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  It was true. The big Doberman had a special affection for the gruff and rude Santa, following him like an adoring puppy. For his part, Crenshaw didn’t exactly return Luthor’s feelings, but he seemed to tolerate the giant dog licking his hands and frolicking around his studded biker boots.

  “Luthor doesn’t love him,” Griffin argued. “Luthor’s afraid of him, too.”

  “That’s even worse!” Ben insisted. “If that guy scares an apex predator like Luthor, then we’ve got the Terminator for a Santa Claus!”

  Savannah rolled her eyes. “Now you’re just being ridiculous. You can’t judge a book by its cover, you know. And you’ve got to admit that when he gets in costume, Dirk is the perfect Santa.”

  That was the strangest part of all. The instant “Fingers” Crenshaw put on his red-and-white suit and white beard, he was transformed. The ill-tempered, unfriendly, cigar-smoking biker became the ultimate Saint Nicholas. The reddish complexion of someone who was perpetually ticked off became jolly with rosy cheeks. And the burly bulk of a professional thug turned into Santa’s famous jelly belly.

  “Okay, so he looks the part,” Ben conceded. “Blood looks like cherry syrup, too. That doesn’t mean I want it on my ice cream.”

  Ferret Face stuck his head inquisitively out of Ben’s jerkin. In the Slovak home, ice cream was usually served after pizza, and pizza meant pepperoni might be available.

  “You’re wrong,” Savannah said firmly. “And anyway, it’s thanks to him that Luthor is welcome in the mansion. I couldn’t stand the thought of him tied up outside like a—like a—”

  “Like an animal?” Pitch suggested helpfully.

  “Like an outcast,” Savannah finished. “And now he’s not only allowed inside, he’s part of Santa’s Workshop.”

  Luthor was so attached to the hired Santa that removing him from the Great Hall had become a nightmare, despite Savannah’s renowned dog-whispering skills. Outside, the big Doberman had taken to howling so loud that rehearsal was impossible. His deafening lament even drowned out the motorcycle noise of the comings and goings of Crenshaw’s fellow bikers.

  It was Santa himself who came up with the solution. The props people created a set of papier-mâché antlers, which were fitted to Luthor’s head so he became an instant reindeer, just under actual size. He sat contentedly at the foot of the throne. The only complication was that his antlers sagged a little when he turned his big head to gaze worshipfully up at Santa.

  Savannah glowed. “Oh, Mr. Crenshaw, I knew you loved him back.”

  Santa glared at her over his thick beard. “I don’t love him, kid. This was the only way he’d shut his piehole.”

  “What a kidder.” Savannah shrugged it off. “Luthor has a way of getting under people’s skin.”

  “Yeah,” Ben agreed feelingly. “Usually by sinking his fangs into it.”

  As the days progressed, the elves got better in spite of themselves.

  The dancing improved. The singing improved. The costumes became more bearable. Or, at least, Griffin and his friends got used to the discomfort. Santa continued to be his obnoxious self, but even that was getting to be part of the routine.

  “I almost prefer it this way,” Griffin observed. “He doesn’t bug us to be perfect elves, because he cares as much about Santa’s Workshop as he cares about everything else—zero.”

  The Holiday Spectacular was a project of the Colchester family. But Mr. Colchester had nothing to do with it except occasionally to stick his nose into the Great Hall and declare, “Excellent! Keep up the good work!” He said the same thing regardless of whether he was walking in on Tiffany’s charming solo, Mr. O’Bannon rewiring the fourth blown transformer of the day, or Luthor bumping into a ladder and sending a workman plunging to a broken ankle. It was all progress to Charles Colchester because he didn’t have to worry about it.

  The person who did have to worry about it was Priddle. But the secretary was so very proper and so very British that it was impossible to tell whether or not he was stressed about anything. He never smiled; then again, he never really frowned, either. His clipped accent and hundred-dollar vocabulary made it nearly impossible for the elves to figure out what it was he wanted them to do. They knew that “a bit of all right” rated higher than “a spot of bother,” and being in “rather a tight corner” was very bad.

  “I wish he spoke English,” commented Melissa plaintively.

