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Seeing himself pursued by two larger, faster vehicles, Darren wheeled the Ski-Doo off the road in a spray of powder. He jounced through rock gardens and across lawns, tracing a path where the cars could not follow.
Savannah and Melissa were left far behind. The cars paralleled Darren on the street, but dared go no closer. Only Luthor galloped across front yards, leaping hedges and gaining on the snowmobile.
“Check it out,” said Ben in surprise. “Luthor’s an off-road vehicle!”
When Darren saw the big Doberman gaining on him, he twisted the throttle and the Ski-Doo burst forward. It leaped over a section of uneven ground, kicking up snow as it crunched back down again. Luthor blasted right through the cloud, never missing a stride. On the road, the two cars adjusted their speed to maintain pursuit.
“I can’t believe Darren took the Star,” remarked Ben, watching the chase from his spot in the backseat of the station wagon. “That’s pretty awful, even for him.”
“Are you kidding?” Griffin snorted. “I can’t believe we ever bothered with another suspect once he was in the running.”
Mr. Bing’s hands were tight on the wheel. “Just so long as I get my prototype back.”
“Darren, stop that!” Mrs. Vader’s voice rang out. “It’s not safe!”
Even if her son could have heard her over the Ski-Doo, her plea would not have changed his course of action. Hugging the Fruit Armor prototype to his chest, he gunned the engine to full power and rocketed forward.
Sleigh bells ring, are you listening …?”
Logan was vibrating with excitement, but he forced himself to hold his phone steady as the camera recorded Tiffany’s performance. She was great, of course, but the setting was even better. The swirling snow in the air, the sparkling drifts on the ground. Not even Steven Spielberg could have set up such a perfect shot. Tiffany was singing about a winter wonderland in the middle of the ultimate winter wonderland.
But the pièce de résistance was the Slovak house in the background. The Santas and the dreidels; the reindeer and the fiddler; the snowmen and the menorah; the wreaths and the latkes—all lit up in a shimmering explosion of brilliant color. It was so glaringly bright that the light meter read FULL SUN in the middle of the night. And that didn’t even include the drei-dirigible, which hovered over the roof, out of frame.
The video had to be perfect, since Mrs. Boucle was going to see it. And, Logan reflected, his elation dimming a little, she was pretty angry right now. Before filming, Tiffany had called to assure her parents that she was okay, and to ask for a ride home. Even at a distance, the yelling coming out of her phone had been pretty scary. Logan was sure to get some of the blame, especially since Mrs. Boucle was still sore over the police raid on her holiday party. It would take a stellar video, with the potential to go viral on YouTube, to undo all that damage and earn him a chance to get into the North Shore Players.
The roar came suddenly, approaching fast. It sounded like a power mower, only louder. Logan had a split second to worry that the noise might penetrate the microphone’s sound filter and spoil the video.
Then the Ski-Doo was upon them.
Logan jumped one way, Tiffany the other, as the big machine plowed through. The spinning treads kicked a powerful stream of snow into Logan’s face, blinding him momentarily. When at last he was able to clear his vision, an even more terrifying sight met his eyes—Luthor, at point-blank range, bearing down on him in full flight.
He managed to gasp “Stay low!” to Tiffany before planting his face back into the snow. He could feel the one-hundred-fifty-pound Doberman using his back as a launch pad as he hit the Slovaks’ lawn at warp speed. He took out the inflatable snowman first, blasting clear through it, popping it like a soap bubble. As the big dog thundered across the lawn, his powerful legs got caught up in the guy wires anchoring the largest, brightest, and most elaborate Christmas and Hanukkah display on Long Island.
Long strings of multicolored lights were ripped from the walls, exploding in showers of sparks. Down off the roof came the sleigh, the reindeer, Santa, and all his elves. The big menorah dissolved in a fireball, taking the spinning dreidels with it. Bulbs burst; wreaths burned; latkes melted. Holly and mistletoe rained from above.
The bells ceased to peal. The carols halted in mid-hallelujah. The klezmer music fell silent.
