like a kind man."

He smiled and replied, "I try to be," knowing that he didn't always succeed, and until three years ago, the word "kind" hadn't been in his vocabulary. She would not meet his gaze, and after a moment, he said, "How can I help?"

"Three young children...maybe six, five, and three..." She glanced at Phillip, then quickly lowered her gaze. "They were playing on an empty shelf in the store."

"I see them. Very cute. Yours?"

"What?" The woman's head jerked up. She scrutinized him, craning her wrinkled neck to get a good look. Her hands quivered, her lips trembled. Waves of fear and desperation broke all around Phillip. "You see them? But how..."

Phillip smiled again, leaving the vision he'd seen of three children wandering toward the back of the toy store unexplained. Like he could explain it, anyway.

"Are they yours?" he asked.

"No...no. Not mine." She lowered her head, hesitated, then said, "Their mother, I think their mother left them there."

"Tragic." His heart grew heavy. He shook his head in sadness.

"After a while we went back to look for them, but they were gone."

"Gone," echoed the older girl, who had dark, straight hair. His heart melted at her sweet innocence. She smiled, blinked, and repeated, "Gone."

He nodded, then sighed. "Why do you think the mother abandoned them?"

"I...I saw her leave them there. She turned her back on them and...and walked quickly away."

"Why do you think she did that?"

The woman studied her scarred and dirty shoes. Tattered laces dragged on the floor. She shrugged with an effort as if she bore all the troubles of the world on her slumped shoulders. Without looking up, she said, "They were...they were too much for her?"

"Come to me, all of you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," Phillip quoted the apostle Matthew. And Phillip knew that if Christ could relieve him of his massive burdens and forgive him of his mountains of sin, he could certainly help the mother of the lost children.

"Will you find them?" the woman asked softly.

"That's what I do."

"You're a policeman?"

"Private detective. I specialize in finding lost people."

The woman nodded, neck still bent. Her two girls silently watched the exchange.

"What should I do with them if I find them?" Phillip asked.

She looked up at him with imploring eyes. "Find the mother. Return them to their home."

Phillip nodded, placed a hand on the little woman's shoulder and said a quick prayer. Her eyes widened, then she smiled. He stood. "I'll see what I can do."

She grabbed his jacket sleeve.

"I...I can't pay you."

"I don't expect you to." Though, he thought, an occasional paying client would be nice.

Tears formed in her eyes and she whispered, "Thank you. God has blessed you."

The words of Christ, "it is more blessed to give than to receive," steamrolled through his mind.

Chastised, he answered, "Yes, He has. As He has you." Phillip turned away and walked toward the mall doors feeling four sets of eyes following him. He decided not to acknowledge the extra set, not yet anyway.

Outside the mall, Phillip scanned the parking lot.

"They're not out there," the Spirit whispered.

"You know, it would be a lot easier if you just told me where they were." He ignored the stares of passing shoppers and continued muttering to himself. "But no, I'm sure there's a purpose for my searching."

He turned right and walked the sidewalk parallel to the mall. The children had not come out of the store into the mall, for he'd have seen them, and they weren't still in the store, that much the Spirit was willing to share. That meant they'd left the store by a back door.

From the moment Phillip had left the mall, he'd felt he was being followed, and as he walked along the near-deserted area between mall entrances, it became obvious.

He stopped. He heard one footstep behind him then nothing, so he continued. Up ahead, maybe twenty more yards, a dark opening in the wall beckoned. Hopefully, it would lead to the back, so that he would not have to go completely around the long shopping center.

He stopped again. And again, he heard one step, then silence. He pivoted. Fifteen or so paces behind he saw the silhouette of a man.

"Why are you following me?" Phillip asked.

Nothing.

"Are you deaf? I asked-"

"I'm not following you."

"Are you lost?"

"No."

Phillip felt no malice directed toward him, so he waited.

Finally, words tumbled from the other man. "It's too crowded in there, so I came out to get to the other side of the mall."

"Then you're in luck. There it is." Phillip gestured toward the next entrance.

The man started forward. When he drew parallel to Phillip, he stopped.

"Okay, I was following you."

Phillip said nothing.

