Late Friday afternoon, Trixie Belden and her ten-year-old brother, Bobby, hurried out the exit of K2 at the new Sleepyside Mall with several bags full of Christmas presents.  They had finally finished their holiday shopping at Grandpa Karl Crimper’s second store.  When the mall opened at the start of November, Grandpa personally handed out t-shirts printed with the slogan, Style Meets Its Zenith at K2. 

 

“Hang on a sec, Bobby,” Trixie requested, juggling the armful of holiday bags so she could free one of her hands to dig in her jeans pocket.  A smile broke across Trixie’s face as she dropped a crumpled dollar and some coins into the green donation kettle. 

 

“Thanks and happy holidays,” the man said absently, staring across the parking lot while slowly ringing a brass bell. 

 

“Merry Christmas to you!” Trixie replied, glancing curiously at the man.  Generally, the people staffing the kettle were a bit jollier than this man.

 

He was around six-feet tall and average weight but his face was sharp, angular and rather mean-looking with a crooked nose and a scar through his right eyebrow.  His light brown hair was greasy and hung over the collar of his corduroy jacket as he intently watched a tow-truck driver work to open the door of a blue van for an impatient man.

 

“Come on, Trixie,” Bobby urged, tugging her sleeve and stepping toward the parking lot.  “I’m supposed to be at the Lynches by 4:30.”

 

“OK, Bobby, I’m coming,” Trixie said, following him across the lot to where Moms’ SUV was parked directly across from the blue van and one row over.  She used the key fob in her hand to unlock the doors and lift-back, stowed the packages and then climbed in to start the engine.

 

As she warmed up the vehicle, Trixie noticed the tow-truck driver had successfully opened the van door and the man with him had pulled open the side door to lean in and go through the bags.

 

“That van they were working on looks like the one Mrs. Lynch just bought,” she commented, putting the SUV in drive and pulling carefully out of the parking space.

 

Kinda,” Bobby agreed with a glance before pulling out his cell to check for texts.  His fingers began flying across the buttons.

 

Trixie stopped her vehicle at the end of the aisle to wait for traffic to pass.  As she waited, she watched the man at the kettle greet Mrs. Morgan and Jane as they carried several large bags toward the parking lot where Trixie was sure their old sedan waited.  The man watched them walk to their car before pulling his cell phone out of his pocket.

 

A gap in the traffic flow appeared, so Trixie pulled out.  She quickly exited the parking lot and picked up speed as she turned the SUV toward the Lynch home. 

 

Bobby’s phone chimed indicating he had a new text.  “Hey, Trixie, Terry says Mart is at their house.  You’re supposed to take him and Di home with you ‘cause all the guys are home from college.”

 

“OK.” 

 

If Bobby would have been paying attention to his sister rather than his phone, he’d have seen the frown appear on Trixie’s face and the sigh that escaped her pressed lips at the news he just shared.

 

“Brian and Jim, too?” she asked finally, turning onto Post Road to make her way to the Lynch house.

 

“Yup, all of them.”  He keyed in another message. 

 

Driving the familiar road, Trixie let her thoughts process Bobby’s news.  The guys were home.  And more specifically, Jim was home.  Another sigh escaped before she could stop it.  Jim.  The most wonderful boy in the world.  The boy, no, man, she’d been in love with since she was thirteen.  The boy who’d given her what any girl would consider major jewelry but never asked her out.  The college man who probably had a tall, gorgeous college girlfriend that no one had told her about.  Well, she’d just have to do her best to keep her love a secret and act normal around him.

 

“If he hasn’t asked me out by now, he’s probably not gonna,” she muttered with a scowl, turning the SUV into the driveway of the Lynch mansion and pulling up to the front door.  Drawing in a deep breath, she watched Bobby open the passenger door and move to step out, only to be stopped by the seatbelt he hadn’t unfastened.  A giggle bubbled out of her as he grumbled with embarrassment, unhooked the seatbelt and charged toward the front door.  “At least it’s Christmas break,” she said aloud, giggling as she followed.

 

 

Arriving home to Crabapple Farm, Trixie let Mart and Di out of the SUV before pulling into the new garage her father had built the past summer.  The two car garage was attached to the service porch of the house by a short covered walkway. 

 

Entering the warm kitchen, the delicious scents of Moms’ lasagna and garlic bread enveloped her.

 

“Hey, Freckles, it’s about time you got here,” Dan greeted her with a tight hug and a quick kiss on the cheek.  “I’ve brought someone I want you to meet.”  He turned away briefly to take the hand of a slender young woman with cascading dark curls, dark eyes and a pretty smile.  “Trixie, this is Deanna Camp.”  He draped an arm around the woman and smiled happily.  “Babe, this is Trixie.  She’s Mart’s almost twin.”

