WHO SWIPED BOBBY BUCCO BEAR?

“Pap-pap, he’s gone! Somebody swiped Bobby Bucco Bear.” I looked at Anna, who was pointing toward the park bench we had just vacated. Her eyes were wide, mouth open as if preparing to scream. “I can’t believe it! Someone took him. We have to find Bobby Bucco!” I grabbed her hand instinctively, gently pulling her closer to me. The ice skaters in the rink stared at the screaming girl being held by the older man.

The Bethel Park High School choir was singing the last verse of “Up on the Rooftop.” Behind them, the brightly lit tree illuminated the somber gray sky of late December.  Fat snowflakes frolicked in midair, offering the hope of a white Christmas. The cool temperature had given Anna’s cheeks a reddish tint that matched the curling red hair escaping from her hat. She made for an adorable picture marred only by the tears forming at the corner of her brown eyes.

Her lower lip quivered. “I’m sorry, Pap-pap. I forgot to bring him when we walked to the skating rink.”

I bent down to look in her misty eyes. “No need to worry. He couldn’t have gone far.” I surveyed the sparse crowd in Market Square. It was mid-morning of Christmas Eve; most downtown workers had forsaken their jobs in favor of an early start to the holiday. My shopping complete, my seven-year-old granddaughter and I had trekked to the Square to view the giant tree and the elaborate street decorations. Her mother had alerted me that Anna had some doubts about Santa Claus. I hoped the scenery would rekindle her spirit.

She had built the brown fuzzy bear for me last Father’s Day. He was dressed in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform, the hometown team, accessorized with a cap, glove, and bat. We had agreed that she should care for it on a daily basis. She accepted the chore with enthusiasm.

Anna, breaking her hand from my grip, ran for the bench. She picked up a seven-inch wooden cylinder with the black and gold paw print. “I found his bat,” she squealed. “Mommy says you’re a detective. You find things for people. Can you find Bobby Bucco?” Her jaw tightened and her eyes squinted, letting me know she was determined.

My name is Glenn Beckert, private investigator and owner of Blue Water Security. In the past year, I have been involved in two murder cases, but in the eight years since I opened the firm, I had never tracked a missing bear, real or stuffed. Maybe it was just what I needed. The two cases had hardened me. Like Anna, I found myself struggling to enjoy the season.

“Let’s see what we can find, but you have to hold my hand.” She nodded so rapidly, the pom-pom on her hat bobbled. She stuffed the miniature bat in her coat pocket.

The choir had moved on to “Silent Night.” The snow was coming down at a more determined pace, although none had accumulated on the ground. We circled around the skating rink, passing by storefronts. I paused to search into each alleyway, seeing nothing. There was no sign of the brown bear with the white jersey, the front emblazoned with PIRATES across the chest.

Anna had played softball last summer and was infatuated with the game, as her mother and grandfather were. She had heard the stories of our playing days and the generations before her. Anna was now old enough to understand family. She realized that her grandma and I were no longer together. The bear had become her piece of the family tree.

Over my shoulder, I heard the shout, “Hey Beck.”

I turned to face Bernie Allen, a former employee, now a Pittsburgh cop. He approached me. “Merry Christmas. Who’s this cutie with you?”

I introduced Anna.

He was on duty, patrolling the Square. Bernie wore a PPD bomber jacket against the December chill. “So, Anna, are you ready for Santa to come?”

She rolled her eyes as only a seven-year-old can. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Well, I hope he brings what you asked for.” Turning to me, he said, “What’s going on?”

“We’re having a little problem. Have you noticed anyone carrying around a stuffed bear? Anna lost hers.” I described the bear to Bernie.

“No, Sorry. Can’t say that I have. I’ll keep an eye out though.”

“Thanks, Bernie. Have a Merry Christmas.”

We continued walking as lunchtime approached. Hoping to distract Anna’s focus from the bear, I asked, “How about we get something to eat?”

“Yeah, whatever.” She looked up at me with a deep frown, “We’re not going to find Bobby Bucco, are we?” She hung her head and for a second, I thought she might cry.

I bent down and hugged her. “I’m sorry. We may not.” I held her hand as we walked in silence for two blocks.

