By all accounts, Briley Bryant was a beautiful child, a coffee-colored cupid crowned with a halo of dark curls. But it wasn’t just his beauty that impressed, it was his soul. Folks said he had an inner glow, like the Lord himself shone through his big, brown eyes. One smile from that boy could turn a sinner straight.

Such notions infuriated Briley’s father, Dr. Thaddeus Bryant. As a prominent Indianapolis surgeon and a man of science, he dismissed his neighbors’ chatter as superstitious nonsense. When Reverend Robinson asked him if Briley could make an appearance at the nearby Atonement Church of God, for example, Dr. Bryant snorted derisively and turned away, refusing to even dignify the request with a response. But Thaddeus’s wife Anna disagreed; she relished the attention her lovely boy brought to their tiny family and secretly read Briley Bible stories each night.

One August afternoon, Anna was taking pictures of Briley in her front garden when a tall, thin man stopped at the gate to watch the boy kneel among a cascade of scarlet roses. Anna looked up from her Kodak Brownie and noticed the man smiling on the other side of the fence. “Can I help you?”

The stranger did not reply for a moment. Then, as if waking from a dream, he turned and met Anna’s eyes. “I’m looking for work.” He had a foreign accent, but she could understand his words.

Anna shook her head. “I’m afraid I don’t have any work for you.”

“I was a gardener in Italy,” the man explained. “Perhaps I could help with your plants?”

Anna bit her lip. She was having a terrible time getting her peonies to bloom. And she had a slug problem that needed solving. “I wouldn’t be able to pay much.”

“Just some food would be fine.”

Anna sat her box camera on the porch. “I can manage that.”  As she started down the path, Briley grabbed her legs. “Let go, baby,” she cooed, prying his tiny fingers from her skirt.

“I’m Carmine Lupo,” the thin man said.

“And I’m Anna.” She shook his hand. “Anna Bryant.”

Carmine reached out to pat Briley on the head, but the child recoiled. “And who is the little one?”

“That’s Briley,” Anna said. “He’s shy.” She opened the gate. “Come on through and you can get started.”

Over the next month, Carmine stopped by the Bryant house at least twice a week, solving all of Anna’s gardening woes. After the first few days, Briley warmed up to the lanky Italian, following him from flower to flower to “help” him with his work instead of sitting on the porch with his mother. Carmine encouraged the boy to stay close to him, allowing him to play with his wooden rosary beads as a way to keep him busy. He even took to calling him Fiorello—little flower—because he said the child was more beautiful than any of the roses in Anna’s garden.

While Carmine worked, he and Anna talked. He told her that he had immigrated to the U.S. earlier that year after the assassination of Italy’s king. Things in his homeland were becoming more and more unstable, he said, and he was pleased to be in a new land of peace. For her part, Anna was just happy to see Briley bond with a man. Thaddeus complained that the boy was too much around women, but he was always at the hospital with no time for Briley. Carmine seemed like the perfect solution.

All too soon, the last fews days of summer arrived. Both Anna and Carmine knew that his work was coming to an end for the year, but neither acknowledged it. One afternoon as Carmine was clipping a bouquet of roses for Briley, Minnie Jefferson, Anna’s next-door neighbor, appeared at the gate, her face sweaty, her breathing ragged.

“What’s wrong?” Anna called to her.

“President McKinley’s been shot.”

Carmine dropped both the shears and the bouquet.

Anna stood from the steps. “But why?”

Minnie shrugged. “We’re having a prayer meeting at the church. Please come.” She eyed Carmine. “Both of you.”

Anna shook her head. “Thaddeus wouldn’t want me to take Briley.”

“I’ll stay here with Fiorello,” Carmine offered. “You go. Pray.”

Anna grabbed Carmine’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “Thank you.” And then she was off, rushing down the sidewalk with Minnie toward the Atonement Church of God.

