Signing for Cash-A Petty Thief Takes a Cue From the Nelson Mandela Funeral and Ends Up In the FBI Witness Protection Program

This is one of a series of short stories written in 2014 that feature a story line based on current events. Maybe someday I'll make it into a book.

MY goodness I am just so impressed by that sign language interpreter at the recent Nelson Mandela funeral even though the world laughed at the guy.

Sure he was a fake but bow down in homage to this guy who managed to fool….who? THE ENTIRE WORLD!!

Here I am in hiding until the trial and I want so bad to find the guy, tell him how good he was, elaborate how I used his technique to steal funds from my church's collection basket.

But I get ahead of myself.

"I'm going to do sign language from the pulpit is all, Paul. Isn't it about time for the Catholic church to acknowledge their deaf parishioners?"

Of course Paul didn't buy my goodness of heart as he's known me all my life and is very aware of my tendency for fraud.

"Let me get this straight," Paul queried my most wonderful plan. "You are going to join all the priests who are in attendance to hear the semi-annual confessions and do what? Sign language? You don't think anybody's going to figure this out?"

Silly Paul. He's always been a slacker come the fine art of thievery while it's always been I, Bradley Milton, who figured out how to get cash funds when needed. Oh no, Paul never actually joined me in any of thievery exploits but he sure joined me in the fun we had later with the money I managed to obtain.

Stealing tips left on tables, for example. My theory is that all cash money has a period of time when it is stored or placed somewhere, however temporarily, when its subject to being "found". Thus money left by a customer by a used dinner plate is, technically, cash sitting around unclaimed for the period of time until the server picks it up.

There are times, like with Paul's father, when people store loose cash in their shirt pockets and I've grown quite proficient at slipping my fingers into that pocket and digging out loose currency. Paul got a bit upset knowing I was taking money out of his own father's pocket but he sure went with to the many movies we were able to attend for my skills.

So it was from the sign language interpreter that I met another fine rascal like myself and he gave me the idea on how to successfully abscond with money from the church's collection basket.

"I don't know Brad," wimpy Paul complained. Technically I was a member of St. Peter's Catholic church as my mother and father attended mass on Easter and Christmas. They'd drag me along but prayer was never on my mind. I eyed that collection basket filled with loose dollars and have been consumed with how to steal some of it to fill my own coffers.

"All you have to do is pretend to be deaf. We'll put cotton balls in your ears and you will have a piece of paper explaining that you are recovering from an operation on your Eustachian tubes and temporarily are unable to hear."

Paul was worried his parents would find out, jeez louise I told him, his parents don't even go to mass the two times a year that mine go though they send Paul and his brother there every Sunday.

Paul was known at St. Peter's church for his regular attendance, while I was not known for my two masses a year. It was a perfect plan.

"Two times a year St. Peter's brings in a bunch of priests from nearby parishes to hear confessions," I told Paul. "All the parishes do that as a way of allowing parishioners from having to confess to their own priests that they might know too well to be comfortable telling them about their lustful thoughts. Or whatever."

"Yeah. So what?"

"All these years," I continued to explain to Paul, even though "all" these years was only twenty-one as that was our ages at the time, "I've been scheming how to get some of that cash money out of the collection box. Thanks to the sign language interpreter at the Nelson Mandela funeral, I now know exactly how to do it."

How was I supposed to know that I would end up in a witness protection program, far away from my family and Paul, for that matter, for how badly my plan turned out?

I'm not a confirmed thief, in the truest sense of the word. I've always managed to snatch cash from the many places one can find it. Couch seat cushions are a treasure trove and I never visit anyone's house without searching through their upholstered furniture. Tips left on tables and bills in the collection box, like I said, I consider fair game for me to swipe.

Sure Paul tells me Jesus doesn't think the money is in any sort of "temporary resting spot" , that what I do is stealing and nothing less. I figured if Jesus gave me the brains to do it then it's HIS fault but Paul didn't buy it. Paul always enjoyed the joy rides we took in my jalopy gassed up with some waitresses' tip money. Paul didn't know that I often doubled my tip to that same waitress to make it up because it's never totally about the money but the joy of the game. And a time or two I've slipped some dollars back INTO Paul's Dad's pocket and he doesn't know that either.