 

A nervous smile appeared on Deanna’s face as she held out her hand.  “Dan, Jim and your brothers have told me all about you, Honey and Di,” she explained as they shook hands.  “I’ve been looking forward to meeting all of you for quite a while.”

 

“It’s great that you could join us,” Trixie replied with a grin.  “Danny, you’ve been keeping her all to yourself, haven’t you?” she accused, shaking a finger at him.

 

“Guilty as charged,” Dan grinned, squeezing Deanna’s shoulders gently.  “Well, as best I can, sharing a quad with the guys.  I’m surprised your brothers or Jim haven’t mentioned her.”

 

Trixie sniffed and flipped a curl from her eyes.  “Are you kidding?  They barely e-mail me ‘hi’.  They’re too busy with college life.  My brothers seem to make time for Honey and Di though, but they didn’t tell them you were seeing someone either.”

 

“I can’t believe Jim didn’t mention it to you,” Dan commented, glancing over her shoulder.

 

Trixie’s brow furrowed briefly.  “Nope.  I haven’t even had an e-mail from Jim since he went back to college after Thanksgiving,” she answered and then shrugged.  “I’m sure he’s been busy with classes and meeting people, too.”  She shook her head and then focused on Deanna again.  “Are you here for the entire holiday break or will you be going home to see your family?” she asked politely. 

 

“I’m only here until the day after tomorrow,” Deanna explained.  “I wanted to see where Dan lives, meet Mr. Maypenny, his Uncle Bill and all of you before I go home to be with my folks.”

 

“Yeah, then after Christmas, I’m going to go upstate to meet Deanna’s family,” Dan continued, pressing a quick kiss on her upturned face.

 

Reaching out, Trixie hugged them both.  “That sounds like a wonderful plan.  I’m glad to meet you and that you came home with Dan.  We’ll try to not scare you too badly, but since you’ve already met Mart, I don’t know what else we could possibly do to frighten you.”  She giggled, moving on into the kitchen.

 

A pair of strong arms reached out and grabbed her.  “Hey, sis,” Brian greeted her as he hugged her to him.  “How’s my favorite sister?” he asked with a laugh.

 

Punching him lightly in the arm, she giggled.  “I’m your only sister, you goof, and I’m just fine.”  Hugging her oldest brother to her, she glanced around him to see Honey smiling behind him, but no sign of Jim.  Disappointed by the absence, she pulled away from Brian to hold him at arm’s length.  “How are you?  How was your trip home?” she asked.  “Mart was too busy sitting in the backseat whispering with Di to say much of anything to me,” she added, rolling her eyes as she dropped her hands.

 

“I’m doing great,” Brian said, reaching out to place an arm around Honey’s shoulders.  “And with a car full of people there were plenty of drivers, so the trip home was quick and easy.”

 

Trixie quirked a brow at her blushing friend, then smiled as Honey looked shyly at Brian before wrapping her arm around his waist.  Seeing her serious, older brother grinning at her best friend, Trixie was happy for them, Dan, Mart and Di.  Everyone seemed to be moving on and pairing off except for her.  A quiet sigh blew through her lips as she moved farther into the kitchen.

 

“Hi, Moms,” Trixie said over the din of conversation.  “Anything I can do?”

 

Helen Belden looked over her shoulder as she stirred the bowl of homemade oil and vinegar salad dressing.  She began to smile at her daughter but, before it could form, she noted the sad look around Trixie’s eyes.  Guessing that it was because of the changes that had taken place for her friends with the arrival of the boys from college, she reached out to tuck a loose strand of hair behind Trixie’s ears.  “No, dear, I’ve got dinner under control.  The lasagna just needs a few minutes to finish setting up, but everything else is ready.”  Seeing a figure appear in the dining room doorway and then slip away again, Helen did smile.  Picking up several hotpads, she handed them to her daughter.  “Put these on the table and make sure Brian set it properly for me, please.”

 

“Sure, Moms.”  Trixie skirted around her friends and family, and then slipped into the relative quiet of the dining room.  Flicking on the light, she jumped with a start when she felt a hand fall onto her shoulder.  “Jim!” she squeaked.

 

The lop-sided grin she found so endearing spread across his face.  “Hey, Trix,” he said quietly.  “I didn’t mean to startle you.”  Pulling her into a gentle hug, he quietly asked, “How are you doing, Shamus?”

 

“Well, I’m better now that my heart has left my throat and returned to my chest,” she answered, turning her face to press into his chest.  “How are you, Jim?”

 

He rested his cheek on the top of her head and inhaled the sweet, citrusy scent of her hair.  Relaxing into an easy hold, he replied, “I’m great.  I’ve missed everyone and being home.”  I’ve missed you most of all, he thought.

