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“Everything okay, Dad?”
Mr. Bing slumped in a chair. “Daria Vader isn’t taking my calls.”
Griffin took a seat across from him. “Maybe she lost her phone.”
“It’s the landline she uses for her law practice,” Mr. Bing replied sadly. “She’s not answering my e-mails, either.”
“Take a drive over there,” Griffin suggested.
His father shook his head. “It won’t do any good. There’s a problem with the new patent application. I can feel it.”
“But you tested Fruit Armor,” Griffin reminded him. “It worked perfectly. The golf club, remember?”
“In order to be awarded a patent, an invention has to do more than just work,” Mr. Bing explained. “It has to be unique, and it has to perform a worthwhile function. Mrs. Vader’s a good lawyer, but she’s a stickler. She’s not always the easiest person to deal with.”
“That runs in some families,” Griffin commented, thinking of Darren.
He eased his phone out of his pocket and snuck a look at it under the table. Crenshaw, now wrapped in an old bathrobe and puffing on a cigar, came padding outside, carrying an overstuffed garbage bag. He tossed it at the trash bin and missed. The thin plastic broke apart, spewing chicken bones, candy wrappers, and banana peels all over the ground. He stared at the mess for a moment, shrugged, turned around, and padded back into the building.
It was hard evidence that the former Santa was a pig. What they needed was evidence he was a criminal.
Come on, Fingers. Where did you hide the Star?
They were on the right track—Griffin was sure of it. They just had to wait for the thief to make a mistake.
* * *
The faded black-and-white photograph showed a boy of about twelve, blond and beaming, in the Great Hall of the Colchester mansion.
A boy of exactly twelve, Charles Colchester corrected himself. He knew this, because the child was himself in 1947, the first year he’d been an elf in his grandfather’s Holiday Spectacular.
Mr. Colchester remembered the exhilarating details of that old pageant as if it had happened only yesterday. The world had just come through a terrible depression, followed by a terrible war, but all that disappeared the instant you stepped into the Great Hall. As you stood beneath the towering tree with the Star of Prague at its peak, all your cares were carried away, replaced by music and celebration, food, drink, and fun.
A wave of melancholy swept over the patriarch of the Colchester family. The long-standing tradition of Santa’s Workshop had survived wars, depressions, storms, labor disputes, flu epidemics, and even the year the tree had been struck by freak lightning aboard the flatbed truck that was bringing it down from Maine. Was the loss of the Star of Prague—devastating as it was—worse than World War II? Did it warrant selling this wonderful old mansion on Long Island Sound and leaving Cedarville, which had been home to Colchesters for more than a century and a half?
It wasn’t even the financial loss. The Star had been insured with Lloyd’s of London. It was the betrayal—the fact that one of his neighbors had taken what was so much a symbol of the Colchesters. The family had given so much to the community, and this was their reward. For Charles Colchester, there was no getting past it.
The police were doing everything possible, but still could not reassure him that the Star would ever be recovered. It was as if the Star had disappeared into thin air.
There was a knock at the door of the study, and Priddle entered. Ah, loyal Priddle—what would Mr. Colchester have done without his trusted assistant throughout these dark days?
“Sir, I have a message from your son and daughter-in-law in the Galápagos. They’ll be returning home soon, and have arranged for young Russell to fly back to California on the night of the twenty-fourth.”
“Christmas Eve,” Mr. Colchester mused glumly. “So not even Russell will be here for Christmas.”
“That must be very disappointing, sir,” Priddle offered.
“Just one of many disappointments this year. But facts must be faced. I wanted to share the Holiday Spectacular with my grandson. Now that’s off, so there’s nothing to share.”
A volley of running footsteps sounded from downstairs.
“Walk, boys!” Priddle called over his shoulder. To his employer, he explained, “That would be Russell and his friend Darren looking for snacks in the kitchen. Boys that age are bottomless pits.”
