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The Night Visitor - Part 5

Fifth in a five-part fictional holiday tale.

The story so far: Trying to help a lost, dazed old man find his family for Christmas, auto shop owners Tony Renzi and Bart Brewer have just fended off a scam artist/car thief who pretended to know the lost fellow.

As dusk turned into night on Christmas Eve, Tony and Bart decided to see whether switching duties could switch their luck in the hunt for Gino's family.

Before the episode of the liar with the scorpion tattoo, Tony had been dialing all the Bontempos in the White Pages, while Bart had been calling florists - since Gino vaguely recalled that his niece's husband owned a flower shop.

Now, Bart picked up on Bontempos, while Tony tried florists.

For a few minutes, Tony hit nothing but dead ends. Barry's Blooms, no answer. The Flower Cart, no help. Flowers by DiFilippo had a vowel at the end, but nothing else that linked it to Gino.

The office clock clicked to 5:23. Tony was going to miss his daughter Bridget's solo at the Christmas pageant. Done deal. Press on.

He dialed Carl's Creations in Mount Airy.

"Hello, Carl Sweetan here." In the background, a hum of voices.

"Hi, Merry Christmas, this is Tony Renzi at R&B Automotive out on the Pike. We're trying to help a lost old gentleman find his family for Christmas dinner. He stopped by our place an hour ago and his name's Gino . . . "

"My God! You're kidding! You've got Gino!? Jen, come quick. This fellow says he's found Uncle Gino; he's with him, he's safe. . . . Wait, he is safe, isn't he?"

"Yes. I think. He was half-frozen when he came through our door. But we warmed him up and fed him and . . . "

A new voice on the line, a woman's: "Uncle Gino is there? Gino Bontempo? Short, white moustache, old fedora, ratty old pickup?"

Tony laughed: "The same."

"Thank you, thank you, thank you. I'm his niece. We've been crazy with worry; he was supposed to be here yesterday and when he didn't call, I called the city police, the state police, everyone, but nothing. He's my godfather; he raised me after my parents . . . anyway, he's very dear to me and I just couldn't bear it if anything happened to him. What did happen?"

"As best we can tell, he got lost on the way down yesterday and just wandered around until he came to our shop. He was one confused icicle by then. I do have one piece of advice for you in the future . . . "

"What's that, Mr. . . . I'm sorry, I didn't get your name. I'm sure I'm being quite rude, but I'm just so excited, so relieved . . . I-I'm shaking."

"Hey, no worries. Happy to help. But lemme suggest this: It's never too late to buy a godfather a cell phone. And program your number into it."

Jen Sweetan agreed with a laugh, then put her husband back on the phone to get directions.

"Can you stay with him until we get there, about a half hour?" Carl asked.

A half hour? "Sir, I'm confused. Are you at your shop?"

"No, we're home, but I was forwarding calls from the shop for some late pickups."

Bart had twigged to the good news, standing with a hand on Gino's shoulder. Gino was smiling as he scratched Ziti the chocolate Lab behind the ears. Directions given, Tony closed up his cell.

"We're sure this one's the real deal, Tony?"

"Certain. The niece described him to a T. And they live near the Wissahickon. By water, like Gino said."

"Look, pardner, I hate to do this, but since you're already too late for Bridget, I can still keep Nicolena happy, just barely, if I leave now . . . "

"Go," Tony said. Might as well finish what he'd begun. "Merry Christmas, pard. You can visit me in the hospital after Coll gets done with me."

Bart shook hands with Gino: "Take care, Gino. Glad we found your niece. But, Gino . . . spring for a map or two before you drive anywhere again, OK?"

"Yes, yes, a good idea. Very good." Gino folded his hands across his pot belly and watched Bart race out the door as he tried to make it to his mother-in-law's in time for calamari.

"Well, Gino, your niece and Carl are on their way. Til then, it's just you and me - and Ziti, of course."

For a man who'd been near collapse an hour or so before, Gino had rallied quite well.

"Thank you, friend, for staying with me. And for finding my Jen. You are good to do that."

"De nada, Gino."

