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jingle Page 5


  “Where’s Griffin?” Pitch asked.

  “On his way,” Ben promised. “Over the phone, he said it was really important that we meet this morning.”

  Mr. Slovak appeared at the bottom of the stairs. “Oh, hi, kids—whoa!” He stopped in his tracks. “That’s a lot of reindeer.”

  “It isn’t even all of them,” Ben informed him. “Dasher’s leg broke off, Blitzen won’t light up, and there’s a short circuit in Rudolph’s nose.”

  His father looked exhausted. “I just spent three hours blowing up the inflatable snowman.”

  “All our folks are doing it, Mr. Slovak,” Logan explained. “Everybody’s trying to get into the spirit of the season since the Holiday Spectacular got shut down.”

  Mr. Slovak’s gaze traveled the length of the reindeer team to its payload—a huge sleigh bearing a smiling, red-suited Saint Nick. Then he turned to the menorah on the table at the base of the stairs. It seemed alone and forlorn. “Seems a little one-sided,” he said finally. “I mean, we’re Jewish, too.”

  Melissa agitated her head to part her curtain of hair. “The point is to show holiday spirit,” she said seriously. “I don’t think it matters which holiday you’re showing spirit for.”

  “I guess I always figured it would be a little more … evenhanded,” Mr. Slovak reasoned.

  “But there are tons of Christmas decorations you can buy,” Ben told his father. “Hanukkah’s great, but it just doesn’t have as much stuff. You can’t deck the halls with menorahs. Most people only have one.”

  In answer, Mr. Slovak pulled his coat off the rack and shrugged into it. “If your mother asks, I’m at the mall. I might be a while.” He opened the door and brushed past Griffin, who was coming up the walk. “Hi, Griffin. Bye, Griffin.” He got into his car and sped off.

  “What’s up with your dad?” Griffin asked Ben.

  “Not a big reindeer fan,” Ben replied. “What’s so urgent that we had to drop everything and meet?”

  “Guys,” said Griffin, “Detective Sergeant Vizzini was at my house yesterday.”

  “That’s old news,” Pitch informed him. “He was at my house, too. At this point, my folks just yawn and put on a pot of coffee when they see the squad car in our driveway.”

  One by one, the others confirmed that they, too, had been visited by the tall policeman.

  “Don’t you think it’s a problem that the cops suspect us of stealing the Star of Prague?” Griffin challenged.

  “This is called ‘being innocent,’” Ben lectured. “It’s unfamiliar to you because we’re usually guilty up to our necks. But in the end, who cares what Vizzini suspects? We didn’t do it. He can search all our houses from top to bottom and he won’t find the Star.”

  “It doesn’t matter that we’re innocent if everybody thinks we’re guilty,” Griffin argued. “Vizzini will never leave us alone—the guy’s like a horsefly who’s after a taste of your blood. And it’s not just him. My mom called for a hair appointment and got a long lecture about how her son’s greed had ruined the holidays for everybody else. Then they made her wait on hold for twenty minutes before connecting her to the fax machine.”

  Pitch raised an eyebrow. “You know, that kind of explains what happened to us last night. My dad took us out to this fancy dinner. You know, to make up for no climbing trip—like that could ever happen. Anyway, when they saw us, they tried to pretend we didn’t have a reservation. Finally, they gave us the worst table in the place, right next to the bathroom. And the whole time, the waiters and busboys were shooting me these dirty looks.”

  “My mom picked up our clothes from the cleaners and mine were all blue,” Logan announced.

  “That could be an accident,” Ben suggested.

  “Just my stuff—nobody else’s?” Logan insisted. “The cleaners have little kids—big Santa’s Workshop fans.”

  “You see?” Griffin was triumphant. “And it’s only going to get worse as the rumors spread about whose fault it is that the holidays stink.”

  “Is that why you called us here?” Pitch growled. “To explain why our names are mud in this town?”

  “Our names are mud now,” Griffin amended. “They don’t have to stay that way—if we take action.”

  From his back pocket, he produced a sheet of paper. The others watched as he unfolded it in front of them. Even Luthor, who had been moping around in front of the plastic Santa, looked on in interest. Ferret Face peered down from Ben’s collar.