Mr. Colchester nodded. Darren, who was ample, to say the least, was the bottomless pit. He was not the sort of company Mr. Colchester would have chosen for Russell. But he had to admit he was glad that his grandson had someone to “hang out” with, as the young people put it. It was pretty plain that Russell wasn’t too fond of Cedarville. So much for the hope that a role in Santa’s Workshop would change his mind on that.
Perhaps it was just as well that the boy was going home.
Would you mind hurrying it up, Logan?” Mr. Kellerman demanded impatiently. “You’ve been sitting there for ten minutes. Pick a color and let’s go.”
Logan sat in front of the lighted mirror at Theatricality, his favorite performers’ supply store. With a cosmetic sponge, he applied a dab of makeup to his left cheek and compared it to the dab on his right. “Still not perfect.” He rubbed it all off, rinsed the sponges, and started again.
“Logan …” his father warned.
“You know, the least you could do is be patient, Dad,” Logan said irritably. “I inherited my weak chin from you. If I can’t find the right shade to build it up, I’ll never ace my audition with the North Shore Players when I get it.”
Mr. Kellerman exhaled in exasperation. “Five minutes, and not a second longer. My weak chin and I will be waiting for you at the cash register.” He started away.
“Pick up a copy of Backstage magazine while you’re over there,” Logan called after him. He tried another makeup color. Better, but not quite there.
A sound reached him then—a young girl’s voice singing “O Holy Night.” She was good. No, better than good—fantastic. And strangely familiar …
He spotted Tiffany Boucle standing by a rack of sheet music. She wasn’t singing, though. It was her voice, but the music was coming from the phone in her hand.
He rushed over to join her. “Wow, Tiffany. That’s awesome!” He meant it, too, and not just because her mother could get him into the North Shore Players.
Well, maybe a little bit because of that. But she really was awesome.
“Oh, hi, Logan. Thanks. My mom recorded it and posted it to YouTube.” She held out the screen, which showed her in a red party dress, singing in front of a roaring fire.
“This is my favorite store,” Logan enthused. “I get all my stage makeup here. And their costumes are good, too.”
“I’m looking for a new song to perform at the North Shore Players’ holiday party. Mom’s going to let me do a couple of numbers.”
Logan bit his tongue. He’d have given anything to be at that party, but these days he was on Yvette Boucle’s Least Wanted list. “Well, if the video is any indication, you’re going to blow everybody away.”
She looked grateful for a moment. Then two small tears began to roll down her pale cheeks.
Logan was horrified. “Why are you crying? I said you were great!”
“Not you!” she blubbered. “When I showed the clip to Darren, he told me I sounded like—like—like some poor dinosaur caught in the tar pits!”
“I don’t think they had tar pits in the time of the dinosaurs,” Logan pointed out.
“He didn’t mean it literally!” she exploded. “He thinks I stink. I’ve done everything I could think of to catch Darren’s attention, and he treats me like I’m—like I’m—”
“Pond scum?” Logan suggested helpfully.
Tiffany only cried harder.
“Well,” Logan explained reasonably, “that’s because Darren Vader is a terrible person. If you’d grown up in Cedarville instead of Green Hollow, you’d a
lready know that.”
He thought it would make her feel better. Instead, she became even more distressed. “How dare you say that about Darren! He may be a little rough on the outside, but deep down I know he’s sweet and funny and caring and wonderful! I like him so much …” She fell silent, overcome with emotion.
Logan stared at her perfect heart-shaped face. She wasn’t kidding. Her moist, puffy eyes were wide with sincerity. She honestly felt this strongly about Vader!
Unbelievable! How unfair was that?
Logan remembered an acting workshop he’d once taken in New York City. “You must explain your character’s motivation for all things except one,” the teacher had lectured. “Love. There is no rational reason why one person falls for another. It simply happens.”
It was not logical, the man had concluded. But it was absolutely human.
In other words, I shouldn’t be offended at all that Tiffany prefers an obnoxious lunkheaded oaf who treats her like garbage over me. She’s just being human.
That gave Logan an idea.
“You’re right,” he soothed. “That’s just Darren’s tough exterior. Inside he’s really”—Logan nearly gagged over the word—“nice.”