“Dude!” Griffin said in awe. “Your house!”
Ben could only look on in horror.
There was a low crackling sound as the fiddler on the roof began to lean dangerously over the eaves. Below it stood Tiffany, frozen with fear.
Logan came out of nowhere, diving like an NFL linebacker. He hit her at the knees, knocking her backward, sending the two of them rolling one over the other through the snow. The fiddler plunged into the space they had occupied a split second before. It made virtually no sound as it shattered into a million pieces.
With a final lunge that snapped the wire, sending the drei-dirigible soaring toward the heavens, Luthor hurled himself onto the fleeing Ski-Doo. One instant, Darren’s eyes were scanning the snow-covered lawns that lay ahead, plotting his escape route; the next, his entire field of vision was filled with dog.
Panicking, he yanked on the controls, hoping to dislodge the terrifying animal. He succeeded all too well. In a tremendous spray of snow, the Ski-Doo flipped over on its side. Luthor and Darren were thrown free. If it hadn’t been for the fresh powdery drifts, both would have been knocked silly. As it was, Darren was flung into a bush and came up sputtering with a mouthful of slush.
He looked around in dismay, taking frantic stock. There was the mutt; there was the Ski-Doo. Where was …?
Then he spotted it. The Fruit Armor prototype was bouncing like a giant orange soccer ball across the snowy lawn toward—
“Not the road!” he howled.
Mr. Bing slammed on the brakes and the station wagon lurched to a halt. But the Vaders’ SUV sped past it and hit the prototype head-on. It sailed high through the air, struck a metal light pole with a resounding bong, and dropped like a stone.
“Nooo!” Darren got up and sprinted toward it.
Mr. Bing leaped out of his car and began a high-stepping slog through the snow. Griffin and Ben were hot on his heels. Mr. and Mrs. Vader left their dented SUV in the middle of the street and joined the race.
As the group converged on the battered prototype, a stretch limousine skidded around the corner from the opposite direction and fishtailed to a stop in front of the Slovak house. The passenger door opened and a slight figure jumped out and picked up the Fruit Armor globe.
“Russell?” chorused Griffin and Ben.
“Darren, you smashed it!” Russell Colchester accused. “I told you to take good care of it!”
“I did!” Darren babbled. “I mean—I tried! I mean”—he pointed a gloved finger accusingly at Luthor—“that monster jumped on me!”
His face pink with emotion and windburn, Mr. Bing ran to his invention and snatched it away from Russell. “This prototype is not yours.”
“Yeah, but what’s inside it is his!” Darren blurted.
His mother rushed up and grabbed him by both shoulders. “What is inside it, Darren?”
Darren turned almost as white as the snow. “Oh, hi, Mom,” he said faintly. “Crazy weather, huh?”
His mother would not be distracted. “What’s inside that Fruit Armor?”
Russell was despondent. “It doesn’t matter. It’s in a million pieces now.”
Mr. Bing popped the lock on his invention, took out the inner globe, and separated the two halves. He removed the contents and held them up for all to see.
The gleam of the streetlight found it first, and it shone brighter than the Slovak house ever had, its outer shell flawless and clear, its ancient stained-glass star as multicolored and magnificent as the day it had been created in eleventh-century Bohemia.
“I was right!” breathed Griffin.
“The Star of Prague!” cried an awed voice beh
ind him in equal measures of reverence and excitement. It was Yvette Boucle. She and her husband had arrived to rescue their daughter just in time to see the Slovaks’ holiday display meet its spectacular pyrotechnic end.
“It’s okay!” Russell was astounded. “How come it’s not broken? It fell off a speeding snowmobile! It got hit by an SUV! It bounced off a metal pole!”
Mr. Bing was triumphant. “Things don’t get broken when they’re inside Fruit Armor.” He turned meaningful eyes on his patent attorney. “If it can protect thousand-year-old stained glass, think what it can do for a bushel of peaches.”
