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The lively holiday background music stopped abruptly. All sounds of electronics and machinery ceased. Inside the thick walls of the Colchester mansion, the blackness was suffocating, falling over everything like a dense velvet cloth. It would have been scary under the best of circumstances. With so many people crowded together in an unfamiliar place, it was nothing short of terrifying.
Children wailed in fear. Parents called for their kids. Everyone began moving at the same time, bumping, tripping, and running into one another. What had been a charming Bavarian village mere seconds ago was now an impossible obstacle course that everyone had to navigate blind.
“Remain calm!” the not-at-all-calm voice of Charles Colchester rang out in the midst of the void. “There’s no cause for panic!”
His guests did not agree. As frightened families struggled to find each other in the dark, the wipeouts and collisions grew more common and more spectacular.
“Mr. O’Bannon!” Priddle called stridently.
“It’s a power failure!” came the electrician’s reply over the chaos.
“I can see that,” Priddle persisted. “My question is, can you fix it?”
“Fix it? I can’t even find it! I can’t see my hand in front of my face!”
By this time, several phone flashlights were illuminated, which provided a glow for people to make their way to the mansion’s double doors. It wasn’t much brighter out there, since the power failure extended over the whole property. But at least there was space for the Workshop escapees to spread out. There they milled, getting their feet wet in the artificially generated snow.
“Wouldn’t you know it?” Ben complained. “They bring in a machine to make fake snow and I end up soaking in it in elf slippers.” He shifted from leg to leg, which made the bells jingle.
“This is no time to worry about wet feet!” Savannah rushed over. “Where’s Luthor?”
“Where do you think?” Griffin gestured toward the crowd on the far side of the birdbath. “With his new best friend.”
The Doberman, his antlers slightly askew, had just emerged from the mansion and now stood with Dirk Crenshaw. The hulking biker was navigating the darkness by the glowing tip of a humongous cigar.
“It figures,” Pitch commented. “Santa Clod and his faithful reindeer.”
Savannah watched them. “Mr. Crenshaw must be a really wonderful person if Luthor feels such a strong connection.”
A cloud of cigar smoke wafted over in their direction. It made Ferret Face cough.
“That’s not the only strong thing about him,” Ben observed.
Logan came staggering out of the mansion, latched on to Tiffany with one hand and her mother with the other.
“We’re fine!” Mrs. Boucle kept insisting in annoyance.
Logan’s friends recognized the expression on his face all too well. The young actor had finally found a dramatic moment, and he was milking it for all it was worth.
“Don’t worry about me!” he emoted. “The important thing is you’re safe!”
“We’re all safe,” Tiffany told him. “You are, too, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“You don’t have to thank me,” Logan insisted. “True courage is its own reward.”
Darren was next out the door, ready with a wisecrack, as usual. “Relax, Kellerman.” He snorted. “It’s a power failure, not an air raid.”
A peal of laughter escaped Tiffany. “You’re so funny!” she gushed at him.
Eventually, the Great Hall emptied completely, and families gathered together on the grounds.
“Well, this was a pretty memorable Santa’s Workshop,” Mr. Bing put in drily.
Mrs. Slovak was upset. “I’ve been coming here since I was a little girl, and I can’t recall an incident like this.”
“Mr. O’Bannon was worried something might happen,” her son told her. “All week he’s been warning that the old wiring can’t take the kind of overload we’re putting on it.”
“Hey, where’s Melissa?” Pitch asked Mr. Dukakis.
“Oh, she stayed inside the mansion to help Mr. O’Bannon,” Melissa’s father replied.
“That’s good,” Griffin approved. “She could rewire the whole house with both hands tied behind her back.” The shy girl’s expertise with computers and technology was legendary in Cedarville.
As if on cue, the lights blazed on in the mansion. A big cheer went up on the snowy lawn. The crowd surged back in through the double doors, eager for more holiday fun.
