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  The team let out a subdued cheer that was silenced by Vizzini’s scowl. “We’re not done yet. You’re all going to call your parents to come get you. And I’m going to have a little chat with them while we’re together. Got it?” He turned to Mrs. Boucle and said, “You people go on with your party. We apologize for the interruption.”

  Tiffany looked at Logan and mouthed the words I’m sorry.

  Encouraged, Logan beamed back at her. Obviously, his performance as someone who didn’t hate Darren was having an impact.

  Vizzini let out a long breath. “I think that covers everything—”

  The words had not fully cleared his lips when a younger officer burst into the hall. “Sarge—call for backup! It’s a killer—a monster—!”

  With a roaring bark, Luthor bound past the terrified officer, plowed headlong through a throng of shocked partygoers, toppled a line of music stands, and settled himself at Crenshaw’s feet.

  “You see?” announced Savannah righteously. “Luthor is an excellent judge of character. He’d only give his loyalty to an innocent man.”

  The fallout was brutal.

  Once the parents gathered at the American Legion Hall, Detective Sergeant Vizzini read them the Cedarville Police Department version of the riot act. He finished with, “I don’t have kids myself, so I don’t pretend to be an expert and tell you folks how to raise yours. But if you’ve been waiting for the right time to show your children that actions have consequences, that opportunity is getting away from you. Whatever sermon or speech or punishment you’ve been holding back, use it now. I don’t know if these kids are guilty or innocent, or to what degree. Either way, they’re mixing themselves up in something that’s way over their heads. I don’t care if you have to tie them to their chairs. Keep them out of it!”

  The parents took his advice to heart. Griffin, Pitch, Melissa, Savannah, and Logan were grounded until the end of vacation. Only Ben avoided this fate, because at this point, his parents were barely speaking to each other. Since all talk about his punishment had to pass through Ben, he was able to finagle the odds in his favor. He complained to his father that the family had finally started to celebrate Hanukkah big time, and now this would spoil it. Then he turned around and gave his mother the same story about Christmas. In the end, he got his sentence reduced from grounding to garbage takeout and clearing the table until April.

  “And a fat lot of good it’s going to do me,” he muttered to Griffin over Skype. “Everybody I know is grounded, so I might as well be grounded, too. I haven’t got anybody to hang out with except Ferret Face—and just try to have a conversation with him.”

  Pitch was informed that she would not be welcome on the family’s next climbing trip. While the other Bensons tackled Lucifer’s Claw in Alaska, she would spend the week on Grandma’s farm in Kansas—the most horizontal place in the world. For Pitch, there could be no greater torture.

  “Thanks a lot, Griffin!” she groused.

  The Kellermans told Logan that even if the North Shore Players offered him a spot in their company, he would not be allowed to accept it. “And just when my pro-Vader strategy is finally making progress with Tiffany,” he grumbled.

  But Melissa’s penalty turned out to be the harshest of all. In addition to her grounding, Mr. and Mrs. Dukakis removed every piece of technology—every computer, laptop, tablet, and phone—from her room. If it hadn’t been for the new smartwatch she’d been building, she would have been completely cut off.

  “I can’t believe I’m being punished,” the normally quiet girl raved over her homemade video-chat software, which was still in beta and provided a fuzzy picture and distorted sound. “I’ve hardly ever been punished in my entire life!”

  Normally, her parents were so thrilled that their shy daughter had friends that they forgave her the ups and downs of Griffin’s notorious plans. Apparently, that free ride had ended today. The Dukakises were furious.

  “It’s even worse for me,” Savannah insisted on the six-way Skype call.

  “How do you figure that?” growled Pitch. “You’re just grounded, no bells and whistles. You’re not missing out on two amazing trips in a row.”

  “When I’m grounded, my animals are grounded,” Savannah explained. “Luthor needs room to roam; Cleopatra expresses her basic personality by exploring; even Lorenzo needs a little fresh air every now and then. Now they’re all cooped up and it’s my fault. How can I live with the guilt? It’s the worst!”