 

They stood peacefully holding each other for a few minutes until Trixie drew back to look at Jim.  “Um, Jim…” she began just as Honey appeared in the doorway carrying two baskets of garlic bread.  Feeling suddenly alone, Trixie realized Jim had taken several steps away from her at the sight of his sister.

 

In an instant, the dining room was full of people talking and laughing about their lives and the upcoming holidays.

 

Taking an open place between her father and Dan, Trixie sighed as she watched Jim sit between Deanna and Moms.  Darn it!  I may not get another chance to be alone with Jim, she thought dejectedly.  Oh, well.  If he was interested, he’d have asked me out by now or figured out a way to sit by me.  Trixie sighed again, as she asked her dad how his day was at the bank.

 

 

Dinner was a loud and enjoyable meal with lots of laughing and joking interspersed with the conversations around the table.  Trixie, Honey and Brian had cleared the plates and returned to the table with apple pies and ice cream when the doorbell rang.

 

“I’ll get it,” Honey said, placing the pie she carried in front of Helen.  She returned moments later with Caroline and Ed Lynch following close behind.

 

“Mummy, is it time to go home?” Di asked looking at the Chelsea clock atop the hutch in the dining room.  “I didn’t think you were coming by to get me for another hour.  Did you get finished shopping early?”

 

“I was just so upset that Dad and I decided to come over and get you,” Caroline began, nodding at Jim before settling in the seat he had vacated for her.  “I was all finished with our shopping and went to get into the van to meet Dad for dinner when I discovered that all the packages I’d put in the van under the cargo cover around three o’clock were gone.” 

 

Helen reached out and placed a hand on her friend’s and squeezed it.  “Oh, Caroline.  Goodness, your hands are like ice,” she noted, chaffing the cold fingers with her own.  “Trixie, get Mrs. Lynch a cup of coffee.  And Mr. Lynch, too, please,” she requested.  It’s decaf but it will warm you up.”

 

“Here, Mr. Lynch, take my chair,” Mart offered, standing to move behind Di.  “You’d better wait until Trixie gets back or you’ll just have to repeat every word,” he added with a roll of his eyes.  “Did you eat dinner?”

 

“No, once Caroline called me, I met her at the van at the mall parking lot and then we had to deal with the police report and mall security,” explained Ed Lynch.  “We’ll just get something once we get home.”

 

“Nonsense,” Helen said, standing to go to the kitchen.  “We’ve plenty of lasagna, bread and salad left.  I’ll fix a couple of plates for you and we’ll have dessert while you eat and tell us what happened.”

 

“Jim, you and Mart get two more chairs from the kitchen so we can all have a seat.  I think we’ll be here a while,” Peter requested, sighing as he slumped in his chair.

 

 

A few minutes later, mugs of coffee and plates of lasagna were placed in front of Caroline and Ed who began eating hungrily. 

 

Helen and Trixie quickly served up pie for everyone else while Di introduced Deanna to her parents and quiet murmurs of conversation broke out around the room. 

 

When the last person had their pie, Helen returned to her seat while Trixie put the ice cream back into the freezer.  Anxious to hear the story, Trixie hurried back to the dining room, picked up her bowl and looked for a place to sit. 

 

“Over here, Trix,” Jim advised her, motioning to a chair next to him.  “Mrs. Lynch is ready to tell us what happened.”

 

“Thanks,” she said quietly with a smile, sliding onto the edge of the chair.  “Anytime you’re ready, Mrs. Lynch.”

 

Setting her fork down, Caroline Lynch swept her shoulder length hair, dark like her daughters, behind her ear before taking a sip of coffee.  “OK, I’ll try to be concise but it’s been rather traumatic for me,” she offered.  “I’d gone to the mall today because they had several big ticket items on super-saver sale prices that I needed to get for Christmas presents.  I purchased the items on super-saver first and took them out to the van because they were heavy and I didn’t want to carry them through the mall.”  She paused a moment to take another sip of coffee and a bite of lasagna.

 

Trixie shifted on her chair as she impatiently waited for her friend’s mother to continue. 

 

Jim felt Trixie tense in preparation of exploding or to blurt out a demand for Mrs. Lynch to continue speaking.  He gently tapped her knee.  When her startled sapphire blue eyes turned to him, Jim motioned for her to relax back on her chair.

 

A faint blush stole across Trixie’s face as she looked at Jim’s amused face.  She sat back in her chair, elbowed him gently in the ribs and then stuck her tongue barely between her lips.

 

Jim covered his bark of laughter with a cough just as Mrs. Lynch set her fork down again.