“Do you honestly think so?” Tiffany asked earnestly.
“I don’t just think it—I’m positive,” Logan assured her. “And as your friend, I promise to do my best to make sure that great guy comes to see what a great girl he’s got in you.”
She brightened, and Logan understood that he had said exactly the right thing. If he kept this up, he’d be in the North Shore Players before he knew it.
The young actor realized he was now facing the most difficult and challenging role of his career: somebody who didn’t believe Darren Vader was evil.
* * *
Ben was outraged.
The e-veterinarian website had an awful lot to say about dogs, cats, hamsters, and parakeets. So how come Ben’s search for “ferret stress disorder” had turned up zero matches? They had articles about ESP in rabbits and alpacas with learning disabilities, but nothing to explain why a perfectly healthy ferret in the prime of life was nervous and jumpy and couldn’t relax.
Ben sat back from the desk and sighed. He didn’t need the Internet to tell him why Ferret Face was a wreck—it was the same reason Ben himself was so anxious. The hum and buzz of a bazillion lights got into your whole body and settled in your spleen, wherever that was. Even in the middle of the night, when everything was shut off, the memory of it was still with you.
The vibration of the lights outside the Slovak home was still easier to handle than the vibration of the tension inside it. What had begun with Dad’s concern that his family’s Hanukkah traditions might be lost in the glitz of a big Christmas display had turned into a full-on decoration war. And Ben was caught in the middle.
First it had been the sniping back and forth over whose strings of lights were sagging off the eaves, or whether the glowing reindeer or the dancing fiddler was most responsible for the Slovaks’ ballooning electric bill. Soon, though, Mom and Dad had stopped talking to each other altogether. Now all communication between them flowed through Ben:
“Benjamin, tell your father that the blown capacitor for his menorah is sapping power from the air compressor for my snowman.”
“I’m sure your mother already knows that the only reason my capacitor blew was because of the faulty wiring between Comet and Cupid.”
No wonder poor Ferret Face was frazzled.
The grinding of a large motor drew his attention out the window. A large semitrailer was backing up to the house. His father was there, too, supervising the unloading of a huge crate that might easily have contained a refrigerator or a small tractor. It took two men and Dad to get it off the truck and onto the Slovaks’ front lawn.
Ben ran downstairs and burst out the front door, the discordant mix of bells and carols from one end of the property and klezmer music from the other clashing painfully inside his head. “What’s that, Dad? What’s a”—he squinted at the markings on the box—“drei-dirigible?”
“Your mother thinks she has me outgunned,” Mr. Slovak chortled triumphantly. “Every time I put up a few blue lights or an extra latke, she can just hop online and bury me under a mountain of candy canes and holly. Well, let’s see her try to bury this.”
With a sinking heart, Ben examined the illustration on the packaging. The drei-dirigible was a dreidel-shaped hot-air balloon that hovered over the house, blinking HAPPY HANUKKAH in LED letters. When Mom saw this …
The expression that jumped to mind came from Dad’s side of the family: Oy vey.
“Make sure you secure it to the roof nice and tight,” the driver of the semi was telling Mr. Slovak. “I’ve seen these suckers fly away on people. They just keep going until the propane burns out, forty, fifty miles away. Can you tie a barrel hitch?”
“I almost made it to Eagle Scout,” Ben’s father replied confidently.
Ben and Ferret Face watched dubiously as Mr. Slovak signed the delivery bill and the truck roared away.
“Dad—this is crazy,” Ben pleaded. “We always celebrated both holidays just fine. We never needed reindeer and fiddlers and snowmen and drei-dirigibles.”
“I didn’t start this,” Mr. Slovak said righteously.
Ben watched his father walk off in search of a toolbox. Dad was right. He hadn’t started it. Neither had Mom. This whole Christmas-versus-Hanukkah arms race had begun the night Dirk Crenshaw stole the Star of Prague. That was what made Charles Colchester cancel the Holiday Spectacular, which inspired Estelle Slovak and a handful of local moms to step up their own home displays.