  “The worst is trying to climb in Kansas,” Pitch amended in a colorless tone. “Even my grandma’s house is a ranch with a flat roof. The only climbable thing was the windmill, but that came down in the last tornado.”

  “So you’ll be bored for a week,” snapped Logan. “My career is in ruins.”

  “I never knew my room would be so empty without technology,” Melissa mourned. “They even took my autographed picture of Bill Gates.”

  “At least none of you guys have to be your family’s personal message center,” Ben put in bitterly. “‘Ben, tell your father dinner’s on the table.’ ‘Ben, tell your mother, “Broccoli again?”’ ‘Ben, tell your father no substitutions.’ This from two people standing eight feet away from each other. It’s murder.”

  Pitch snorted. “Big talk from Mr. I’m-Not-Grounded.”

  “I might as well be,” Ben retorted. “I’m alone like a hermit, and my house can be seen from the International Space Station.”

  “Guys, this is going nowhere,” Griffin interrupted. “I’m grounded, too, and longer than any of you. You don’t have to tell me how much it stinks. But none of this will help get the plan back on track.”

  Although the team members weren’t actually together, their reactions were identical—stony silence.

  Uncharacteristically, it was quiet Melissa who spoke first. “Maybe it’s my buggy software, but it sounded like you just said something about getting the plan back on track.”

  “Of course I did,” Griffin confirmed. “Operation Starchaser isn’t dead. Phase Two doubled down on Crenshaw, and that turned out to be a mistake. But that still leaves five suspects who may have taken the Star—Colchester’s man Priddle, Miss Grier the neighbor, O’Bannon the electrician, Yvette Boucle the art professor, and Vader—you can never rule him out when something sleazy happens for money.”

  A babble of angry protest very nearly crashed the Skype connection.

  Pitch was the loudest. “You’re lucky we’re all grounded, or we’d be on our way over to your place to kill you! There is no plan anymore, Griffin. You called Code Z, and now you’re trying to uncall it! No way!”

  “But how are we going to find out who stole the Star?” Griffin challenged.

  “Simple,” said Ben. “One day, maybe years from now, we’ll open the newspaper and it’ll say they caught the guy who did it. And then we’ll know.”

  “That’s not good enough!” Griffin was almost yelling. “We’re under suspicion, and not just by the police. I know you get the dirty looks around town, same as me. Everyone thinks it’s our fault that Santa’s Workshop got shut down and now the Colchesters want to leave Cedarville. We’re the Grinch, you guys! We stole Christmas and Hanukkah and the whole holiday season, and we’re never going to be forgiven if we don’t prove it. Not to mention that if Vizzini manages to pin it on us, we’ll all end up in juvie.”

  “Vizzini can’t pin it on us,” Pitch countered. “We didn’t do it, remember? So he’ll never be able to find evidence that proves we did. As for people being mad at us, so what? They’ll get over it. You know who won’t get over it? Our parents, if we end up in any more trouble.”

  Savannah spoke up. “You know, last night at the Legion Hall, what if a nervous police officer had tried to hurt Luthor? Or worse, what if Luthor, in defending himself, had bitten someone. He could have been declared”—her voice cracked—“vicious! I don’t want any part of this anymore.”

  “I’m sorry, Griffin,” came Melissa’s tiny voice. “I’m out, too.
This whole punishment thing … I don’t think I’m cut out for it. It’s worse than the Blue Screen of Death.”

  “Same here,” added Logan. “I have to put my career first.”

  “Thanks a million,” Griffin said sarcastically. “Way to leave Ben and me holding the bag.”

  Ben shook his head. “You’re on your own, Griffin. I’ve got enough trouble right here at home. Do you know that this year the first candle of Hanukkah comes on Christmas Eve? I’m afraid my house might lift off its foundation and blast away into hyperspace. I don’t know why it hasn’t happened already, with all the electricity we’ve been pumping through it. The last thing I can do is bring any more complications down on my family.” Ferret Face appeared at his collar. “No, not you, little buddy. Mom and Dad.”

  Seated at the computer in his room, The Man With The Plan watched as, one by one, his friends signed off.