All at once, a scream of agony was heard in the Great Hall. Griffin and the elves pushed their way to the front. There stood their host and patron, Charles Colchester, his normally ruddy face drained of all color.
Santa’s Workshop was a shambles—booths and tables knocked over, drinks and trampled snacks scattered across the floor, blobs of spilled gingerbread dough smeared everywhere, the bouncy castle flat as a pancake, Santa’s throne lying broken on its side.
Yet it was not the damage that had devastated Cedarville’s most prominent citizen. Griffin followed the man’s horrified gaze to the top of the soaring Christmas tree.
The Star of Prague was gone.
The scene on TV was instantly familiar to Griffin—the Colchester mansion lit up like a picture postcard, its rolling lawns covered in a blanket of white snow. But the hundreds of cars that had been wedged into every available parking space around the gracious old home last night had been replaced by only three—police cars, their flashers lighting up the night.
“… Electric company officials estimate that the blackout lasted between twelve and fifteen minutes,” came the news anchor’s voice, “and affected only the mansion where the Holiday Spectacular was being held. During that time, the thieves must have removed the antique Czech masterpiece from the top of the tree and spirited it away in the darkness and confusion. So far, Cedarville police have been unable to confirm any reports of a vehicle leaving the area at around that time. This gives rise to an alternate theory of the crime in which the Star of Prague was hidden somewhere in or around the Colchester home to be picked up later. This seems unlikely, however, as a thorough search of the premises has turned up nothing.”
“What a horrible thing to happen!” Mrs. Bing exclaimed. “I feel so bad for the Colchesters—especially after all they’ve done for Cedarville.”
“I know,” Griffin agreed. Yet he couldn’t help but enjoy a little relief. Here he was, sprawled out on the couch in the comfort of a T-shirt and sweatpants, instead of crammed into his elf costume, humiliating himself in front of a crowd of hundreds. It was a selfish and not-very-nice way to feel, but he felt it all the same.
“Art historians have traced the Star of Prague all the way back to the tenth century,” the news anchor went on. “It was commissioned by Wenceslaus the First, Duke of Bohemia, the subject of the popular Christmas carol ‘Good King Wenceslas.’ For this reason, it has been estimated that the Star might fetch as much as ten million dollars at auction. It has been the property of the Colchester family for eight generations. While occasionally loaned out to museums from Tulsa to Timbuktu, the masterpiece has always been back in its place of honor atop the tree in the Great Hall for the Colchesters’ annual Holiday Spectacular. Until today.”
At this point, the screen cut to a shot of Charles Colchester. He looked decades older than the man Griffin had seen during elf rehearsal at the mansion. His eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, as if he hadn’t slept since the theft of his Star.
“Our family has been holding the Santa’s Workshop Holiday Spectacular since before I was born. I attended as a young boy, and this year I welcomed my grandson to Long Island so that he could experience the tradition he would one day pass on to his own children. I never thought of it as our gift to the town; it was something we shared as neighbors and friends. But the idea that someone in Cedarville would turn our generosity against us—” The great man’s voice became shaky. “Well, I see now what a fool I was to believe we were part of this community.” br />
At this point, he turned away from the microphone, overcome with emotion. Mr. and Mrs. Bing were filled with sympathy and regret as the broadcast cut back to the news anchor at her desk.
“This year’s pageant has been canceled and all future Holiday Spectaculars have been put on hold. A spokesman for the Colchester family said they’re considering leaving Cedarville for good.”
“Leaving?” Mrs. Bing sat forward in alarm. “The Colchesters have been here for a hundred and fifty years! It wouldn’t be Cedarville without them!”
Griffin’s father shrugged unhappily. “I guess when the Star got stolen, Charles took it personally. Almost like the entire town had stabbed his family in the back.”
“That’s ridiculous!” his wife retorted. “I’m sure no one from Cedarville took the Star of Prague.”