This was Crenshaw’s fault!
Griffin’s plans always seemed crazy at first, but now Ben was behind Operation Starchaser 100 percent. If they caught the thief and recovered the Star, maybe—just maybe—Mr. Colchester could be persuaded to reopen Santa’s Workshop, which would take the holiday heat off of everybody.
It might be the only way to save the Slovak family.
The Drysdale home contained the largest number of animals of any place on Long Island not officially designated an animal shelter, wildlife preserve, or zoo.
Savannah’s housemates—never say pets—included cats, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, a pack rat, a capuchin monkey, and an albino chameleon. They shared equal status with the human Drysdales and one another.
Unofficially, though, Luthor was always a little more equal than everybody else.
The big Doberman had the run of the house. He was first in the kitchen, got the choicest table scraps, and enjoyed top priority when it came to drinking out of the toilet. No one would dream of changing the channel when he was watching Animal Planet, and he was adept at using his large black snout to jiggle Savannah’s computer out of screen saver mode, even though the mouse usually wound up on the floor and the mouse pad would be covered in drool.
Savannah and her parents were just finishing dinner when the familiar clunk of the mouse was followed by an eruption of deep-throated barking that could only come from one source.
“God bless America!” moaned Mr. Drysdale. “Savannah, go quiet your dog.”
“He’s not my dog any more than I’m his person,” Savannah reminded her father as she left the table and started up the stairs.
Savannah’s room was bedlam. Luthor was leaping like a puppy, his head coming dangerously close to smacking into the ceiling. Cleopatra, the monkey, cowered atop a bookcase, trying to stay out of the line of fire. Lorenzo, the chameleon, would have been turning all sorts of colors, except that he was albino and had to stay white. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the cats, peered out from under the bed, waiting for Luthor to calm down.
Luthor was anything but calm, and Savannah soon saw the reason. The computer broadcast a split-screen view from all of Melissa’s webcams. One of them showed Dirk Crenshaw in front of his apartment.
“Oh, sweetie, I know what’s got you so excited. It’s your friend Santa!” r />
She manipulated the mouse and clicked to bring the image of Crenshaw to full screen. This sent Luthor into waves of joy, rolling on the floor, rubbing his belly against the rug.
Savannah looked a little closer at the image on the monitor. Crenshaw was struggling to strap an awkward case onto the back of his motorcycle. It was round, battered black leather, and it didn’t quite close properly because the clips were broken. A gap opened up as he tried to secure it shut with bungee cords. Whatever was inside caught the beam of a streetlight and sparkled.
“The Star of Prague!” Savannah breathed, her exhilaration tempered by a pang of regret. Poor, sweet, trusting Luthor was going to be devastated when he found out that Crenshaw was nothing but a common crook. Of course, a canine brain could never wrap itself around the legal idea of guilt and innocence. But a sensitive creature like Luthor would understand that the Santa he loved was a fallen man in deep disgrace. And the Doberman would certainly notice his friend’s absence if the thief had to do prison time.
Heart pounding, she Skyped Melissa. The shy girl came on immediately, her curtain of hair parted, her beady eyes alight with discovery. “I saw it, too!”
“It’s the Star, isn’t it?” Savannah rasped.
“What else could it be?” Melissa reasoned. “I’ve been trying to reach Griffin, but he isn’t online.”
“Call the others,” Savannah urged.
A moment later, Logan’s face intruded on their conversation. “I’m busy, you guys,” he said in annoyance. “I’m editing a music video for Tiffany Boucle.”
“Don’t lie, Logan,” Savannah snapped. “Tiffany hates you.”
“Not anymore,” Logan reported smugly. “I’ve figured out the key to her heart. All I have to do is say good things about Vader.”
“There are no good things about Vader,” Savannah insisted.
“Never mind that,” Melissa interrupted. “Check out the live feed from Crenshaw’s webcam. What do you think of that?”
“It’s suspicious, all right,” Logan agreed. “He shaved. He never shaves!”