  “Are you kidding?” crowed Logan. “All the best directors have accents.”

  He was making no progress at all with the one director he needed to impress—Yvette Boucle. Nor was he having any success making a friend of her daughter. Tiffany was so convinced that everything Darren said and did was hilarious and brilliant that she barely noticed Logan.

  “It’s so unfair!” the young actor complained. “Tiffany is a fellow performer. We have everything in common. What does she see in Darren?”

  “Trust me,” Griffin advised. “Any girl who’s demented enough to have a crush on Vader is a good person to stay away from.”

  “He doesn’t even care about her,” Logan muttered. “All he wants to do is kiss up to Russell.”

  It was working, too. On Thursday, Griffin and Ben arrived at the Colchester mansion to find Darren already there, still in his pajamas, pouring himself a bowl of cereal in the pantry.

  “What are you doing here, Vader?” Griffin asked irritably. “What happened to your clothes?”

  “I’ll probably change straight into my elf suit,” Darren replied smugly. “My man Russ and I were up late watching movies, so he invited me to sleep over.” He sighed wanly. “It’s so nice to hang out with classy people for a change.”

  “You don’t care about class,” Griffin accused. “You just care about money. This so-called friendship is totally bogus, just like you.”

  “That’s where you’re wrong, Bing. Russ and I have an uncommon bond. He usually comes to visit his grandfather in the summer. But everybody our age is away at camp then. Now, finally, he gets to hang out with the classiest kid in town, moi. And I’m making myself his personal survival guide to Cedarville.”

  “What do you know about survival?” Ben demanded.

  “Plenty. For example, if you see a guy with a weasel in his shirt, back off. You don’t want to catch a case of stupid. Ditto anyone who calls himself ‘The Man With The Plan.’ And there’s this inventor in town who dreams up some pretty moronic stuff. Like, oh, let’s say Fruit Armor—”

  Griffin saw red. “If Fruit Armor is so moronic, how come your mother is taking our money to file the patent?”

  “She’s not filing so fast, Bing,” Darren told him confidentially. “She thinks Fruit Armor might be too dumb to be a real thing. Honest, I spoke up for your dad. I said, ‘If aliens invade Earth, what’s going to protect our apples from their killer death ray?’”

  Griffin was close to exploding. He was used to Darren’s abuse. But when the attacks extended to Mr. Bing and his inventions, it really put him over the edge. Darren only knew about them because of his mother’s legal work for Mr. Bing. And besides, before an invention was patented, it had to be top secret or someone else could steal the idea.

  “The chef’s making me pancakes if you want some,” came a voice.

  A bleary-eyed Russell, also in pajamas, shuffled into the kitchen. “Oh,” he added, spying Griffin and Ben. “Hi.”

  Griffin got right in Darren’s face, glaring up into the bigger boy’s eyes. “You better cut it out, Vader—”

  “Hey,” said Russell, his tone rising. “Step off!”

  Griffin sized up Charles Colchester’s spoiled grandson. Russell seemed to be ready for an argument he knew he could win. Being named Colchester made him automatically in the right.

  Russell wasn’t done yet. “You Cedarville types blow me away. Who do you think you are? You’re stuck in this frozen wasteland—seriously, when the next ice age starts, how will anybody here even notice? And you have the nerve to act like you’re the only peo
ple who know how to live! Where do you get off messing with my friend in my house?”

  “Sorry,” Ben put in quickly as Griffin choked back his anger. “This is kind of a longtime thing between Darren and us. We didn’t mean to involve you in it.”

  “I could get you kicked out of here, you know,” Russell threatened. “All it would take is one word from me!”

  “Hey,” Griffin retorted. “We’re the ones giving up our vacation to help out with your grandfather’s pageant. Please don’t act like you have no clue who’s doing who a favor. It’s pretty obvious that you hate being an elf even more than the rest of us!”

  Russell grimaced. “At least I’m not from the one-horse town where everybody thinks Santa’s Workshop is like Disneyland. Ever since kindergarten, I’ve been fighting off Grandpa’s attempts to bring me up here for the holidays. And if my parents weren’t on their second honeymoon, I’d be with them somewhere—anywhere but this dump!”