If Daria Vader received his message, she gave no indication. Her full attention was focused on her son. “Darren, are you crazy? Why would you steal a priceless art treasure?”
“I didn’t steal it!” Darren pointed at Russell. “He stole it! I just hid it for him. I was on my way to meet the limo so he could take it to the airport and fly it to California.”
Russell drew himself up to his full height and assumed a haughty look that oozed thirteen years of wealth and privilege. “I didn’t steal it. I’m a Colchester. It belongs to me. I heard O’Bannon warning about water leaking down to the electrical box, so I used the hose to make it happen. When the lights went out, I ran to the top of the stairs, grabbed the Star, and stashed it in the attic above my closet. Who was going to suspect me? And when all those detectives and insurance people started searching more carefully, I smuggled it over to Darren’s and we hid it in the invention.”
“But why?” Darren’s father pleaded. “Why would you cause your grandfather so much suffering?”
“All I wanted was to go home to California. And I knew he’d never let me, so long as that stupid Santa’s Workshop was still on. So I shut it down. I would have given him back his Star. What’s the point of keeping it? It’ll be mine eventually.”
“But it’s not yours yet,” Mrs. Vader said harshly. “And now you’re going to take it back to your grandfather and confess what you did.”
Russell shot her a self-assured smile. “No can do, Mrs. V. I’ve got a plane to catch.”
“I guess you’re not used to our northeast weather, Russell,” Mr. Bing informed him. “All the airports are shut down tight. You’re spending Christmas in Cedarville, whether you like it or not.”
All the color drained out of Russell’s face.
Pitch snowplowed up, raising a cloud of powder with her skis. “What happened?” She took in the sight of the Star of Prague in Mr. Bing’s arms, and the darkened Slovak home, now bare of any decoration. The wreckage of the dueling Christmas-versus-Hanukkah displays lay in the snowy yard, some of it sparking and sizzling. “Oh, man, I always miss the good stuff!”
“Where are the others?” asked Griffin.
“On their way,” Pitch reported. “About a block back.”
As if on cue, a distant call sounded. “Luthor—sweetie! I’m coming.”
The big Doberman leaped to his feet, shook the snow off his coat, and rushed off to find Savannah, barking all the way.
Logan and Tiffany, frosted from head to toe, joined the group. Mr. Boucle enfolded his daughter in a huge bear hug.
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” she warbled. “I just wanted to make you and Mom a video for Christmas.”
Mrs. Boucle rounded on Logan, her entire body trembling with emotion. “I saw what you did,” she rasped.
“I didn’t mean it!” Logan backed away. “Please don’t kill me!”
Tears began streaming down her cheeks. “You saved our daughter’s life. You risked your own safety to push her away from that falling fiddler! You’re a hero! And if you still want a place with the North Shore Players, you’ve got it!”
It was the kind of miracle that only happened during the holidays.
When Mr. O’Bannon finally knocked on the front door of the mansion, it took a long time for anyone to answer. Most of the staff had the night off to enjoy Christmas Eve. When at last the intricately carved oak portal swung open, Charles Colchester himself was standing behind it.
“Mr. O’Bannon,” he said in surprise. “Why aren’t you at home with your family?”
“I’m heading there right now,” the electrician promised, “but there was something important I had to do first.”
In each hand, he held the end of a long extension cord. He connected the cables and something amazing happened.
The property lit up. Strings of white lights had been woven through the trees that lined the front lawn, spelling out the message:
“I get that it’s been a rough holiday for you, sir, and you might not feel like celebrating. But you should know that the people of this town admire and respect you. And we always will.”
Charles Colchester stared at the display that this workingman had done on his own time out of the goodness of his heart. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and began to dab at tear-filled eyes.
“Thank you,” he said in a husky voice. “This means more than you’ll ever know. And Merry Christmas to you and your family.”
The telephone rang. Mr. Colchester turned and picked up the receiver on the hall table. As the old man listened, his face paled to an unhealthy shade of gray. “And you’re absolutely certain of this? … I see … Thank you for telling me. I’ll come at once.”