  He was all alone.

  And not just on the Skype screen.

  The zipper wouldn’t close.

  Russell Colchester climbed up on the bed and sat directly on the lid of his suitcase, reaching underneath himself to finesse the zipper.

  “I can get you another case.”

  The voice startled him. He looked to the doorway and saw his grandfather watching him. The old man’s expression was deeply sad. Typical Grandpa. He’d been mooning around this place ever since he’d shut down his dumb Santa’s Yawnfest.

  “I’m good.” He tried to force the zipper. It wouldn’t budge.

  “We have plenty of luggage,” his grandfather renewed his offer. “Something larger, perhaps? You seem to need a little more space.”

  “Then I’d have to check it,” Russell said firmly. “You’re only supposed to carry on one bag.”

  Charles Colchester frowned. “One bag is all you have.”

  “Yeah—uh, right. I told you I stink at math.”

  His grandfather peered out the lead-paned balcony doors. A few flakes of snow danced in the air. “It looks as if we might have a white Christmas in the end.”

  “No!” Russell jumped off the suitcase and rushed to the window. “What if my flight gets canceled? They still fly in snow, right?”

  “It depends how much snow,” Grandpa replied in some amusement. “I keep forgetting that you’re a California baby. Winter weather is a novelty to you.”

  Russell’s eyes were fixed on the swirling flurries. “This is nothing, right? They can fly in this?”

  “According to the weather forecast, they’re expecting quite an accumulation. Eight inches at least.”

  “Nooo!!” Russell howled. “If the plane can’t take off, then I’m stuck here for another whole day!”

  Grandpa sighed. “I’m sorry you’re so anxious to put an end to your time here. I’d been hoping that we would become closer.”

  Were all old people this sentimental, or was it a Long Island thing? Like the freezing cold made you want to huddle together for the body heat? Aloud, Russell said, “We are close, Grandpa. It’s not our fault some jerk stole your Star and ruined everything.”

  “It wasn’t all bad, I suppose,” Mr. Colchester concluded. “At least you made a new friend.”

  “I did?”

  “Young Darren Vader.”

  “Oh, right. Darren. Great kid. Now, about this weather. Eight inches—that’s not that much, right? How worried should I be …?”

  * * *

  The Star of Prague gleamed down from every wall of the cramped faculty office. There were photographs large and small, artists’ renderings, and even scientific diagrams done to scale with mathematical precision. Each exquisite star point measured exactly 20.4 centimeters in length; the outer globe had a diameter of 44.7 centimeters; the piece had a weight of 14.5 kilograms.

  Yvette Boucle, professor of art history, sat back from her computer, gazing at the images around her as she collected her thoughts. She’d been working on her book about the Star for nearly two years now. She knew more about the piece than anyone in the world since the brilliant Bohemian artisan who’d created it. Certainly more than the Colchesters, who didn’t appreciate the magnificent treasure they had—except as a topper for their annual Christmas tree.

  Correction: The treasure they’d once had.

  If only they’d allowed her to study it at close hand, everything might have been different.

  She stood up and stretched. With the book so close to completion, the temptation was to work through the night. But this was Christmas Eve, and she belonged with her family.

  On her way out, she double-locked her office door. She’d taken to doing that a lot lately, knowing that there was something precious inside.

  Crossing the parking lot, she smiled as an ice-cold snowflake brushed the side of her cheek. Now it felt like Christmas. She couldn’t wait to put the presents under the tree.

  What Mrs. Boucle couldn’t have known was that not all of her family would be waiting for her when she arrived home.

  At that very moment, her daughter, Tiffany, was sneaking out of the house, closing the sliding door silently behind her.

  * * *

  The traffic was light, just as Priddle had expected. He was at the wheel of the Colchester Mercedes, tooling down the highway toward New York City.

  Technically, he had the night off. But this was an important business transaction, worth a small fortune. If it had to be done on Christmas Eve, so be it.

  He turned on his wipers as the snowfall on his windshield grew thicker and heavier. He certainly hoped he wasn’t about to be caught in a blizzard.