  “Operation?” Ben blurted. “But that’s a—”

  “A plan,” finished Pitch, her expression severe. “Griffin, you know we don’t do the p-word anymore—not unless it’s an emergency. How many times did we almost get ourselves thrown in jail? How many times did our parents threaten to string us up by our thumbs? And it’s even more dangerous now that Vizzini is nosing around.”

  “That’s why Operation Starchaser is so important,” Griffin reasoned. “We have to figure out who stole the Star of Prague just to prove that it wasn’t us. Think about it: If the Colchesters leave Cedarville, we’ll never be off the hook. How’d you like to spend the rest of your life as the town Scrooge?”

  “Worse than Scrooge,” mused Logan. “He was a cheapskate and a jerk, but at least he never stole anything.”

  “Exactly.” Griffin held up the paper for the others to read:

  Pitch was dubious. “As much as I hate to say it, I’m pretty sure Vader’s innocent. How does ripping off the kid’s grandfather help him suck up to Russell?”

  “Plus he was out of the house just a few minutes after we were,” Ben added. “It’s not like you can hide the Star under an elf suit—not even his size.”

  “Not unless he stashed it somewhere as soon as he stole it,” mused Melissa.

  Logan shook his head. “But didn’t Vizzini say the cops searched the Colchester mansion? Surely they would have found it.”

  “I’m not saying it’s definitely Vader,” Griffin reminded them. “A lot of the suspects were on the lawn with us. How come it took them so long to get there? We had to fight the same crowd, work our way through the same obstacle course. If you think about it, we should have been last out, since we started inside the throne room.”

  “Well, there’s no way Dirk did it,” Savannah put in positively. “Luthor could never love a felon.” She indicated the Doberman, who was rubbing up against Santa’s sleigh, whining mournfully.

  “Mrs. Boucle didn’t steal anything, either,” added Logan. “The theater attracts only high-quality people.”

  “Which is why there are six suspects,” Griffin explained. “Five of them have to be innocent. Operation Starchaser is going to help us figure out who isn’t.”

  Pitch folded her arms in front of her. “And that happens how?”

  With a flourish, Griffin flipped the paper over to the reverse side.

  There was an audible groan. Nothing was more boring than skulking around in people’s bushes, waiting for evidence or a clue that might never come.

  “Come on, you guys, maybe it won’t be so bad,” Griffin offered. “A ten-million-dollar art treasure can’t be the easiest thing to hide—especially if you’re trying to sell it. Find the Star and we’ve found our thief.”

  Thirty feet off the ground, Pitch appeared to be the size of a squirrel. She certainly scrambled up the trunk of the tree with the ease of one. For a member of the Benson family, climbing was as natural as breathing.

  From below, Griffin and Ben watched her crawl out onto a sturdy limb that extended toward the wall of the Colchester mansion. From her jacket pocket, she produced a small object and placed it on the branch. Then she spoke into a miniature walkie-talkie clipped to the collar of her coat.

  “How’s that?” her voice crackled through the unit in Griffin’s hand.

  “Melissa?” Griffin asked.

  Melissa was listening through another walkie-talkie. She was at home in her room, which served as tech headquarters for Operation Starchaser. “Tilt it just a
little to the left.”

  Pitch manipulated the tiny webcam, and the video feed on Melissa’s laptop came into perfect focus. It peered in through a second-story window of the mansion, showing the upstairs hallway and the top of the tree, where the Star of Prague had once gleamed in all its multicolored glory.

  “Right there,” Melissa confirmed.

  Pitch wrapped a wire around the webcam, securing it into place on the branch. Then she descended to place another, where it would keep watch over the service entrance to the mansion—the one that the elves had used.

  “I’ll never get used to the way she flits around up there,” Ben commented nervously. “What would we do if she fell?”

  “Pitch doesn’t fall,” Griffin said confidently. “That tree will hit the ground before she does.”

  She was halfway back down to ground level when Melissa’s urgent warning came through the walkie-talkie.

  “Freeze!”

  Her voice was so emphatic that Ferret Face clutched at Ben’s chest with all four paws.

  “Ow!”

  “What is it?” Griffin asked in a low voice.