 

“As I told Lt. Molinson, I took those presents out before noon.  I’d moved the van to be near where I planned to finish my day shopping,” she explained, looking at Helen.  “You know how it is after a full day of shopping.  You don’t want to backtrack.”  Seeing her friend nod agreement, she continued, “I did a bit more shopping, ate at Orange Julius, shopped for another two hours and then took another load to the van.”

 

Unable to stay quiet any longer, Trixie asked, “Were all the presents covered in the cargo area?”

 

“Yes, Trixie, they were.  There wasn’t anything showing once I took that load. It was a lot of bags. My hands were so full on that trip that I had to have the man ringing the donation kettle bell open the door for me.”

 

“What time did you do that drop of packages, Mrs. Lynch?” Honey queried.

 

“It was just after three o’clock.  I remember because I was thinking I’d only have a couple more hours before I had to meet Ed for dinner.”  She stared at the clock on the hutch as she took a nibble of garlic bread.  “I was trying to work out how we’d get all the packages into the house without any of the kids seeing them.”

 

“That’s never easy with five children,” Ed Lynch chuckled.  “Especially when two of them are Larry and Terry.”

 

A chorus of laughter and giggles echoed through the room.

 

“Ain’t that the truth,” his wife agreed.  “Anyway, when I came out of the mall at five-thirty, I opened up the van and all the wonderful presents that I had purchased were gone.”

 

“Did you forget to lock the van or something, Mummy?  Or was it broken into?” Di asked, laying a hand on her mother’s arm.  

 

“No, I didn’t forget and, even if I did, the van has that auto-lock system where it will lock the doors if the doors are unlocked with the fob but you don’t start the motor in 5 minutes.”

 

“Then what happened, Mrs. Lynch?” Mart asked.

 

“I called the police and Ed immediately,” she answered.  “The police were there within 10 minutes.  Lt. Molinson came himself.  Ed arrived about 15 minutes later and we went through everything that had happened through my day.”

 

“Molinson said that they’ve had six vehicles broken into the past two weeks and all the presents taken.  The police have had extra patrols around the mall and the other shopping districts when they can, but between the bad weather and not having enough officers available to be on duty, they haven’t got a clue about these thefts,” Ed relayed.

 

“Oh!” Trixie exclaimed and then leaned toward the table from her position by Jim near the hutch.  “Mrs. Lynch, was your van by any chance parked by K2’s east entrance?  About ten cars directly out from the door?”

 

“Yes, it was.  How did you know that?”

 

“Bobby and I stopped by the mall after school today to finish our shopping.  As we were leaving K2 at around 4:15, I saw a blue van being opened by one of those lock popping companies and I made the comment to Bobby that the van looked like your new one.  We decided it wasn’t yours, because there was a man standing there looking anxious as he watched the tow-truck driver open it,” she said, rocking her chair forward on the front legs in her excitement.  “As soon as the door was opened, the man dove into the back cargo space.  That’s all we saw before we left to drop Bobby off at your house.”

 

“Do you remember anything about the two men or the tow-truck that you can tell Lt. Molinson?” Ed asked.

 

“I sure do.  I can describe them and the truck.”

 

Sighing, Peter stood and moved toward the kitchen door.  “I’ll call Wen and have him stop by so he can talk to Trixie.  Carolyn and Ed, you finish up while the rest of us clear the table.  Helen, please set aside a piece of pie for Wen, because you know apple is his favorite.”

 

 

Trixie washed a plate, rinsed it and then handed it to Jim to dry.  “Do you ever wonder how we always end up being the ones to wash the dishes?” she asked rhetorically.  “Of course, everyone helps put any leftover food away under Mart’s exacting supervision,” she said, rolling her eyes.  “And they deliver the dishes to the kitchen, but as soon as the soap and water come out, ‘POOF’, they disappear until everything is done,” she grumbled, washing the last plate.

 

“It’s nice with just the two of us though.  We get to spend some time together,” Jim reasoned quietly.  “I like that.” 

 

Surprised, Trixie’s head snapped toward Jim and she looked at him with startled eyes.  “Really?” she asked, her eyes searching his as she rinsed the plate before handing it to him.  “We hardly ever get a chance for just the two of us to hang out.”  She paused to put the lasagna pans into the water.  “How’s college?” she asked, hoping he’d say all he was doing was studying.

 

“It’s going well.  You know I’d adjusted to a double major in education and business management my second year, right?”  Seeing Trixie nod her head as she scrubbed at a pan, Jim continued, “Well, it’s going well.  This semester was pretty heavy with course and lab work but I made it through so far.  I had to bring home a bunch of books to study for tests after break and I have three papers to write but I’m happy to be home.” 