The younger man, about twenty-two Phillip assessed, grew visibly uncomfortable in the silence and finally asked, "You're Phillip Angelo, aren't you?"

"You have me at a disadvantage, I don't know your name."

"Michael. Um, Michael Frasure."

"You're a seminary student?"

"You know me?"

"Recently heard of you." Phillip walked toward the opening he sought. Michael hurried to keep up.

"Heard of me? From where? You know my professors or my pastoral advisor?"

"Something like that."

Phillip reached the opening to an alley. A cold breeze carried small happy voices from the other end of the alley.

"So, Michael Frasure, how is it that you know me? And why are you following me?"

"I watched you in the mall with that dwarf lady and the two retarded girls. The compassion you showed them, it was...it was incredible."

"Nothing more than you would have done, right?"

Michael studied the ground, scraped his shoe on the pavement. The breeze from the alley intensified to a frigid wind. He shivered.

"For the Lord has comforted his people and will have mercy upon his afflicted," Phillip recited.

"Psalms?"

"Close. Isaiah 49:13."

"Oh, yeah, now I remember."

Phillip smiled and squeezed Michael's shoulder. "Come, I need to find the children."

"Children?"

"That the little lady told me about. They're back here and are becoming cold, despite their big adventure."

Phillip started into the alley, but stopped when Michael spoke again.

"But whose children are they? Why are you looking for them?"

"Come on. There are three of them, too much for me to handle alone." Phillip took two more steps.

"No they're not." Michael trotted to catch up.

Phillip stopped again, growing impatient with Michael's impertinence. But a gentle reminder of how obnoxious he'd been at Michael's age softened his tone when he asked, "What do you mean, they're not?"

Michael squirmed under the intensity of Phillip's gaze.

"They're not too much for you to handle. After all, you're an angel."

Phillip laughed loud and hard. Then, he reached into his inside coat pocket and extracted a business card. "An angel? No, I'm a private detective." He handed the card to Michael. "I specialize in finding lost people."

Phillip proceeded further down the alley. The voices of the children had grown silent. He could feel their fear. Time to hurry.

"But I saw you part that crowd with just a gesture," Michael said, walking behind Phillip.

"I didn't part the crowd," Phillip replied.

"But I saw you. And I've been studying your life. I know about all the things you've done over the past three years."

"Trust me, Michael, I've done little myself."

"You've done a lot. I have research that proves it. I'd know more, but that's all I could find on you. There's no record before that."

Phillip continued walking, shaking his head, thinking Michael just didn't get it.

"Like you did for the first forty years of your life?"

Philip was convinced that the Holy Spirit should not be sarcastic, but He was at times. "Thanks for the reminder."

"What?" Michael asked.

"Talking to myself."

Their way grew lighter as they reached the backside of the stores. Lights hung over each doorway, illuminating the store names stenciled in black letters. Three children huddled together on the steps of the toy store's dock. They looked up when they heard the two men approaching, tentative smiles blooming on their small round faces. Three beautiful, normal children. Small for their ages, but otherwise full of life and potential. The two boys had coal-black hair. The girl, the youngest of the three, had dark brown curls.

"There they are," Phillip said, approaching the children. "I'll take the two oldest and you can carry the younger."

"Wait."

Phillip stopped and faced Michael.

"Two weeks ago," Michael said, "I saw you force a man to drop his weapon. He had the gun to his wife's head and you, with only a gesture, forced him to drop it and release his wife. I saw that. I was there. It was a miracle."

Phillip shook his head, laughing softly. "Michael, you're so willing to believe what you see, but not what you don't see."

"What?"

"Even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him."

"John 14:17. At least part of the verse."

"Excellent. What's the rest of the verse?"

"You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you."

"Do you, Michael? Does He?"

Michael knitted his brows and frowned. Phillip approached the children. He knelt beside them. "Hi, I'm Phillip. How about I take you back to your mother?"

All three in unison screamed, "Yea."

"Are you cold?"

The little girl nodded, a pout on her pretty face.

"Not anymore. Michael, come give this little girl some warmth."

Michael joined them and hefted the girl into his arms.

"How about you two?" Phillip asked the boys. "Take my hand and let's go."

"Our mom told us never to go with a stranger."

"Excellent advice, little man. But look into my eyes. Am I a stranger?"