Anna pulled at my hand and shrieked, “There he is!” She was pointing into the alley between the fast food restaurant and an office building. Nestled behind a dumpster was that familiar black baseball cap with the golden “P” embroidered on the front, round fuzzy ears poking from the sides. Keeping a firm grasp of Anna’s hand, I cautiously walked toward the dumpster.

Peering behind the trash container, I saw a young boy sleeping with his head resting on the bear for a pillow. He had to be about the same age as Anna. The boy wore a heavily stained dingy jacket, jeans, an oversized knit cap with long blond hair escaping from the edges, and no gloves. I wasn’t certain if the stench originated from the garbage bin or his clothing. I knelt down and gave his shoulder a shake. He woke with a start.

His eyes widened quickly and he started to rise, clinging tightly to the bear. I grabbed him by the arm. He calmly said, “Let go of me or I’ll scream.” He’d been through this before.

Anna chimed in, “You stole Bobby Bucco. He’s mine. Give him back.”

The boy peered around me, noticing Anna for the first time. “You’re not the cops. Who are you?”

“My name is Glenn Beckert. What’s yours?”

“Chris.” He stared intently at me. “Are you going to take me to the cops?”

“Are you in some kind of trouble, Chris?”

“Well, no. My dad always told me don’t trust the cops.”

“Where’s your dad now?”

“He’s gone. The police took him.”

“What about your mom?”

“She died a long time ago from cancer.” He looked away. “Daddy was never happy after that.”

Still kneeling in the filthy alley, my body went limp from the heartache. This boy was homeless, no family to wait on Santa’s arrival with him. His blue eyes were lifeless, no sparkle of Christmas delight. I had to get Chris someplace warm and safe. I loosened my grip on him. “Are you hungry?”

“It’s okay. I wait here until lunch is over and they bring the leftovers out.” Leftovers sounded more appetizing than garbage.

Anna was standing with her fists on her hips, her jaws clamped, staring at Chris. “Are you going to give me back Bobby Bucco Bear?”

I put my hand on her shoulder. “Why don’t we let Chris hold him for a while? Let’s go inside.” They held my hands as we walked around the corner. I ordered kid’s meals and found a table. Chris devoured his food. Anna took the time to dunk her nuggets in the sauce, never taking her eyes off the stuffed animal clutched tightly in Chris’s arm.

After Chris polished off a second order, I endeavored to find out about him. “What’s your last name?”

“Nichols,” he said.

The name rang a bell, but I couldn’t come up with a reason. “Tell me about your dad. Where do you live?”

“We live in Millvale. Dad took me to meet the Pirates players at the baseball show. I got an autographed ball from Andrew McCutchen! We love baseball, especially the Bucs.”

Major League teams have a weekend Fan-Fest every December to keep fans interested during the offseason. The players sign autographs and of course they sell team merchandise and tickets for the upcoming season for Christmas gift giving.

I couldn’t help myself. “A McCutchen autograph. Do you still have the ball?”

He pulled a pristine white ball from his inside jacket pocket. Handing it to me, he said, “Here, take a look.”

Gently I reached for it, careful to touch only the slightly raised red-stitched seams. I spun the sphere to view the scribbled black signature. A shiver ran the length of my spine. The weariness of age was replaced by a childlike astonishment. I showed Anna the signature. Her eyes widened in amazement. Turning to Chris, she said, “Wow! He really signed it?”

“Yeah, and Cutch told me to keep practicing. I could be a player someday.”

I had to get back to Chris’s problem, so I returned the ball. “What happened to your dad?”

“After the show, we got back to the car, he took his meds and fell asleep. He had a sick heart ever since Mom died. I couldn’t wake him up. I went to get help, but no one listened to me. When I went back to the car, there were lots of people there, lots of cops.”

“Why did your dad not like police?”

“Dad didn’t have a job. He was on disability and was afraid they would take me away if he got too sick. I was scared, so I ran. I’ve been hiding ever since. I don’t want to go to jail.”

The story of Kevin Nichols and his missing son had dominated the local news channels the past two weeks. The father was found in the parking lot of the convention center passed out from an overdose of his heart medication. The paramedics had been able to get him to the hospital in time. Kevin Nichols had survived.

