jingle Page 7

  Ben was last. As slowly as possible, he dialed his number and prepared for the end of the world.

  “Hello, you’ve reached the Slovaks. No one is available to take your call …”

  He tried several times, but there was never any answer. So when the Bings arrived to collect their son, Ben was released to them as well.

  “I hope you’re satisfied, Griffin” was Mr. Bing’s harsh greeting as he strapped their bikes onto the station wagon’s roof rack. “How many times is this that we’ve had to pick you up at the police station?”

  “Only a few,” Griffin replied defensively.

  “I’m sorry that our son has gotten you in trouble again,” Mrs. Bing added to Ben.

  Griffin was insulted. “Hey, we’re innocent! All we did was rescue Savannah’s dog.”

  “Don’t give me that,” Griffin’s father snarled. “Savannah’s dog doesn’t need rescuing. Other people need rescuing from Savannah’s dog!”

  “Thanks for the ride,” Ben told them. “I’m not sure where my parents are, but they’ll probably be home soon.” He was not looking forward to it.

  They turned the corner onto Ben’s block. The lights were the first thing they saw. They stretched across the front of the house—big, multicolored, and spinning.

  Mrs. Bing stared. “Are those … dreidels?”

  “Oh, boy,” Ben breathed. They were dreidels. Ben counted fifteen of them dangling from the eaves, rotating slowly. Mr. Slovak perched atop a ladder stringing wires up the wall. He connected the ends of an extension cord and a large menorah lit up, too—with neon candle flames that flashed up and down to create the illusion of motion. The bushes sparkled with six-pointed stars, and a giant latke bearing the message EIGHT NIGHTS OF FUN AND SONG hung dead center on the front door.

  Ferret Face poked his head out of Ben’s coat to take in the spectacle.

  “I guess your dad’s really getting into Hanukkah this year,” Mr. Bing commented lamely.

  “Yeah, Ben, I thought you guys weren’t very religious,” Griffin put in.

  “How religious you are isn’t measured by the number of lights you put up,” Mrs. Bing reminded her son.

  “I just meant that the Slovaks never went all gung ho on Hanukkah before.”

  Ben was tight-lipped. “I knew what you meant.”

  The station wagon pulled over to the curb and the passengers stared in amazement. The left side of the house was festooned with the dreidels, the menorah, the latke, and blue and white lights. The right side featured Santa and his reindeer, the snowman, a YULETIDE GREETINGS roof sign, and red and green lights. There was no question about it: Hanukkah on the left and Christmas on the right, with Dad atop the ladder stapling wires on his side and Mom stringing tinsel around the juniper on hers. No wonder no one had answered his phone calls from the police station. They’d been out here the whole time, decorating.

  “It looks—nice,” Mrs. Bing offered.

  Ben could feel his face flushing beet red. It did not look nice. It looked like Christmas and Hanukkah were holding dueling pep rallies across the front of the Slovak home.

  Ben and the Bings got out of the car.

  “What do you think?” called Mr. Slovak. “Festive, right?”

  “It’s even more festive on this side,” his wife countered.

  Ben did the only thing he could think of to change the subject.

  “Guess what, you guys,” he announced. “I got arrested!”

  Neither of his parents even heard.

  Ben gazed up at the fiddler on his roof and wondered how it had come to this.

  Ferret Face was looking at the fiddler, too, and cringing from the buzz of the fluorescent lighting. Most of the decorations emitted some sort of power hum, but the fiddler was loudest, rivaling even the inflatable snowman’s spotlight, which could sound like a chain saw when the wind blew in the wrong direction.

  It had started out innocently enough—an attempt to make up the shortfall in holiday spirit after Santa’s Workshop got the ax. Who knew that when Dad saw the Santa, his reindeer, and his sleigh, he’d want equal time for Hanukkah? Or that the sight of all those spinning dreidels and the neon menorah would drive Mom to buy the chorus of angels, the manger, and all those jingle bells?