Just as soon as I was old enough I got a part time job. I was a fairly good student in high school and will be attending the local junior college next year. I was on the high school basketball team and served in the Student Government Association. I always figured my "crimes" were small, as much a challenge as a method to obtain petty cash funds. My form of thievery would never make me rich.

While I knew that if I got caught I'd likely get a slap on the wrist from the juvenile authorities, at which time I figured I'd probably quit my little bit of fun, it never occurred to me that I'd end up in a witness protection program due to a St. Peter's parishioner confessing his sins to me. Sins that included a recent bank robbery and here I was not even a priest and forced to reveal the man's confession like a real priest would not have to do.

It gets complicated.

It was a weeknight in Advent when Paul informed me that what he called the "confession mass" would be held. I immediately sprang into action. It took a bit for me to get in the back of the church and get the priestly vestments I'd have to wear as my disguise was as a priest who also served as a sign language interpreter. Paul's job was to be the recipient of the sign language interpretation.

"I'll go up to the sacristy and explain who I am. It doesn't matter that the priests gathered to hear confessions won't know who I am. I heard that they bring in priests as far away as Wilmington. I will do the sign language of the prayers and homilies, even the songs, for you. I will also, of course, be "hearing" your confession. But by that time you and I will be out of there with big bucks in our pockets."

I slapped Paul on the back, assuring him all would be fine, just follow my lead.

I had no idea they did not take up a collection for this so-called confession mass. In fact, it wasn't even a mass. The people came in, St Peter's pastor led a few prayers, the organist played a song, the congregation sang a few hymns. All of the guest priests brought in to hear confessions were introduced to the congregation from the sacristy then were sent out into St. Peter's rather large church to take positions in the choir loft, in the nave, even in individual pews with areas blocked off to maintain some privacy.

I did manage to convince all the priests in attendance that I was a sign-language interpreter, I pointed to Paul, who was wearing big cotton balls in his ears. I explained that I would be interpreting the prayers and songs for him and would take his confession in sign language.

I did a great job with the sign language! I did way better than the Mandela guy! I was so good I convinced myself that I was "speaking" in my own invented sign language. Paul watched me dutifully from the pew and I noticed many other parishioners watching me. During the song I added a bit of a conductor to my sign language "interpretation" of the words. "Hallelujah" was interpreted in sign language as a wide wave of the arms up toward heaven. It seemed to me like the word "hallelujah" would "look" like in sign language.

The plan was that I would run to the back of the church toward the collection baskets once the priests were sent out to the church to assume their confessional spots. Had there been a collection taken, and I was really irked, don't Catholics take up collections for everything? Why not a confession mass?

I did run to the back of the church only an usher was in there watching over things. "Not here, Father," he said, grabbing my elbow and leading me over to a front row pew. "Sit here and we'll get some parishioners lined up. Must be a lot of sinners out there cause we're full up this year."

Of course I was then in total panic mode. This turn of events was not part of the plan at all! I looked around to find Paul to grab him at least so I could "hear" his confession. I'd be in deep do-do if a parishioner should come up and sat next to me to give a confession.

Then a parishioner came up and sat next to me to give a confession.

I looked around desperately for Paul because no way could I hear this guy's confession. I wasn't sure what law I'd be breaking to hear a confession while disguised as a priest but it had to be illegal somewhere.

"I saw you doing the sign language up there on the sacristy and hoped I'd get a chance to confess to you. You're young like me and talented like me. Glad I had the opportunity."

A tall, thin young man sat down next to me in the pew while saying those words as I prayed for the first time in my life what to do. I pondered if I should summon the usher right then and announce my priestly fraud before hearing the guy's confession. I figured maybe the prosecutor would give me a break if I did that. There was no need for me to reveal my former plan of stealing from the collection basket, damn it to hell if neither me nor Paul bothered to find out if they took collection at confession masses.

Before I could take any action at all the young man asked me to bless him Father for he has sinned. I did the only thing I could do. I looked at him very serious and, in sign language, blessed him my child and asked what troubled him.

"I know you priests aren't supposed to reveal what's said to you in confession but I figured, wow, to get a deaf priest I'm for sure he'll not "tell" anyone what I might reveal in the confessional."