“Are you all right?” the electrician asked anxiously.
Mr. Colchester seemed to have aged twenty years in the course of that thirty-second call. “The Star of Prague has been recovered.”
“That’s great news—isn’t it?”
“It was my own grandson who took it. And now I have the task of informing the police that I’m not pressing charges—which is the only reason why Russell won’t be arrested.”
At that moment, Mr. O’Bannon would not have traded places with this multimillionaire for all his great wealth. “I’ve got my truck down the block,” he offered gently. “I can give you a lift to pick him up.”
“Thank you. Just give me a moment to call Priddle. I sent him into the city to buy a penthouse for me. I was going to sell out and leave Cedarville forever.” The old man shook his head. “That would have been the biggest mistake of my life.”
* * *
Christmas Eve was magical for Miss Grier. She couldn’t believe she’d ever considered declining this invitation. What a crotchety old bird she’d turned into! She needed to socialize more.
People would keep her young. Children would keep her young.
She held out as long as she could. But after two hours she gave in to the burning glances that her grandniece and grandnephews were casting in the direction of the large gift she had brought.
“All right,” she said. “Let’s open it, shall we?”
The present turned out to be a seventy-five-inch curved ultra-HD TV for the whole family. It generated such excitement that Christmas Eve was put on hold so her nephew could set it up right away.
There were oohs and aahs as the huge picture came into focus. It was a live video feed. The headline across the top of the screen declared:
BREAKING NEWS—UFO OVER NYC
“What on earth?” exclaimed Miss Grier.
A spotlight shone through the blowing snow of the blizzard, illuminating what looked like some sort of hot-air balloon flying over the spires of the Manhattan skyscrapers.
“It must be Santa in his sleigh!” crowed the youngest nephew.
“No way,” scoffed his older sister. “I’ll bet it’s an alien space probe!”
“I’m sure it’s nothing more than a weather balloon,” their mother soothed.
And then the side of the flying object lit up with the message HAPPY HANUKKAH.
“We have new information coming in,” reported the news anchor. “The air force has identified the UFO as a drei-dirigible, a common Hanukkah decoration. I repeat—the UFO is totally harmless. There is no cause for alarm …”
“It isn’t Santa,” the youngest nephew complained, disappointed. br />
“But it will be,” his great-aunt assured him. “Santa only comes when you’re asleep.”
* * *
Ben let himself in the front door and stomped the snow off his boots.
“Oh, you’re back,” said his mother, who was still watching television.
“How is it out there?” added Dad, glancing up from his book about Judah Maccabee.
Ben stared. Was it possible that they hadn’t noticed what had happened to their own house? Were they so fixed on tuning out each other that they’d tuned out everything else?
“There’s a lot of snow on the ground,” he told them. “And … other stuff.”
“Benjamin, what are you talking about?” Estelle Slovak asked.
There was no point in dragging it out. “Mom, Dad—put your coats on. You’d better see this.”
He led them outside, and the Slovaks began to take in the scope of the wreckage—ruined reindeer, charred dreidels, half a Santa, a shattered fiddler, the tattered remains of a snowman, a melted mess that only slightly resembled a menorah, shredded holly, spaghetti strings of burnt-out lights, latkes scattered over a broken sleigh.
A single red light remained—Rudolph’s nose, detached from its owner at the end of a scorched wire. They watched as it flickered and died.
Ben held his breath during the long silence that followed. Even Ferret Face poked his needle nose outside, as if awaiting their reaction.
“You know,” Mr. Slovak said finally, “I think the house looks better this way.”
His wife nodded slowly. “I couldn’t agree more.”
When they walked back inside, husband and wife were holding hands.
Cedarville’s Santa’s Workshop Holiday Spectacular officially reopened its doors on December 27.
Never before in its 158-year history had the Colchester mansion seen such crowds. The entire town of Cedarville was there, and many who had come from much farther afield. News of the disappearance of the famous Star of Prague had spread all around the Northeast. Now that it was back again, everyone wanted to see it.