  Now the Slovak house lit up the entire sky over Cedarville. It was beyond embarrassing. It made it practically impossible to get any shut-eye. Even with the blinds drawn, Ben’s room was awash with flashing color. It kept Ferret Face up, too—and when Ferret Face didn’t sleep, nobody slept. The little creature couldn’t comprehend exactly what was wrong, but he knew something was. Alert to a danger that would never come, he twitched all night, gnawing holes in Ben’s mattress.

  Then there was the music—the bells from the carillon, the carols from the three wise men, and the rousing choruses of “Hava Nagila” and other klezmer favorites coming from the fiddler. Taken individually, there was nothing wrong with any of these. The problem was, they were playing at the same time, warring with one another—the carols coming from the west side of the house, the klezmer from the east, and the bells blasting from behind the chimney.

  Ben recognized Griffin’s cringe as The Man With The Plan came up the front walk. It was the same neck-into-your-shoulders cringe he’d been seeing on the neighbors these days. Also on the mail carrier and the guy from the power company who came to read the meter and couldn’t believe how fast it was spinning. There were zero complaints, though. Nobody wanted to come across as anti-holiday. Which meant that Mom and Dad might never get the message that they were going way off the deep end.

  “Is it just me or has it gotten louder?” asked Griffin.

  “Dad hooked up a second speaker to the fiddler,” Ben confessed miserably. “He was worried the klezmer was getting drowned out by the bells.”

  “Don’t worry. Another week and the holidays will be over.”

  “I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to move after this,” Ben predicted. “You know, before we get run out of town.”

  Griffin laughed appreciatively. “At least you’ve still got your sense of humor. Now listen. Pitch planted a webcam across from the old tennis racket factory, and Melissa has been monitoring the live feed. Crenshaw and his buddies are in and out of that place every day. We’ve got to find out what they’re doing in there.”

  “The last time we spied on that guy we wound up arrested in a bar fight,” Ben reminded him.

  “This is important,” Griffin persisted. “It’s hard to make progress on Operation Starchaser because we have so many suspects to follow up on. But for all we know, Crenshaw and his biker friends have had the Star of Prague hidden in that factory all along. We’ve got to get a look around inside there.”

  “We’d have to break in,” Ben reminded him. “I don’t think Detective Sergeant Vizzini would like that.”

  “I wasn’t planning to run it by him first,” Griffin admitted. “I mean, the company is out of business and the building is abandoned. If Crenshaw and his pals can go in and out of there, why can’t we?”

  “Because they’ve got a key?” Ben suggested.

  “Okay, so they have a key. But we’ve got something just as good.”

  Ben was skeptical. “What’s that?”

  “A plan.”

  Pitch lay on her bed, her iPad propped against her knees, her mood darkening with every YouTube video. She was watching clips of lucky rock climbers tackling the Red Rocks of Sedona and having a great time doing it. This was her trip—the one that the Benson family had planned until everybody had lost their minds and decided she had to be an elf instead. Only now that the elf job had fallen through, it was too late to book Sedona. What a waste! That had to be the worst trade in the world: an amazing climbing trip in exchange for suspicion of Grand Theft Star of Prague.

  Seasons greetings.

  When the text pinged on her iPad, she was grateful to exit the video. Each beautiful vista, each handhold, foothold, carabiner clip and length of rope, each exhilara
ted climber added to her despair. This was a winter break she would never get back. Somebody owed her one winter break!

  The text was from Melissa, who was monitoring their newest webcam. A one-word message: NOW.

  Pitch ran downstairs and shrugged into her coat. “I’m going over to Griffin’s!” she called, and let herself outside. It was half true. She was headed to the Bing house first, but that was merely the rendezvous point. Their final destination lay on DeWitt Street, number 14—the old tennis racket factory.

  It was only 7:15, but this time of year the sky was already full dark. As she passed Ben’s block, the glow of the Slovak house caught her eye. It caught everybody’s eye these days—everybody within a twenty-mile radius, anyway.

  Ben was hurrying down the street, and she paused to let him catch up.

  “Your place looks like Las Vegas,” she commented.

  He nodded in glum agreement and, peering out through the collar of his coat, Ferret Face seemed to nod, too. “And on top of it all, we’re in the middle of a plan.”