Oh my goodness, the guy thought that I was deaf, I was getting weary. All these things I hadn't planned for were problems.

The fellow let out a reedy laugh, "Though I guess you could write it down or something. In fact, here's a pen and paper, you're going to have to write down my penance because I don't read sign language. But I can tell you're an expert at it."

I took his pad and paper and heard his confession, praying that he would not figure out that the very fact that I can HEAR his confession makes….NOT deaf. He wasn't the brightest bulb in the lamp one could plainly see. Evidently he had something very serious on his mind and wasn't thinking things through.

It would turn out that the young man confessing his sins to me had committed a bank robbery the prior week. To my surprise it was a bank robbery that took place just a few blocks from my house. I remember how shocked my family was as we'd heard all the police sirens and wondered what would cause such a stir in our normally semi-rural part of town.

"The thing is, Father, I didn't want to rob that bank," the young man, named, ironically, Peter, told me. I signaled shock by raising my eyebrows high upon my forehead, man I was getting good. Peter leaned into me closer, eyeing the nearby usher in suspicion. "It was a couple of my friends who threatened to hurt my family if I didn't man the getaway car. I swear Father, that's all I did, was wait in the car while they went in and got the money."

By now I'm getting fascinated. I would never rob a bank in my quest for money, but I did have a certain amount of admiration for bank robbers. I dreamt of having a pile of bills handed over to me, all crisp and new and neatly banded.

"I can't risk them catching me," Peter said, a sheen of sweat starting to glisten on his head. I signaled by shaking my head No….of course he couldn't risk that. "But my Dad just died and I don't want to risk going to hell where I know he is so I want to confess, do my penance. I didn't even get any money out of it. The dudes ran off and left me with nothing. What am I going to do, report them to the police?"

Again, I shook my head No, a look of sympathy on my face.

I was writing down Peter's penance on the provided paper….I figured at least 50 Hail Mary's….20 Our Father's….for robbing a bank?...when things got real confusing. The "usher" who'd been eyeing us suddenly came over and grabbed Peter by his arm pits and dragged him out of the pew. Of course I was outraged. This man had come to this House of God to give his heartfelt confession and he was being treated so rudely! And I was about to point this out to the nasty usher when another usher came and grabbed me in the same disrespectful manner.

"You got a lot of 'splainin' to do Padre," the ersatz usher said sarcastically into my ear as he dragged me down the aisle. He spoke as if I were Lucy and he were Desi, just too cool this dude was. As I am being pulled against my will down the aisle of the nave as parishioners watched with astonished eyes, who should I see but Peter.

"Where the hell you been?" I shouted, alerting everyone in the surround that I could speak quite well and appeared to be able speak quite capably.

"There on to you, Brad. Just tell them the truth. I already explained everything."

So I am, for at least six more months, in hiding, my identity changed. Paul was right. They were on to me right from the start. Seems my sign language routine fooled no one. The investigators, who I thought were ushers, knew something was odd about me so they let me play out my shtick. They were really tailing the alleged transport man of the bank robbery only the bank robbery was way more serious than your routine bank robbery. Though a routine bank robbery still intrigued me, turned out those bank robbers forced the teller to open up a safety deposit bank, one they had a key for but obviously the box was not theirs.

At some point even my eyes began to glaze with the depths of criminal activities involved in this investigation to include bribery and murder.

To add insult to injury, my "confessee" Peter knew I was a fake priest and a fake sign language signer as well. He was spooked about how close the investigation was getting to him and, of course, Peter was involved in way more than just driving the getaway car. He was feeling me out, seeing what I knew, who I represented.

I've since given up my obsession with obtaining cash money, coin or bills, in many surreptitious ways though I still search a couch or two. A psychologist I had to visit because of my "crime" of faking being a priest, something I had no idea was a crime but they had some code name for it, suggested that I was abused by my father and sought cash to assuage the emptiness.

Don't they all say that?

I am thinking of becoming a priest.

In a few months I can go back to my family. I am in custody for my protection, Peter the confessor is in jail, another perpetrator is in custody awaiting trial.

If I had known Peter was much more than the getaway driver that he claimed I'd have given him way more penance.

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