The police had been desperately searching for Chris ever since. His grandparents were pleading for the safe return of their grandchild on every public outlet possible. I recalled that his father had been released and was staying with Chris’ grandparents. I decided to say nothing to Chris, in case I was wrong about his father.

“What about the rest of your family?”

“My grandparents live out of town, on Mars I think. I don’t know how to get there.” He was referring to the town of Mars, PA, a forty-five- minute drive north of the city. “I love Christmas Day at Grandma’s. She makes the best cookies.”

Anna, after listening to Chris’s story, broke her silence. “Pap-pap, we need to take Chris to his grandparents.” Turning to him, she said, “My grandpa is a detective. He can find your grandparents.”

The right thing to do was call the Pittsburgh PD and let them handle it. Given Chris’ fear of the police, that was going to be a problem. I contemplated how to get him to his family. If Children’s Services got hold of Chris, the bureaucratic mess wouldn’t untangle until well after Christmas Day. The media swarm would guarantee no privacy for Chris and his family. I had to avoid the police for the moment. There would be plenty of time for the reporters later.

“Okay, guys. Here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to take you to my office and we’ll do a search for Chris’s grandparents. Would that be alright, Chris?”

He stared down at the table for a few moments. “Can you do that? Find them for me?”

“We can sure try.”

Fifteen minutes later, we arrived at the nearly vacant offices of Blue Water Security. Chris, still clinging to Bobby Bucco Bear, stared at the various posters and plaques on the office walls commemorating the numerous Pittsburgh sports championships.

Chris exclaimed, “Wow, are you a baseball fan too, Mr. Beckert?”

“Absolutely. Did your Dad take you to many games?”

“Yea, we went a couple of times. I love baseball, especially the Bucs.” He placed the bear on the couch and sat beside it, Anna staring intently at him.

I was struck by the contrast in clothing of the two. Anna removed her pristine fur-collared coat and placed it on the chair with her hat and gloves. Chris left his stained and pungent jacket on. He had learned quickly to keep his meager belongings close.

I grabbed a couple of juice boxes from the mini-fridge for them. The laptop on my desk was already open. I started a search to locate the grandparents’ name.

Anna joined Chris on the couch. “If you have no home, what do you do all day?”

Chris looked at the bear. “There are no other kids around and I’m afraid of the grown-ups. I mostly hide in alleys during the day until I get hungry. One time, an old lady tried to talk me into coming with her. When I said no, she tried to grab me. I ran.”

“Maybe she was trying to help you.”

“My mom and dad told me to never go anywhere with strangers.”

Anna’s forehead crinkled, realizing the dilemma Chris faced in seeking help.  I interjected, “Why did you come with us?”

Chris twisted his head to the side. “I don’t know for sure. I figure that I had to trust someone. You guys seemed okay.”

Anna asked, “Do you go to school?”

“I don’t know where my school is. I miss my friends and Ms. Rafferty, my teacher. She helps me read fun books. I like the Boxcar Children.

“Really! I like Nancy Drew. Was your mom nice?”

Chris stared into space. “I think so. I don’t remember much except for the pictures in our house. She was always sleepy. Dad said it was the medicine.”

Anna frowned and looked at the floor. “I’m sorry. Did your dad play baseball with you?”

“He did a lot, except he couldn’t play long, said he had to rest his heart. Do you like baseball?”

Anna almost leaped off the couch. “I love it. My mom and Pap-pap play with me too.”

“Can your grandpa find my grandparents?”

“You bet he can, right, Pap-pap?”

I looked away from the laptop screen. “We’re going to do our best. Chris, are your grandparents your mom or dad’s parents?”

“They are my mommy’s parents.”

That’s why I wasn’t finding anything under the name of Nichols. “Do you know their last name?”

“No. They are just Grandpa and Grandma.”

Turning to the computer, I searched the newspaper accounts for the stories about the search for Chris. According the accounts, Kevin Nichols was alive. I found the grandparents’ names, Albert and Helen Powlaski, in addition to public service numbers to report information regarding the missing boy. If I called that number, Chris would be thrown into a circus. I had a better idea.

I had met Irene Schade, a tech wiz, in college and we became friends. Last spring, we became reacquainted working a murder case and had developed a romantic relationship.