  Pitch sighed. “This break is completely trashed. There might as well be a plan to make it interesting. Besides, I’m starting to get kind of curious. Who did steal that dumb Star?”

  Griffin was waiting for them at the end of his driveway.

  “Where are the others?” Pitch asked.

  “It’s just us,” Griffin told her. “Minimum personnel to reduce the chances of getting caught.”

  “I hate that word.” Ben shivered. “Caught.”

  “Good idea,” Pitch agreed, thinking of all six team members under arrest at the Mug’s Mug.

  Griffin delivered the scouting report. “According to Melissa, the only people who go in and out of that building are Crenshaw and his biker buddies. They left about half an hour ago. This is our chance to see what they’re up to. It’s definitely some kind of headquarters. For all we know, the Star is sitting there in plain sight.”

  Ben looked worried. “What would we do with a ten-million-dollar work of art even if we found it?”

  “I don’t know what you guys have in mind,” Pitch said, “but I vote we march it straight to the police station and shove it up Vizzini’s nose. The nerve of that guy, trying to hang this on us. Doesn’t he know the first rule of detective work? The Santa did it.”

  They made their way through neighborhoods, past downtown, to the mostly deserted industrial area near Route 31, then onto DeWitt Street and number 14.

  The old building was run-down and seedy, with tall weeds all around it.

  Griffin tried the doorknob. Locked.

  “I assumed your precious plan was prepared for this situation,” Pitch put in.

  In answer, Griffin reached into his pocket and produced a hairpin, a nail file, a shrimp fork, a corkscrew, and an expired credit card. He went to work jamming the various implements into the lock while sliding the credit card into the space between the door and the jamb, hoping to flip the bolt. No luck.

  Ben was obviously relieved. “Well, we gave it a good try …”

  “You guys are such dopes.” Pitch was already halfway up the building, climbing confidently along an old metal-encased electrical cable. She was moving toward a large high window with several broken panes. When she got there, she reached in, found the latch, and opened it. From there it was a simple matter to swing the window out and insert herself inside. Three minutes later, the factory lights came on. There was the click of a lock and the front door swung wide.

  There stood Pitch, inviting them in. “Step into my parlor. Wait till you see what’s here.”

  “Is it the Star?” Griffin asked eagerly. “It’s the Star, right?”

  “Not exactly.”

  Pitch led them farther into the factory. Dozens of desks and workbenches had been pushed over to the walls, clearing an area at the center of the large room. Piled there were amplifiers, speakers, a sound mixer, and a variety of musical instruments—three guitars, an electric bass, a keyboard, a tenor saxophone, a trombone, and a large assortment of drums.

  Ben looked around. “No Star.”

  “Maybe not,” conceded Griffin. “But this proves that they’re a gang of thieves.”

  “How do you figure that?” asked Pitch.

  “Where do you think all this comes from? They must have just hit a music store. Remember what Vizzini said—the Mug’s Mug is a hangout for crooks fencing stolen goods. They must warehouse the swag here until they find a buyer.”

  Ben was skeptical. “I don’t know, Griffin. This stuff looks pretty expensive, but the Star of Prague is supposed to be worth ten million dollars. If you have something that valuable, why would you bother with this junk?”

  Pitch had a theory. “It’s only worth ten million if you can find someone who wants to pay it. Not a lot of people have that kind of money. You saw the Mug’s Mug. You think anybody in that dump has ten million bucks? So while they’re waiting for some super-rich zillionaire to come and buy the Star, they still have to pay the bills. And they keep on stealing.”

  “Do you think the Star could be sold already?” mused Ben.

  “I doubt it,” Griffin replied. “Crenshaw and his gang were here as recently as half an hour ago. If you had ten million bucks, would you be wasting your time in a place like this?”

  Pitch wrinkled her nose. “If I had that kind of money, I’d hire a cleaning lady.” She indicated the floor around the instruments, which was littered with fast-food containers, snack wrappers, and cigar butts. “Santa Slob is going to end up on his own naughty list.”