  “Someone’s coming out of the house,” she hissed.

  Griffin grabbed Ben by the wrist and the two ducked into the shelter of a toolshed. As he slid the doors silently shut, he caught a glimpse of Priddle, his three-piece suit immaculate, stepping out onto the walkway. Twenty feet above them, Pitch plastered herself around the far side of the tree trunk, out of Priddle’s view.

  Crouched amid the gardening tools, Ben turned terrified eyes on his best friend. Griffin put a hand over Ben’s mouth. “Not a sound,” he whispered. To be caught on the Colchester property so soon after the theft of the Star would look very, very bad.

  But the voice they heard next was not Priddle’s aristocratic English accent.

  “I’ve been afraid of something like this for years,” Mr. O’Bannon, the electrician, lamented from outside the shed. “See? The melting snow seeped through this crack in the foundation. There’s an electrical box in the cellar just below there. It shorted out the wires, and poof!”

  “Melting snow.” The personal assistant sighed. “In a year when we haven’t seen so much as a flake. But that’s not festive enough for Charles Colchester. He has to groom the entire property like a ski slope.”

  “I feel bad for the boss,” Mr. O’Bannon told him, “but I can’t say I’m sorry to see the end of Santa’s Workshop. Keeping the power flowing to all those lights and machines is a hassle I don’t need. I always knew something like this might happen. But I never dreamed somebody would be low enough to use it to steal the Star of Prague.”

  “The human animal is a complex creature,” Priddle agreed philosophically. “But this black cloud may indeed have a silver lining. I’ve never seen Mr. Colchester so disillusioned and upset. I suspect we both have suffered through our last Holiday Spectacular. A lost art treasure is a small price to pay for that.”

  The electrician sounded surprised. “I know why I’ve got a problem with Santa’s Workshop. But what’s your beef with it?”

  “The reason I chose not to have children of my own is because I abhor them,” Priddle replied honestly. “The Holiday Spectacular is a seasonally recurring nightmare I’ll have no difficulty living without.”

  Griffin turned to Ben and mouthed the words: He hates kids. That was extra motive to throw a monkey wrench into Santa’s Workshop.

  Priddle spoke again. “Strange. I could have sworn these doors had been closed all the way.”

  Griffin and Ben dove under a tarpaulin, cracking their heads together as they sought cover in the company of a small lawn tractor. Priddle shut the doors, blotting out what little light was in the shed.

  The boys cowered there, barely daring to breathe. Griffin felt a clammy wetness soaking through the leg of his jeans. He looked down to see he was kneeling in a small puddle trickling from the end of a coil of hose. He began to shiver uncontrollably. It was freezing! He had to get into dry clothes before he wound up with frostbite! But how could he do that with Priddle and O’Bannon standing right there?

  Fighting to control his trembling body, he got to his feet and peered out of the tarpaulin.

  The scraping of the sliding doors dropped him back to the misery of the puddle. He and Ben felt, rather than heard, the footsteps of someone entering the shed. Their eyes met in agony. Who was it? Priddle? O’Bannon? Both?

  “Boo!”

  Both boys jumped. The sudden movement sent the tarpaulin billowing off the tractor, exposing their pink and guilty faces.

  They gawked. Pitch stood in the middle of the shed, laughing at them. “You look like you’ve seen the zombie apocalypse!”

  “Hide!” Griffin breathed.

  “We’re good,” Pitch assured them airily. “Those guys went inside. The coast is clear.”

  Ben pushed an agitated Ferret Face back under his collar and glared at Pitch resentfully. “You’re a real comedian.”

  “I know, right? Nice wet spot,” she added, noting the dark shape on Griffin’s pant leg.

  “Leaky hose,” Griffin explained, teeth chattering. “I’m g-g-glad my hypothermia is so enter-t-t-taining to you.”

  “Is everything okay?” Melissa’s voice was so soft that the others barely heard her through the walkie-talkie.

  Griffin brought up his own handset. “Let’s just p-p-plant the rest of the webcams and get out of here. We should probably stick a few around Miss G-G-Grier’s house, too.”

  In spite of everything, it felt good to have a plan in action. He wondered how Logan and Savannah were doing with their parts of Operation Starchaser.