She answered the phone immediately. “Hey Beck. I’m looking forward to seeing you later. It’ll be our first Christmas together. How’s your day going?”

I imparted the details of finding Chris. “I want to get him to his grandparents for Christmas so they can enjoy the day before the police are involved. I believe the father is alive and staying with them. Can you help me, honey?”

“Sweet talk will get you anything you want. What about your police buddies? They’re not going to be happy if you don’t turn the boy in.”

“I’m certain they’ll be upset, especially Lieutenant Paglironi. I’m more concerned about Chris. I’ll make sure the police know you had nothing to do with it.”

“What do you need, Beck?”

“See if you can find an address or phone number for the Powlaskis. They probably live near Mars. I searched public listings but could not find anything.”

“Well it’s not as easy you think, but I can find something. I’ll send you a text. Promise me this won’t interfere with our plans later.”

“No way, dear. I’m looking forward to seeing you.”

I turned my attention to the kids’ conversation. Anna asked, “Where do you go when it rains or snows?”

Chris seemed to welcome talking to someone. He had been avoiding people for two weeks. “I can crawl underneath a garbage dumpster. Nobody bothers me there. When it gets cold, I go to a garage that goes down. It’s warmer there, I miss my bed though. My dad always read me stories at bedtime, usually about baseball.”

“Weren’t you lonely?”

He turned his head, staring out the window. “Yeah. I was really lonely and scared. I cried a lot. Dad said it was okay for boys to cry. He cried a lot when Mommy left.”

Chris’s father was correct: It was alright to cry. Tears were dripping from the corner of my eyes. My cell phone buzzed with the phone number from Irene.

Ten minutes later, I was on the road to Mars with Anna and Chris in the backseat. The two chattered about movies, school, and video games, Chris still clinging to Bobby Bucco Bear. His grandparents knew we were on the way. Chris’s father wanted to surprise him, so I remained quiet. They shared my desire to keep the matter from the public until after the holiday. I had called Anna’s parents, telling them we would be delayed, but in plenty of time for dinner.

The snow was falling heavier as we left the city. A white powder covered the grassy areas, but the roads were wet. The Powlaskis’ home was an older, but well-kept, Cape Cod. Pine trees lined the side yard to the right. I had barely parked in the drive when the couple came rushing out the front door to greet their grandson. With the aid of a cane, Kevin Nichols hobbled behind them.

It was several minutes before the group disentangled. Mr. Nichols, with tears still streaming down his cheeks, turned to me. “How can I ever thank you, Mr. Beckert?”

“It’s Beck. There are no thanks necessary. I’m just glad he’s with his family for Christmas.”

He choked back a sob. “You know, somehow we just knew he would be home in time for Christmas. We have presents under the tree for him. Would you and Anna like to come in for some punch and cookies?”

“Thanks, but no, although I hear the cookies are great. Anna’s parents are expecting her.” Despite the brisk air, I was feeling only warmth. “It looks like Santa brought your wish.” We agreed to meet after things settled down.

Chris ran back to my car and retrieved the stuffed bear. He took it to Anna, holding it out. “Here is your bear. Thanks for letting me use him. Bobby Bucco Bear felt like Dad was with me.”

Anna looked at me with a questioning expression. I nodded. She reached into her coat pocket and pulled out the miniature bat. She smiled and held out the bat. “No, you keep him. He kept you safe like your Daddy. Merry Christmas!” She had a big smile.

“Really! Gee thanks.” He pulled the autographed ball from his jacket and offered it to Anna. “I know you and your grandpa like Cutch. Merry Christmas to you.” They hugged warmly.

On the drive to her house, the frown had returned to Anna’s face. Twirling the ball in her hands, she asked, “Pap-pap, is there a Santa Claus?”

“Yes Anna. There is a Santa Claus. Like the baby whose birthday we celebrate tonight, Santa loves everybody. That means Santa’s heart is really, really, really big. It’s so big, he has to share it with other people.”

She turned abruptly, eyes wide in amazement. “Is that why there are Santa’s helpers?”

“Sure. Today you became Santa’s helper.”

I glanced at her in the passenger seat. Her smile was wide and her eyes sparkled with joy. I glimpsed in the rear-view mirror and to my surprise, I had the same smile.