  The three invested a few minutes searching the factory space for anything that might have been hiding the Star. It would have been a tragedy to overlook the priceless artwork just because it was inside a burlap sack or behind a stack of boxes. But there was no sign of it. Except for the instruments and related gear, the building contained nothing but old office furniture and equipment, a few startled mice, and dust, dust, dust.

  The three friends were heading for the exit when the door flew open and in stalked a young bodybuilder type, with a shaved head and muscles that showed through his heavy leather jacket. Spying the middle schoolers, he frowned, bringing half his bald head down to his brow.

  “Where’s Fingers?” he asked.

  Griffin was the only one who still had a voice. “He’s—uh—not in right now. Can I take a message?”

  “Who are you three, and what are doing here?” The newcomer’s eyes narrowed as they focused on Griffin. “Are you Fingers’s kid?”

  Please tell me I don’t look like him! Griffin’s mind was racing. His first thought had been that one of Crenshaw’s pals had walked in on them. But none of that gang was this young, this bald, or this muscular. And yet, the intruder was definitely familiar. Griffin had seen him somewhere before. But where?

  The newcomer interpreted Griffin’s terrified silence as a yes. “Don’t worry—I’m not going to hurt you. You shouldn’t have to suffer just because your old man’s a deadbeat. But you tell him this: Gustave says what he owes is getting out of hand and taking too long. There are going to be consequences.”

  All at once, Griffin realized where he’d seen the bald muscleman before. Outside the Colchester mansion, during one of Crenshaw’s many cigar breaks, this threatening visitor had appeared several times—always demanding payment to settle gambling debts.

  “Your old man told me he was coming into mad cheddar around Christmas,” the enforcer went on. “That’s now. Where’s the cash?”

  “I—I—I’ll tell him,” Griffin stammered.

  “Either I get paid, or it’s an unhappy ending all around. Make sure he knows that.” He glanced out the window at the litter-strewn street and added, “You kids should go home. You run into a lot of creeps in this neighborhood.” He stormed out, slamming the door behind him. Seconds later, they heard a high-powered engine and the squeal of tires pulling away.

  “Man,” reflected Pitch, “Dirk Crenshaw may be a big jerk, but I feel sorry for him. How’d yo
u like to have Gustave mad at you?”

  “Save your sympathy,” Griffin advised. “You heard what he said—Crenshaw told him he’d be coming into ‘mad cheddar.’ That means money. He’s got the Star.”

  “Shouldn’t we warn him?” asked Ben. “Star or not, I’d want to know if some big scary cue ball was coming to give me an unhappy ending.”

  “We can’t,” Pitch insisted. “Not without admitting we’ve been snooping around his hideout.”

  “I agree,” said Griffin. “It’s not our problem that Crenshaw’s got himself in trouble with dangerous people.”

  “It is if he tells Gustave that he doesn’t have a son, and Gustave comes looking for us,” Ben quavered.

  Griffin stared at him. “You think too much. Let’s get out of here. We need to adjust the plan. The other suspects are on the back burner. From now on, we focus on Fingers.”

  Griffin sighed. Savannah was hanging on to her theory of Crenshaw’s innocence. In her opinion, Luthor’s devotion was better than any lie-detector test. Fingers couldn’t be guilty, because Luthor could never love a crook.

  Griffin hoped she’d give her all to the next phase of the plan. The team could not sacrifice even one pair of eyes and ears for this kind of surveillance blitz.

  He checked his phone, which showed a split-screen display of the various camera feeds and played audio from the two microphones. What if nobody was watching or listening when Crenshaw revealed where he’d stashed the Star? Of course, Melissa was also recording everything. But with a career criminal like Crenshaw, they’d have to act fast. He’d never leave such a hot item exposed for very long.

  The sound of running water came from the phone’s small speaker. And was that singing?

  Singing in the shower definitely didn’t fit Crenshaw’s profile as a master thief. Come to think of it, showering at all was kind of surprising for such a slob. No more surprising than a part-time job as a Santa Claus. But he’d only taken that to get close to the Star of Prague.

  Griffin silenced his phone and headed downstairs. He found his father pacing the kitchen, his face careworn.