Alone with Briley, Carmine wrapped one thin arm around the boy, pulled him close, and played with his short, tight curls. “It’s happening here, too …” he murmured. “Wickedness is everywhere.”

When Anna returned home less than an hour later, the front yard was empty. The shears and the bouquet of flowers were still lying on the grass where Carmine had dropped them. “Hello?” Anna called. “Carmine?”

There was no response.

Anna felt her blood rush upward, her chest getting suddenly hot. “Briley,” she called. “Where are you?”

And then Carmine appeared, stepping through the front door and on to the porch. “Fiorello grew sleepy,” he explained, “so I put him to bed. Don’t worry. I made sure he said his prayers. I hope that is all right.”

Anna had never allowed Carmine to set foot inside the house before, and she didn’t like the idea of it now. But it was a special circumstance. And it was evening, time for Briley to go to bed. “Just this once,” she told Carmine. “Never again.”

Carmine looked away. “I should be going.”

That night at dinner, Thaddeus gave Anna details on the attempted assassination. Reports indicated that the president had been shot by a self-proclaimed anarchist while visiting the World’s Fair in Buffalo, New York. “They allowed a gynecologist to attempt to remove the bullet,” he scoffed. “It’s a shame I wasn’t there to operate. I could have saved him easily. Still, they are hoping for a full recovery. We shall see. A gynecologist ….”

A week and a day later, President McKinley was dead. Carmine was digging up a rose bush and Anna was tickling Briley when Minnie Jefferson yelled the news across the fence. Once again, a prayer meeting was being held.

“I will stay and take care of Fiorello,” Carmine said. “You go.”

Anna grabbed Briley and held him close to her. “No. Let’s all go this time.”

****

Thaddeus was just finishing some paperwork when his secretary, Teresa, poked her head into his office, her eyes wide, her lip quivering. “Dr. Bryant!” she cried. “You must get to the Atonement Church of God! Now.”

“Just calm down,” Thaddeus said, slipping into his coat. “Is there some emergency? Has there been an accident?”

“N-not yet,” Teresa stammered. “But there is a situation.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. But it involves Briley.”

Thaddeus ran the ten blocks to the Atonement Church of God without stopping. When he arrived at the one-story white building, he found a crowd of people on its lawn, staring at the closed doors. Anna was among them.

“Thaddeus!” she called to him. “He’s got him.” Then she began crying, her entire body shaking.

Thaddeus grabbed his wife by the shoulders and tried to still her. “Who has him?”

Anna buried her face in his chest, sobbing.

“Your gardener.” It was Reverend Robinson.

“Gardener?” Thaddeus asked. “What gardener?”

“Carmine,” Reverend Robinson said. “We were having a prayer service for the president when he lost his mind. He started yelling about some ransom and grabbed Briley.” The Reverend’s voice cracked. “He put a pair of pruning shears to Briley’s throat and told us to leave the church.”

“And you did?!” Thaddeus yelled. “What’s wrong with you?”

“What else could we do?” the Reverend asked. “He said he needed to speak to Briley’s father. Alone.”

Thaddeus looked up at the doors of the church, confused. “Why? I don’t even know him.”

Anna relaxed her grip on her husband. “He’s angry that you don’t believe in God.” She took a step back, trying to control her emotions. “Says people like you are ruining everything.”

“That’s crazy.”

Anna released him. “I know.” She wiped her eyes. “We’d better go in.”

Reverend Robinson stepped in front of her. “Carmine said he only wanted the father.”

“I don’t care,” Anna spat. “I’m going with him. Maybe I can talk some sense into Carmine. We’re friends.”

“No,” Thaddeus said. “The Reverend’s right. Who knows what he’ll do if we don’t follow his instructions.”

Anna clutched her husband’s hands. “Be careful.”

“I will.”

“Bring me back my baby.”

Thaddeus banged his fist on the church doors once, twice. There was no answer. As he prepared to strike a third time he heard a muffled “Enter.” He did.