The doorbell rang and Griffin got up to answer it, expecting to see Ben or another one of their friends. No one was happy about last night’s disaster … but that didn’t change the fact that they now had an entire two-week school break they would no longer be spending in elf mode. After all, sitting around being miserable wouldn’t bring back the stolen masterpiece.
He opened the door to find himself looking up at a tall uniformed policeman with dark eyes under heavy brows. “Long time no see, Griffin. Miss me?”
Griffin’s parents were on their feet. “Detective Sergeant Vizzini!” blurted Mrs. Bing. “What are you doing here?”
“Nice to see you folks, too.” The officer stepped past Griffin into the house. He looked around the living room. “New wallpaper, huh? I like the color.”
This was not Vizzini’s first visit to the Bing home. Nor was it the second or even the third. Cedarville had a small police department, and Griffin’s schemes had attracted their attention several times in the past. It had always worked out in the end. The Man With The Plan was usually found to be innocent or at least well meaning. Still, it was pretty unnerving when the big cop came calling.
“Exactly what can we do for you, Detective?” asked Mr. Bing.
Vizzini nodded in the direction of the TV, which was still tuned to coverage of the Colchester story. “I see you’re up to speed on the theft of the Star of Prague. I understand Griffin was on the scene last night.”
“We all were,” Mrs. Bing supplied. “Griffin happens to be an elf in this year’s Holiday Spectacular. I mean, he was an elf before the pageant was canceled.”
The officer turned his attention on Griffin. “And what were you doing at the moment the Star disappeared?”
“Wait a minute,” Mr. Bing interjected sharply. “Surely you’re not accusing Griffin?”
“I’m just gathering information,” Vizzini assured them. “Something valuable has gone missing. That’s happened a few times before around here—a rare baseball card, a winning lottery ticket, a Super Bowl ring. Put yourself in my shoes. Where would you start to look? Your son has always been tangled up in it somehow.”
“It’s okay, Dad. I’ve got nothing to hide.” Griffin faced the policeman. “I was in the throne room putting kids on Santa’s lap when the power failure happened.”
“You couldn’t really move in the dark,” Griffin replied. “It was too crowded. People were bumping into things and each other. The little kids were crying; parents were calling out names; everybody was pushing and shoving. So I just stayed put until Mr. Priddle told us to evacuate. Then you could kind of follow the crowd almost like you were riding a wave. I stayed in the yard until the lights came back on.”
During this explanation, Vizzini took out a ring-bound pad and began writing furiously. The scratching sound of his pen was like fingernails against a blackboard to Griffin. In his experience, the trouble usually started when Vizzini made notes.
At last, the dark eyes looked up from the pad. “And do you have any witnesses who can back up your story?”
“Well, uh, Pitch was with me—”
“You mean Antonia Benson, who could use her climbing skills to scale the tree to reach the Star of Prague?” Vizzini jumped in, flipping through his notes.
“Uh, yeah. Also Logan—”
“Logan Kellerman, your frequent accomplice, who submitted your name for the Holiday Spectacular in the first place?”
Griffin frowned. “Plus Savannah was there—”
“The Drysdale girl whose dog played a reindeer in the pageant and could easily have been trained to create a distraction?”
“Your best friend, whose small size would enable him to move through a crowd in the dark without being noticed,” the policeman concluded.
Griffin’s frown deepened to a grimace.
The big cop spoke again. “You left out Melissa Dukakis, whose expertise with electronics would make it child’s play for her to manufacture a power failure.”
“Actually, Melissa wasn’t with us the whole time,” Griffin told him. “She stayed inside to help the electrician fix the faulty wiring.”
No sooner had the words passed his lips than he wished he’d kept his mouth shut. That made it sound even worse. The note-making pen was just a blur.
All the things Vizzini was saying were true, but the detective seemed to be painting a picture to show that Griffin and his friends had volunteered to be elves just so they could get their hands on the Star of Prague!
Come to think of it, that was exactly how Griffin’s plans usually worked—he assembled a team of kids with special abilities and devised a way to combine those talents to achieve a goal. If they had wanted to heist the Star, the dark-eyed officer had just described the perfect operation to get it done.