  Griffin turned to Darren. “Come on, Vader. You’re from Cedarville, too. Are you going to stand by and let him bad-mouth our town?”

  Darren grinned. “I’m a citizen of the world, Bing. Anywhere I go, that’s home.”

  “How about Antarctica?” Ben suggested. “And stay there.”

  The chef entered the pantry carrying a steaming platter of pancakes and bacon. As the tray was lowered to table level, Ferret Face darted out of Ben’s jerkin, snatched up a strip of bacon, and disappeared once again into the shelter of Ben’s clothing. It was all over before the platter actually settled onto the tabletop.

  “We can’t eat that now,” Russell complained. “It’s contaminated!”

  Darren helped himself to a stack of pancakes and reached for the syrup. “Don’t worry. The weasel’s clean.”

  Loud slurping noises came from inside Ben’s shirt.

  Griffin smiled broadly. “Now, that’s class—Cedarville style.”

  Opening night for the Holiday Spectacular was set for December 18. Bathed in red and green floodlights, the Colchester mansion glowed like an enormous ornament placed with care on the shore of Long Island Sound. Across the large waterfront property, eight inches of fresh powder completed the winter tableau. It hadn’t actually snowed yet that year, but Charles Colchester had hired snowmaking trucks from a ski resort to groom his rolling lawns. He called it “Instant White Christmas.” Everything had to be perfect for his illustrious family’s annual gift to Cedarville.

  The start time was six p.m., but by five, people were lined up twelve deep up and down the long circular drive. There were families not just from Cedarville, but the neighboring towns, the boroughs of New York City, and as far away as New Jersey and Connecticut. Cars lined both sides of the most exclusive street in town, in defiance of the hand-lettered NO PARKING signs put up by Miss Grier. Traffic was reduced to a trickle in either direction as new arrivals searched for open spots on the shoulder.

  A deafening roar shattered the night as an ancient backfiring Harley-Davidson peeled down the center line of the road, its wide handlebars threading the needle between cars by no more than an inch or two on either side. Scattering stunned spectators, the big machine accelerated up the drive and disappeared around the side of the mansion. None of them would ever have believed that the hulking black-jacketed goon riding the Harley was the same person as the jolly, rosy-cheeked, white-bearded Santa they were all standing in line to see.

  Inside the mansion, Santa’s elves waited nervously for the pageant to begin. The Great Hall was quiet now, but that was deceiving. Soon it would be packed to the rafters, and the crowd would include neighbors, teachers, parents, family, and friends.

  There were butterflies in everybody’s stomachs, but Logan’s insides buzzed with a swarm of agitated bees. To him, Santa’s Workshop wasn’t just an annual holiday pageant. It was a performance, and there was nothing the young actor took more seriously than that.

  He had already appeared in several commercials, but those were just thirty-second spots for toilet paper and athlete’s foot cream. The next step was to land a place in a real theater company. The North Shore Players were tailor-made for Logan—local, yet close enough to New York to attract Broadway critics. From there, it would be just a short step to Hollywood!

  Standing in the way of that dream was Yvette Boucle. Tonight he would deliver a performance as an elf so powerful, so nuanced, and so three-dimensional that she’d have no choice but to let him into the North Shore Players!

  Priddle gave the signal to open the mansion’s grand main doors. Families poured inside. Little kids ran straight for the miniature castle that housed the empty throne. Their parents hung back, surveying the North Pole scene that many of them had been visiting ever since they themselves were children. Inevitably, their eyes found the tree and traveled up its twenty-five-foot height to rest on the Star of Prague, the Holiday Spectacular’s crowning glory.

  Logan witnessed all this peering through a crack in the doorway to the Great Hall. The excited babble from so many young throats swelled into a single refrain:

  “We want Santa! We want Santa! We want Santa!”

  From beneath the red fabric of the Santa suit, a gurgle issued from Dirk Crenshaw’s stomach.

  “Man, that enchilada keeps coming up on me!” he announced.

  Priddle slipped into the anteroom, clapping for attention. “Places, everyone. We can’t keep our young fans waiting any longer. Good luck.”