"You are missing something for family because of me?"

"Yeah, well, right about now, my daughter Bridget is singing a solo at the church Christmas pageant. She's 12, Gino, and she sings like an angel. That's kind of a Dad thing to say, I know, but I swear that girl's voice is touched by God. Everyone says so. But, well, I did miss this one; there'll be others."

"At this pageant, they tell the story of Mary and Joseph at the inn?"

"What? Well, yeah, guess so."

Ziti whimpered in bliss as Gino stroked his head. The old man smiled; the baffled geezer of an hour ago was gone: "Sometimes, you know, there's no room at the inn. No power either."

Well, maybe not all the bafflement was gone. That statement made little sense. Neither did the next:

"And the Ziti here, we had a talk. He won't bark and bite at the vacuum anymore."

"That'd be nice," Tony said absently, peering out the window in search of headlights turning into R&B's lot.

In about five minutes, Jen Sweetan burst through the door. She smothered Gino with kisses: "Never scare me like that again!" Carl followed a few seconds later, grinning and holding an elegant Christmas centerpiece.

"Swung by the shop to pick this up, just a way to say thanks," he said to Tony. "Not a lot of people would have gone to all the trouble you did."

Jen helped Gino up. Ziti licked the old man's knobby hand one last time, then Gino extended it to Tony: "Thank you, my son. Now go hear your girl sing."

The clock said 6 o'clock. " 'Fraid not, Gino. It's way past time."

"No," Gino said, shooing Tony. "Go, go quick."

With obedience, but no hope, Tony hopped in his car, Ziti next to him. A few minutes later, Tony pulled up to St. Anthony's Church and confronted a strange scene.

Though houses nearby blazed with holiday lights, the church was dark. People stood in clusters by the doorway to the school gymatorium and out in the parking lot; tiny lights flared and disappeared like fireflies in August. Cigarettes being lit.

Tony hustled toward the gym, saw a flare of orange: Josh Nealy's dad taking a drag.

"Sean, what's up? Not over already, is it?"

"Oh, hey, Tony. Nope. Power outage. Darnedest thing. Pageant was just about to start, in fact your Bridge had just walked to the front of the choir, when - poof. Total blackout. So we stumble out here, and see the rest of the neighborhood still all lit up. It's just St. A's, I guess. Father has some of the older kids rummaging the rectory for candles. I think Colleen's inside."

Tony walked into the gymatorium, bustle bordering on chaos, illumined only by the quavering light of a few candles. He spied Colleen with some friends.

Colleen seemed happier that he was finally there than angry that he was late; had to love that woman. "You," she said, jabbing a finger in his chest. "You are the luckiest man in Christendom. With the power out, you didn't miss a thing. You found the old guy's family? I'm glad."

Just then, the lights went back on.

A few minutes later, a slim young girl, long, raven hair tied in a ponytail with a green velvet bow, strode to the front of the stage: Bridget. His Bridget. Tony felt Colleen's hand clutch his.

Grave but unafraid, Bridget looked out at the assembled adults. She began to sing a cappella, voice sweet and clear, bold and unwavering, a voice to make the seraphim smile. The pastor had chosen this first hymn to set the tone for the story of the innkeeper who took pity on a young woman heavy with child - a hymn, not a Christmas carol, but one of Tony's favorites.

"Whatsoever you do" - Bridget's voice filled the drafty room with its basketball hoops raised to the ceiling like hands in prayer - "to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me . . . "

Tony couldn't look at his daughter as she sang; too nervous. He stared at the pageant program in his hands. On the cover was an image of the church's cherished stained-glass window depicting Christ the King.

Tony closed his eyes, the better to let his daughter's voice flood his senses. The image from the program lingered on his retinas, in his mind's eye.

Slowly the image morphed, no longer a medieval dream of a stern, bearded king on a throne. Instead, Tony saw a short, pot-bellied man, with a white moustache and a battered fedora for a crown, scratching the ears of a chocolate Labrador.

Tony opened his eyes; Bridget sustained the last note of the hymn for a gorgeous moment.

Christmas had come.