 

“I’m happy you’re home, too,” Trixie agreed with a smile.  “I miss having you around.”  Realizing what she’d admitted, Trixie blushed prettily while pushing a curl off her forehead with the back of her wrist.  “Did you get decent lab partners?  Mine are always the laziest person in school.”

 

“Yeah, I was lucky they were not only hard workers, but they were nice to hang out with, too.”  He took the first pan from her and began drying it, a thoughtful look on his face.  Seeing Trixie begin to wash the second pan, he added, “Lori, Whitney, Ashley and I got through all the labs easily.”  Jim saw Trixie frown, her hands slow and her posture stiffen.  Watching her closely, a small satisfied grin appeared on his face as he added, “We’ve got it set up to study for the tests after break.”

 

Trixie briefly closed her eyes and then began roughly scrubbing the pan again.  “I’m glad you have good people to study and be with, Jim,” she said softly.  “It’s important to me that you have people you like and who make you happy.”

 

Jim studied her beautiful face for a minute.  “Trix, you…”  He never got a chance to finish because the doorbell rang and seconds later, his sister appeared in the dining room doorway.

 

“Lt. Molinson and Spider are here,” Honey advised.  “Are you about done?”  She moved into the room, placed two pieces of pie in the microwave to heat and then pulled the ice cream from the freezer, just as it dinged completion.

 

“Yes, we’re done,” Trixie replied, rinsing then handing Jim the last pan without meeting his eyes.  She opened the drains in the sinks, wiped down the counters and rinsed the sponge and sink.  In her peripheral vision, she saw Jim put the last pan away and hang the dish towel on the rack to dry.  “You two go on into the dining room while I get them some coffee.”

 

“OK, Trix,” Honey acknowledged, looking curiously between her best-friend and brother.  “Come on, Jim.”

 

“I’ll save you a seat, Shamus,” Jim advised.  Then, after a final look at the frowning blonde, Jim reluctantly followed Honey through the doorway.

 

 

“It shouldn’t surprise me that you just happened to be around when Caroline’s vehicle is robbed, but it does,” Wendell Molinson growled, shaking his fork at Trixie.  Sighing, he instructed, “OK, Trixie, let’s hear what you know.”

 

As clearly and concisely as she could, Trixie related everything she had seen while leaving the mall that afternoon.  She even included the make and model of the tow-truck.

 

“One thing I thought was strange about the truck was the sign was clean when the truck wasn’t,” she said finally, sitting on the edge of her chair.  “The truck was dirty from the snow melt but the sign was clean white.”

 

“Do you remember what the name on the sign was, Trixie?” Spider asked, taking notes into a laptop.

 

“Parker’s Pop-it,” she replied immediately.  “It was a New York number,” she added, closing her eyes to focus on the scene in her mind.  “The license plate was New York, too, but I only remember that it had numbers and then ‘BG’.”  She grinned.  “The ‘BG’ stuck because of BWG.”

 

Sitting next to her, Jim reached out and tugged his favorite curl.  “You never cease to amaze me, Trix.  You’re so observant and your brain captures everything,” he said proudly.  “That’s really going to be a big benefit when you and Honey open your agency.”

 

Trixie blushed red at Jim’s praise. 

 

“Isn’t that a daunting thought,” the lieutenant muttered softly, rubbing his head.

 

Snickering at Molinson’s dejected demeanor, Spider asked, “Did you notice anything else, Trixie?”

 

“We saw Jane Morgan and her mother after we left our parking space.  I think they were taking packages to their car just like Mrs. Lynch did.”  Trixie paused for a moment as she considered everything she’d seen and that had happened.  “Maybe the thieves have been watching the parking lot to see shoppers deliver loads of presents before more shopping.”

 

“That’s exactly what I did,” Mrs. Lynch said unhappily.

 

“I wonder if Jane or her mother saw anything,” Honey offered quietly.

 

Lt. Molinson sighed loudly.  “They didn’t see anything but they were robbed, too,” he explained.  “The only thing they had taken was a 55-inch TV that Mrs. Morgan bought on sale for a family gift.”

 

“What did the guy who was ringing the bell for charity say?  Did he provide anything else that I didn’t?” Trixie queried.

 

Molinson looked curiously at her as Spider replied, “He said he didn’t see anything.  Not a soul by either vehicle or anything suspicious happening.”

 

“Well, he lied,” Trixie said adamantly.  “He was texting or on his phone a few times, but he was also watching everything that happened on that lot.  He even opened the mall doors for Jane and Mrs. Morgan when we saw them.” 

 

“What if he was involved in the thefts?” Deanna asked quietly.  When everyone turned to look at her, she shrugged and asked, “Is this what you guys meant when you said Trixie could stumble over a mystery even if she was tied to a chair and unable to move?”