Oh, man, Detective Sergeant Vizzini knows me better than I know myself!
There was only one thing wrong with what Vizzini was saying: Griffin was innocent. They all were.
Mr. Bing spoke up again. “I know Griffin and his friends have a bit of a … track record—”
“We call it a pattern of behavior,” the cop interrupted.
“But this isn’t even realistic,” Griffin’s father argued. “A baseball card is tiny. The Star of Prague is bigger than a basketball, solid glass, heavy and fragile. You’ve got to be joking if you think middle schoolers took it right under the noses of, like, four hundred people.”
“We don’t do joking in law enforcement,” Vizzini informed him solemnly. “Comedy isn’t a core subject at the police academy. We like facts. The Star of Prague is missing. That’s a fact, because otherwise it would still be at the top of that tree. And I’m talking to your son because he and his friends have been involved in this kind of thing before. Another fact.” He flipped his notebook shut and put it away in his jacket pocket. “I think we’re done here. Thanks for your time.” To Griffin he added, “I hope we won’t be seeing more of each other this holiday.”
As soon as the officer had left, Griffin found himself locked in the crossbeams of his parents’ twin glares.
“What?” He raised his hands in a gesture of innocence. “You just told Vizzini you believed me.”
“Should we believe you?” his mother probed.
“Of course! What would I want with a thousand-year-old stained-glass star?”
Dad made a sour face. “You’ll excuse us for thinking of you whenever we hear things like ‘ten million dollars.’”
“Those other times weren’t about the money,” Griffin said sincerely. “They were about justice and doing the right thing, even if it didn’t always work out that way. But the Star of Prague means nothing to me. I honestly never thought twice about it till it disappeared.”
Mrs. Bing put an arm around her son’s shoulders. “All right. We won’t panic, then. The police are probably just as upset as everybody else and that’s why they’re jumping to conclusions. The whole community is devastated about what happened to the Colchesters. And it just won’t be Christmas without Santa’s Workshop. Estelle Slovak had an idea. She thinks we should all step up our own holiday displays. Get
some spirit back in Cedarville.”
Mr. Bing nodded. “We’ve been leaning on the Colchesters for too long. Nobody around here remembers how to celebrate because we’re used to one family doing all the heavy lifting. That ends today. Have we still got that extra box of lights in the basement?”
“A box of lights won’t help me with the police,” Griffin mourned. “That guy barely stopped short of arresting me and my friends for stealing the Star.”
“Detective Vizzini was just overreacting because the news is so fresh and raw,” his mother soothed. “When the shock wears off, he’ll see that it couldn’t possibly have been you. And maybe lights will help a little. Everybody will calm down once they see that the holidays aren’t totally ruined because of one bad thing.”
Griffin ran his mind over the meeting with the tall policeman. He had seen that expression on Vizzini’s face before—bland and unemotional, yet absolutely relentless. A predator that would follow its prey to the ends of the earth.
Those were not good memories for Griffin.
He and his friends had to protect themselves—and there was only one surefire way to accomplish that.
It was time for a plan.
The reindeer stood like a column of soldiers in Ben’s front hall, leaning against the wall.
Luthor sidled up to the one nearest the door, adjusting his posture so that it mirrored the plastic decoration. Except for the antlers, the big Doberman was a perfect size match. The comparison seemed to confuse him. He had once worn antlers similar to these, but that didn’t happen anymore. What had changed? His canine brain couldn’t quite make sense of it all.
Ferret Face poked his head out of Ben’s shirt, watching the dog.
“Don’t even think about it, pal,” Ben warned the little creature. “There’s no such thing as a Christmas ferret.”
Savannah was there, too, but she only had eyes for the Doberman. “Poor Luthor’s been moping around ever since the Holiday Spectacular got canceled. He really misses Dirk.”
There was a knock at the door and Ben admitted Logan, Pitch, and Melissa.