  But this was going to be worth it. No more would he have to put up with the drafty halls and crumbling plaster of a nineteenth-century mansion. No more would he have to suffer through the ancient plumbing and electrical failures. Best of all, he would have put on his last Holiday Spectacular, with its hordes of screaming, ungrateful, hyperactive, runny-nosed children.

  After this deal went through, Priddle was moving up in the world.

  He pressed harder on the accelerator.

  * * *

  The same snow that tickled Yvette Boucle’s cheek and moistened Mr. Priddle’s windshield had intensified as it began to collect on the roof of Mr. O’Bannon’s brand-new truck.

  He was parked on Shore Road, a quarter mile away from the Colchester property, just out of sight of the mansion, waiting for darkness to fall. It wouldn’t be a pleasant walk in the blowing snow, but it was important for his purposes that he not be seen. The storm would help him with that. The accumulating powder would muffle his footsteps and fill in his tracks.

  At last he decided the time was right. He cut the motor and got out of the truck, hefting a large pack. Then he removed a folding extension ladder from the back and began the now-slippery walk to the mansion, confident that he was not being observed.

  His only worry was Miss Grier, the nosy neighbor. That old bat was like a one-woman CIA staked out right next door, minding the Colchesters’ business. The Christmas spirit wouldn’t stop her. Neither would a tsunami roaring up Long Island Sound.

  But as he passed her home, he realized luck was with him. Her car was not in its usual place. She was out. He couldn’t imagine anybody wanting to spend Christmas Eve with Miss Grier. But then again, look how he was spending it.

  Of course, he had a very good reason.

  He slipped in through the Colchesters’ front gate, noting one garage door was open. The Mercedes was gone, but the limo and the Rolls were both there. That meant somebody was home, probably the old man and that sour-faced kid, plus a minimum staff. Mr. Colchester was kind enough to give most of the servants the night off.

  He shouldered the ladder and backpack and ducked into the cover of the topiary garden. He had to stay hidden while he was doing what needed to be done. It would take time, but the payoff was going to be amazing.

  * * *

  The children looked nervous and uncertain as they met her at the door.

  Miss Grier would never admit it, but she wa
s none too confident herself. She didn’t know these children from Adam. She’d never met their mother, and the last time she’d seen their father—her nephew—he’d been perhaps eleven or twelve, no bigger than the oldest of the kids.

  “How do you do,” Miss Grier greeted them formally. “I am your great-aunt Colleen.”

  The children shrank back a half step.

  This was a bad idea, Miss Grier decided suddenly. These people were strangers to her. And the gift she’d brought them was far too extravagant and inappropriate. She shouldn’t have come.

  The invitation to spend Christmas Eve with the family had been a bolt out of the blue. Her first impulse had been to say no. Yet how could she? Miss Grier didn’t get along very well with the rest of the world. Strangers or not, this nephew, his wife, and their three children were her only relatives.

  Her nephew appeared—my, he’d grown into a handsome young man. “Kids, show Auntie the tree.”

  The three ran off into the small house, hollering for her to follow. Everything they did was at top speed—and top volume.

  “In a minute,” she called after them. “I need your father to help me get something out of the car.” But they were already gone.

  Her nephew embraced her. “We’re so glad you’re here.”

  “Children don’t like me,” she said stiffly.

  “They’ll like you,” he assured her. “We’re family.”

  “You never liked me.”

  He laughed. “Of course I did. I was just afraid of you. Now you sit and relax. I’ll bring in the package for you.”

  “This is a two-person job,” Miss Grier informed him. “It’s heavy—and very fragile.”

  The snow falling around the Slovak house was multicolored in the glow, and sizzled as it hit the hot lights.

  It was Christmas Eve and the first candle of Hanukkah, so the dueling holiday displays were at their apex. The drei-dirigible swung in the wind of the oncoming storm, topping a kaleidoscope of luminescence, decoration, and music unmatched anywhere on the eastern seaboard. The house had been featured in several local newscasts, and pilots of night flights taking off from LaGuardia and Kennedy airports regularly pointed it out to their passengers.