 

Everyone erupted in laughter at her question and the boys had the grace to blush.

 

“Yes, Deanna,” Brian answered for the group.  “If she isn’t tripping over something mysterious, then Honey is,” he finished, dodging a good natured ‘punch’ from the object of his comment.

 

“Deanna asked a very good question,” Honey said, smiling at the newcomer and bringing them back to the thefts.  “What if he was directing the thieves?”

 

“That’s a possibility,” Spider agreed.  Addressing the lieutenant, he said, “We’d need to stakeout the mall parking lot to watch the bell ringer and to look for the tow-truck but we don’t have enough people to do that with so many officers out with the flu.”

 

“We could help,” Trixie volunteered, glancing at her friends and family around the table.

 

The clamor of numerous voices all at once was deafening.

 

“No!  Absolutely not!  We won’t allow it.”

 

“Trixie, are you crazy?”

 

“I think that’s a great idea.”

 

“No can do, we’re busy.”

 

A piercing Bob-White whistle cut through the hubbub and everyone focused on the whistler.  Helen Belden grinned at everyone’s stunned expressions.  “I knew learning that whistle would come in handy someday,” she said with a smirk.  “Now, as much as I don’t want to put any of you at risk and I won’t give permission for any participation until I know 100% that you would be safe, I would like to hear what Trixie has in mind.”

 

“Helen,” Peter growled, folding his arms across his broad chest.

 

“Let’s hear her out, dear,” his wife requested, blue eyes twinkling.  “If we can help Wen catch these people before someone gets hurt, then I’m all for it.”

 

“Thanks, Moms,” Trixie said, smiling.  “OK, here’s what I was thinking…”

 

 

Saturday morning, the Bob-Whites and Deanna arrived at Sleepyside Police Headquarters to learn how to use the handheld police radios they’d carry while at the mall.  After hearing Trixie explain her plan the night before, the Beldens and Lynches had given approval as long as the Bob-Whites worked in pairs and they were in contract with Lt. Molinson and Spider, who would be at waiting to spring the trap.

 

“Jim, here are the keys to the department’s old van that we use for drug stings.  It’s got lots of windows but they’re all so dark that no one will see in but you’ll be able to see out,” Spider said, handing him a set of keys with a large plastic sunflower on the key ring.  “It’s so dark that it’s not street legal, but all the cops around know it, so you’ll be fine.  It’s perfectly safe to breathe, too.  We never transported drugs in it,” he added with a grin.

 

“OK, people listen up.  Trixie’s going to go over the plan once more,” Molinson ordered.  “Go ahead, Trixie.”

 

Surprised by the request, Trixie could find no words until Jim gave a reassuring squeeze to her shoulder.  “Tell us, Trix,” he requested quietly.

 

Trixie flashed a smile at Jim, then began, “Each pair will take a car and park it near one of exits by K2.”  She began ticking pairs off on her fingers, “Honey and Di, Brian and Mart, Dan and Deanna will walk into the mall or K2.  Jim and I will use the police van to drive around the mall looking for the bell ringer.  Once we find him and his kettle, we’ll park the van where we can see him and the same parking area he can view.  We’ll radio everyone the door where the bell ringer is located.  Hopefully, one of your cars will be outside where he’s set up.  You can actually shop if you need to or just go to the mall security office and get some weighted empty boxes and bags showing the high-end stores,” Trixie said, then paused for breath.  Seeing Honey’s encouraging nod, she continued, “After 30 minutes, whoever is parked at his door will take as many packages as they can out to their car and secure them in the trunk.  You might want to make some comment about more shopping to do or something.  That way he’ll know the coast is clear for a while.”

 

“Hopefully, the thieves will take the bait and try to get the packages,” Molinson said, picking up the plan.  “Then my officers and I will arrest them.  Any questions?”

 

Everyone shook their head ‘no’. 

 

“OK, let’s roll,” Lt. Molinson ordered.  “Everyone be careful out there.”

 

 

“Do you think Molinson has always wanted to do the speech from Hill Street Blues?” Jim asked on the drive to the mall.

 

Trixie giggled at the question.  “Yeah, I think he enjoyed that way too much.”  Shifting in the seat, Trixie watched Jim confidently drive the van.  Considering it was a 1988 Chevrolet custom van complete with velour captain’s chairs and a 194,000+ miles, it was in surprisingly good shape and comfortable.

 

“How do you want me to do this, Shamus?  Should I drive by the doors so you can look for the guy or do you want me to keep to the perimeter?”

 

“I think you’ve watched too many cop shows yourself, Jim.  If you ‘keep to the perimeter’,” she said, then giggled.  “I should be able to see the bell ringers well enough to pick him out and we’ll be far enough out that he won’t notice when we park,” Trixie finished, watching the string of Bob-White vehicles ahead of them.