The two little boys stared at Phillip. Smiles spread across their faces.

"We know you. You're not a stranger. You're His friend."

"Yes, I am." Phillip was amazed at the perceptive ability of children and wondered why so many adults lost that ability. "And He loves you and so does your mother, who misses you terribly. Let's go find her."

Phillip led the two boys out of the alley. Michael followed silently. The little girl rested her head on his chest. The boys chattered about how they'd played in the trash bin and chased a rat away.

"The rat was creepy," the little girl said.

"It was cool," both boys added.

Once in the parking lot, Phillip headed down one of the rows packed with the cars of last minute shoppers. He stopped on the passenger side of a 1991 Nissan Sentra. Michael reached the driver's side, the little girl cradled in one arm, his other hand in his pocket jingling his keys.

Phillip asked, "Do you mind driving?"

Michael shook his head, set the little girl down, and extracted his keys.

"How did you know this was my car?" he asked.

"Lucky guess." Phillip maintained a deadpan expression.

Michael opened the car door then looked around the parking lot, assessing, Phillip figured, just how many hundreds of cars there must be.

"Lucky guess?" Michael sighed when Phillip grinned, then helped the little girl into the car.

Once all the kids were situated in the back seat and the car was started, Michael asked, "Do you know where we're going?"

"Not exactly. Just drive, the Spirit will guide us."

"The Holy Spirit?"

"Do you know any other?"

"He talks to you?"

"But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you."

"John 14 again," muttered Michael.

"A good chapter. He talks to all of us who have received Christ. Unfortunately, many don't listen."

"I wish he'd talk a little louder to me."

Phillip chuckled. "Why are you in the seminary?"

"My father's a pastor."

Phillip said nothing.

"And I want to help people," Michael added.

"You want to help people? Noble. Why?"

When Michael didn't answer, Phillip said, "You can help these children by driving them home."

With periodic instructions, Phillip guided them to a small house badly in need of painting and landscaping in the St. Louis neighborhood called Affton.

"This it?" Michael asked.

"Kids?"

"That's our house," the oldest boy said.

"You wait here, Michael. The mother doesn't know you."

"But she doesn't know you, either."

"Yes, she does. We met earlier."

Phillip climbed out of the car and lifted the little girl out. The two boys spilled from the other side and ran to the door. The outside light came on just as Phillip stepped onto the porch.

The small woman, who had asked Phillip to find the children, opened the door. Her eyes glistened and then the tears flowed freely. Phillip placed the little girl into her arms. She kissed her daughter on the cheek, then set her down.

Phillip stepped into the small house and was greeted by a blanket of warm, stuffy air. The place smelled of baking sugar-cookies, like his parent's house used to smell during Christmas, before his mother's premature death when Phillip was twelve.

He shook away the painful memory as the woman fell to her knees and stared up at him.

"Oh, Lord, forgive me my sins. I didn't know what to do, Lord. How was I going to take care of all five?"

"I'm not your Lord, ma'am. But keep praying, for He's listening to you. And remember, your Lord said, 'And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.'" He quietly left the house with the three children gathered around their praying mother.

In the car, Michael said, "That's the woman from the mall."

"Yes it is."

"She left her children there. How could she do that?"

"She was desperate, but now she's realized the foolishness of her deed. She understands who she should trust in her time of need."

During the next few seconds of silence, Phillip resolved to call his ex-wife. If God could forgive a woman for abandoning her children and give her a second chance, who was he not to forgive his ex-wife for withdrawing from him because of his frequent travels?

Phillip squeezed Michael's shoulder. "I now realize why I had to walk around the outside of the mall to find those kids."

"Why?"

"It wasn't really the kids I was looking for."

"Who were you looking for?"

"You."

Michael said nothing.

Phillip asked, "How would you like a job?"

"What kind of job?"

"I think it's time I took on an assistant. There are too many lost people out there for me alone. You'd be perfect. After all, you have this keen interest in me."

"But I'm in school."

"True enough. There are nights and weekends. I can't pay much, though."

"That's okay. I'll take it. I'd love to work with you."

They shook hands.

"I still think you're an angel," Michael said.

Phillip chuckled, then said, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you."

End