  “You’re supposed to say ‘Break a leg,’” Logan piped up. Then he looked at Tiffany to make sure she noticed he knew the theatrical lingo.

  “I’d prefer that you’d not use that term.” Priddle sniffed tensely. “Please be careful out there.”

  Savannah leaned over to her beloved dog. “Okay, sweetie. It’s time.”

  Majestically capped by his papier-mâché antlers, Luthor began to heave forward, pulling Santa’s wheeled sleigh out into the Great Hall. The elves flanked him on both sides, ready to lend a hand if the big Doberman’s strength faltered. It never did.

  The reaction from the crowd was pure pandemonium. Little kids rushed the procession. It was all the elves could do to keep them from attacking Santa in a horde. This was a lot more like bodyguarding than acting, Logan reflected in annoyance. Then again, Tiffany would probably understand, since she was holding off three crazed kindergartners on the other side.

  Luckily, it was only a short distance to the castle, and the kids fell into line once Santa took his place on the throne. Mr. Colchester made a speech declaring the Holiday Spectacular on, and describing how proud he was that his grandson, Russell, was one of the elves this year. The sight of an up-and-coming young Colchester working hard to make the pageant a success drew an enormous ovation from the crowd. Russell looked as if he wished a sinkhole would open under the mansion and swallow him away from all the Cedarville attention. Darren awarded him a mighty slap on the back, nearly knocking him into the face-painting booth.

  Then it was time for the show to begin. During the elves’ dance, Logan was determined to smile a little wider and kick a little higher than everybody else. But his high-stepping foot knocked off one of Melissa’s ear points, which sailed through the air and landed in a vat of gingerbread batter, where it sank out of sight.

  During the caroling, Logan also tried to outsing the other elves, but the organist, Yvette Boucle, kept motioning for him to quiet down. When was he ever going to knock her socks off with his talent? Certainly not during her daughter’s solo, when all he could do was hum in the background.

  The next thing they knew, the performances were over and the Workshop was on full force. Dirk Crenshaw might have been a world-class slob, but he was also a world-class Santa. Or at least he looked like one. The hustle and bustle in the Great Hall covered up the fact that he never asked the kids what they wanted for Christmas, never answered their questions, and never said anything besides the occasional “Ho, ho, ho!” No one could see the earbuds hidden by his bushy white beard, and the pine scent of the
North Pole covered the smell of stale cigars and the garlic breath from his enchilada dinner.

  The elves were in charge of directing traffic in and out of the throne room. The job was easier than Logan had expected, due to the presence of Luthor. Antlers or not, a guard dog was still a guard dog. Santa may have been making a list and checking it twice, but he would never tear you to pieces. You couldn’t say the same thing about his reindeer. It kept the line moving.

  The whole town was there, drinking mulled cider, decorating gingerbread men, and visiting the various booths, playing games, and having a wonderful time. Cedarville Middle School was well represented, and the elves took some good-natured ribbing about their costumes. This was balanced by their parents, who were glowing with pride.

  Also glowing was Mr. Colchester, who mingled with the crowd, shaking hands and accepting congratulations on yet another successful Holiday Spectacular. Even sour-faced Priddle seemed thrilled with the evening. Every few minutes he would pass through the castle with a new statistic: “We’ve broken the all-time attendance record for opening night” or “We’ve sold all the tickets for the charity raffle” or “Which one of you comedians dropped an elf ear into the cookie batter?” For this last comment, he held up a freshly baked gingerbread man with what looked like a shark fin growing out of its back.

  The night was magical. Excited shouts rang out as kids ran from the bouncy castle to the gingerbread house to the fishpond to Santa’s throne room. The cluster of booths resembled a Bavarian village, and the Great Hall’s wall sconces were festooned with pine boughs and red satin bows. The tree was the glittering focal point of it all, dripping with tinsel and hung with magnificent ornaments. And at the summit, the most magnificent of them all.

  The festivities went on. No one wanted to be the first to leave.

  It might have continued long past the ten o’clock closing. But at exactly 8:57, Santa’s Workshop was plunged into sudden darkness.