 

“Have you got all your shopping done?”

 

“Yeah, that’s what Bobby and I were doing yesterday when we saw the thieves breaking into Mrs. Lynch’s van.  How about you?”

 

Jim frowned because he had to brake hard to keep from hitting a small car that jumped off a side road in front of them.  “Stupid fool!” he growled.   Glancing at Trixie, he asked, “Are you OK?”

 

“Yep.  This seatbelt is too tight now but otherwise I’m good,” Trixie answered, laying a hand on his arm.  “Really, it’s OK.”

 

“People should pay attention to their driving,” he said gruffly.  “Especially when I have precious cargo in my car,” he murmured.  Shaking off his anger, he focused on her question.  “I still have a couple of presents to get.  My Bob-White secret Santa and one other,” he shared, turning into the mall parking lot.  “Maybe we can get this wrapped up early and I can finish up.”

 

“Wishful thinking,” she scoffed, looking across the lot at the east doors to the mall.  “That’s a woman,” she advised as Jim slowly drove along the outside parking spaces.  “Try the north side.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Jim confirmed, maneuvering the van through the lot to the next entrance.  “Can you see?”

 

“Yes, that’s him!” Trixie exclaimed.  “Park the van over there.”  She grabbed his sleeve and pointed to a spot.

 

Jim pulled the van into the space she indicated and turned off the engine.  “You’d better radio this is to Lt. Molinson.  Did you see which Bob-White car is on this door?”

 

“Honey and Di,” she responded.  “They are parked 8 cars out from the door, one row to the right.” 

 

Listening to Trixie radio the door and information into the lieutenant and his officers, Jim sat and watched her talk into the radio, stunned at how well she was handling the radio and stakeout.  “Damn! My Shamus is not only the world’s best detective but she can handle a sting,” he murmured in awe.

 

 

The way the van was situated placed the bell ringer on Jim’s side of the vehicle.  Once Trixie had completed her report to the lieutenant, she unbuckled her seatbelt and shifted so she could see the man.

 

“We could be here for a while,” Jim noted, looking out the window.  As the man rang his bell, he opened the door for and chatted with shoppers going into the store.  “Let’s save Twenty Questions and Truth or Dare for later,” he teased, grinning at her.  “Tell me how your senior year is going.  Are your grades good?  Your GPA?”

 

“I’ll have you know, Mr. I’m Super Smart Frayne, that I’m doing great,” Trixie retorted.  “Honey and I put in our apps to John Jay on October 15, which was the first day.”  She clasped her hands and looked briefly down at her lap.  When she raised her head, her eyes sparkled as she said quietly, “Since you guys weren’t supposed to be home until tonight, Moms and Dad arranged a special dinner for tonight to tell everyone.  We both got accepted for the fall term,” she said happily.  “We’ll be in the City with you guys.  That is, if that’s where you’ll be doing your masters,” she added shyly.

 

Jim reached across the console and wrapped her in his arms.  “Congratulations, Trix! That’s awesome news!” he exclaimed.  “I’m so proud of you and Honey.”  He tightened his arms and buried his face in the mass of gold curls tumbling from under her stocking cap.  Inhaling deeply of her hair’s citrusy scent, he enjoyed the chance to hold Trixie in his arms.

 

“Jim!” Trixie exclaimed, tapping him on his back.  “Jim, here come Honey and Di,” she blurted out, pushing on his shoulder and then pointing toward the driver’s window. 

 

“Huh? What?” Jim sputtered, distracted by the moment lost.

 

She had felt so content in Jim’s arms.  Trixie almost wished her friends hadn’t appeared to deliver their fake packages to the Wheelers’ old Tahoe.  The vehicle was slated to be given to a charity after Regan bought a new truck for the stables. 

 

Jim glanced at the bell ringer before turning back to Trixie, only to see a frown chase across her face.  “What now?” he asked, staring at her for a minute before shifting his gaze back to the scene outside his window. 

 

“We watch and wait,” Trixie advised, seeing the duo talk and laugh as they went through their assigned steps and then return to the store. 

 

“It’s getting chilly in the van and I don’t want to start the engine because it will draw attention to us.”

 

“We continue to wait.  But…”  Trixie paused to reach behind her seat and pulled out a large tote bag that Jim had seen her carrying earlier.  “I planned ahead,” she said smugly, pulling a fleece blanket from the bag, followed by a thermos and plastic container.  “Blanket, hot chocolate and sugar cookies.”

 

“Wow, you thought of everything,” Jim said, taking the thermos and container of cookies while Trixie spread out the blanket.