The evening sun shone through the stained glass windows, bathing the sanctuary in stark reds and greens. At the far end of the row of pews, a tall, thin man with dark hair held Briley in his arms in front of the altar, a pair of pruning shears to the child’s neck. The man was crying but the boy seemed calm, almost serene, his legs wrapped around his captor’s waist.

“I’m here,” Thaddeus called, walking slowly down the aisle. He looked at his son’s face, trying to catch his eye, trying to let him know that everything would be alright. Briley looked away. “What do you want from me?”

“It’s all happening again,” Carmine said. “Nowhere is safe.”

“You’re right,” Thaddeus said. “Nowhere is safe. That’s life.”

“But life can be safe. God once paid the ransom sacrifice of his son to buy us salvation. Now a new sacrifice is needed to buy us peace.” He let out a whimper like a dog that had been kicked.

Thaddeus continued toward the altar, his hands open, waist high. “I think you’re confused …”

“No!” Carmine yelled, tensing up. “Satan demands payment.” He pressed the shears against Briley’s neck.

Briley began to wail.

“Let my son go, and we can talk about all of this.”

“I can’t let him go. Don’t you see? You have to make things right.”

“Me?”

“You’re the father. You must pay the ransom to save us from the world.”

Briley was screaming now, his cries hurrying Thaddeus forward. Thaddeus put one foot on the lowest step of the altar.

“No closer,” Carmine warned, his face becoming suddenly hard. “First you must believe. Only then we can offer the sacrifice.”

“There isn’t going to be a sacrifice.”

“Say ‘I believe.'”

“I won’t. I don’t.”

“Just say it and we can put this all behind us. Live in a better world.”

“A better world without Briley?”

Carmine looked at the beautiful child in his arms, studying him. Tears rolled down his cheeks. “I don’t want this either,” he stammered. “But it must be done.”

“Why?”

Carmine looked up. “Say ‘I believe.'”

“No!”

Carmine pressed the shears harder, a bead of blood appearing on Briley’s dark skin. The child’s eyes grew wide with fear and pain.

“I believe!” Thaddeus yelled as loud as he could.

“The ransom is paid,” Carmine whispered. He pressed the shears downward, their metal flashing in the red light.

****

Outside, Anna heard her husband yell, “I believe,” and then Briley screaming. Sounds of a scuffle echoed from the church interior until all went suddenly quiet. Anna sank to her knees, afraid that Carmine had killed her child—and possibly her husband. As her last bit of hope deserted her, Thaddeus kicked the doors of the church open, Briley shaking but alive and well in his arms. She ran to them.

Thaddeus could never explain to Anna what, exactly, had happened inside the Atonement Church of God. He said he remembered leaping over the last few steps, wrestling the shears from Carmine, and seeing Briley tumble, unharmed, to the floor. He could not recall, however, just how Carmine had ended up dead, sprawled across the altar with the shears buried in his chest.

The neighbors all agreed that the reported series of events was, at best, improbable and, more likely, impossible. Having heard Dr. Bryant’s profession of belief even through the church doors, the Reverend Robinson and his congregation took to calling it a “conversion miracle.” Briley was spared, they said, because his father had finally turned to God.

For his part, Thaddeus Bryant went to his grave denying that anything supernatural had occurred in the church that day. His objections were ignored by history, of course; the Bryants’ neighborhood eventually became known as Ransom Place. By the time the name took hold, however, the Bryants had already fled the neighborhood and their bad memories, settling in a suburb east of the city called Little Flower.

Anna never did tell Thaddeus about Carmine’s nickname for Briley.

####

Corey Michael Dalton is a freelance writer, a frequent contributor to Punchnel’s, an advisory board member of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, the editor of the Mythic Indy anthology of short stories, and an aspiring novelist. He has an M.F.A. in creative writing from Butler University, which enables him to buy double cheeseburgers at McDonald’s for the low, low price of just one dollar. Visit him on the web at cmdalton.com.