  Hurry up, Mom. I want to catch them before they go out for the day.”

  Mrs. Kellerman made a left turn and peered across the front seat at her son. “I hope you’re not still bugging Mrs. Boucle, Logan. If she doesn’t need you for the North Shore Players, you have to accept that. It’s her theater company, not yours.”

  “I’m not bugging her,” Logan promised. “It isn’t even her I’m going to see. I’m visiting her daughter, Tiffany.”

  Mrs. Kellerman was suspicious. “How do you know Yvette Boucle’s daughter?”

  “We were elves together, Mom. That’s a special bonding experience. You’re not in the theater, so you wouldn’t understand. But when you act with someone, working side by side, molding your individual talents and abilities together to achieve a common creative goal, that’s huge! You’re like brothers—or, in Tiffany’s case, sisters. I mean, I’m the brother; she’s the sister.”

  When Griffin had been handing out the surveillance assignments for Operation Starchaser, Logan had readily volunteered to cover Yvette Boucle. It would be a no-brainer for the young actor to fall into the role of Tiffany’s friend. And in the process, if he happened to really impress her mother and get her to change her mind about the North Shore Players, so much the better. It would be a win-win for everyone.

  His mother sighed behind the wheel. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

  Logan said nothing. For theater people, knowing what you were doing was highly overrated. A true actor went with his gut. And Logan’s gut was pointing in the direction of the Boucle house in Green Hollow. Only—

  “Hit the brakes!” Logan bellowed.

  Mrs. Kellerman pulled over so suddenly that the front wheels of the car bumped up over the curb. “Logan, have you lost your mind?”

  Logan stared at the petite figure on the walk of a large house set well back from the road. That was Tiffany! What was she doing in Cedarville?

  All at once, he recognized the stately brick home. It was the Vaders’ place! Tiffany was visiting Darren. He experienced a surge of consternation. Logan would never understand what Tiffany—a fellow performer—would want with the likes of Darren.

  He opened the door. “Change of plans. I’m getting out here.”

  “But what about Tiffany?”

  “She’s already here. I forgot. It’s, like, an … e
lves reunion.” He was babbling a little, so the line didn’t ring as true as Logan might have liked. But he covered it up by scrambling out to the sidewalk and slamming the door behind him. No way was he going to let Darren steal his chance to make friends with Tiffany and impress Yvette Boucle. Logan was going to crash this little party.

  It wasn’t really part of his assignment. But come to think of it, Darren was a suspect, too, so this would be good for Operation Starchaser. Griffin would be pleased.

  Logan called out to Tiffany, but she was already stepping inside the big house. He hurried up the long walk and rapped smartly on the door.

  It took a long time for Mrs. Vader to answer. She had just admitted Tiffany and wasn’t expecting another visitor so soon.

  “Oh, hello. Logan, isn’t it?”

  Logan nodded. “I’m here to see—Darren.” He almost choked on the name.

  “Darren!” she called upstairs. “Your friend Logan is here!”

  “Logan?” came the reply. “I don’t have any friend named Logan. I know an idiot named Logan, but even he would have the brains to figure out that he’s not welcome at my house.”

  “He’s just being silly.” Mrs. Vader beamed. “Go on up.”

  In addition to Darren and Tiffany, Logan was surprised to find Russell Colchester in the spacious bedroom. Apparently, the bromance between the rich kid and the richer kid was still on even though the Holiday Spectacular was off.

  “What are you doing here, Kellerman?” Darren drawled. “Shouldn’t you be home polishing your Academy Awards?”

  Tiffany giggled. Even though it was meant as an insult, Logan was secretly pleased. Any reminder of Logan’s acting was something she might take home to her mother.

  “It sure is boring now that we’re not elves anymore,” Logan announced, bringing up the only thing all four of them had in common. “Russell, I figured you’d be heading back to California now that the Holiday Spectacular has been canceled.”

  “I wish!” Russell exclaimed fervently. “If my folks weren’t in the Galápagos Islands, you wouldn’t see me for dust. My grandfather’s driving me nuts. You’d think the whole world ground to a halt because his stupid Star went missing.”