 

“Oops,” Trixie said with a frown.  “Not everything.”  She looked from the blanket to Jim as a blush stole across her face.  “I brought the wrong blanket,” she admitted, holding up the narrow piece of fleece.  “I brought the throw we usually use in the den rather than the full size fleece blanket.  I guess they were both in the closet.”  Taking the container of cookies from him, Trixie put them on the dashboard and then held out the blanket with one hand while reaching for the thermos with her other.  “Here, you take the blanket and I’ll pour us some hot chocolate.”

 

“Nope!” Jim replied, moving the thermos out of her reach.  “You move and sit on the console, we’ll share the throw and then you can pour us hot chocolate,” he directed, a lop-sided grin appearing on his handsome face.  “Then, we’ll nibble cookies and watch for more action.”

 

Trixie’s eyes sparkled as a shy smile appeared on her face.  “OK.”  She moved carefully onto the console, and then spread the blanket over their legs.  As she worked to pour the thermos cup full of hot chocolate, Jim reached behind her and grabbed the container of cookies.  Her smile got bigger when he transferred the box to his left knee and kept his right arm behind her.

 

Taking the cup from Trixie, Jim took a sip while watching the bell ringer look around the parking lot and then punch something into his cell phone.  “Do you think he’s texting someone about a car to hit?” he asked.

 

Trixie watched the bell ringer closely as she nibbled on a sugar cookie.  He walked away from his kettle in one direction looking across the lot and then crossed to the other direction to look that way.  He returned to the front of the doors and looked through them to scan the store entrance.  Once again, he keyed something into his phone. 

 

“I think you’re right, Jim,” Trixie agreed.  Turning toward him, she realized how close they now sat.  “Um, should we radio the lieutenant?”

 

Jim remained looking at the bell ringer.  “It wouldn’t hurt to give them a heads up about our suspicion, Shamus.”

 

As Trixie radioed Lt. Molinson, Jim scanned the lot for a tow-truck nearby or odd activity near any of the cars.  He glanced into the driver’s side mirror of the van to check behind them and immediately saw a dirty white tow-truck coming down the outside edge of the parking aisles. 

 

“Trixie,” he said, placing his hand on her back to get her attention from the radio.  “Tell him there’s a tow-truck coming this way.”

 

She quickly relayed the information, and then leaned across Jim in an attempt to see the vehicle for herself.  “Dang it!  I can’t see it,” she griped, leveraging upright using Jim’s shoulder and turning toward the back of the van just in time to see the tow-truck.  “Sir, that’s it.  Parker’s Pop-it,” she uttered into the radio.

 

“All units stand-by.  We need to wait until they have gained access to the vehicle and actually made the theft before we make our move,” Lt. Molinson’s voice commanded.  “Jim, you keep her in that van if you have to tie her up.  Do you hear me?”

 

Jim gently took the radio from Trixie’s hand as she simmered with indignation and watched the tow-truck pull up in front of the Tahoe’s fender.  He ran his other hand up and down her back in a soothing motion.  Keying the radio, he responded, “Yes, Sir, I hear you.  All the Bob-Whites will sit back and watch.”

 

Trixie took a deep breath and huffed it back out.  The touch of Jim’s hand circling her back helped her to remain calm about the lieutenant’s words.

 

“He made a promise to our parents to keep us out of harm’s way,” Jim said softly, watching the two men in the tow-truck approach his parents’ vehicle, with one carrying a slim piece of metal.  “The lieutenant allowed us to help as long as we stay safe and follow orders,” he continued, his hand still gently rubbing her shoulders.

 

“You’re right, we promised,” she agreed quietly.  “Hey, they have the door open!” she cried, leaning over Jim in an attempt to get closer to the action.

 

As the pair watched, the two men from the tow-truck opened the liftgate on the Tahoe and began pulling out the shopping bags that Honey and Di had stored under the cargo cover and transferring them to the tow-truck.  The bell ringer stood by his kettle barely moving as he watched the two men empty the Tahoe. 

 

In just a few trips, all the packages were hidden in the bins of the tow-truck, the Tahoe closed and locked, and the two men were pulling away from the area.

 

Suddenly, police cars swarmed from every direction with flashing red and blue lights as they surrounded the tow-truck.  The bell ringer threw down his bell and turned to run into the store entrance but met police officers exiting with guns drawn and pointing at him.

 

“Put your hands up!” Spider ordered.  Once the man complied, he holstered his gun and checked the man for weapons before taking the man’s cell phone and placing it in an evidence bag.

 

Over the radio, Lt. Molinson’s voice boomed, “Great job, everyone.  We have them in custody.  While we get them on their way to booking and the crime lab techs move in, I’m requesting the Bob-Whites stay where you are until I notify you that it’s safe to come out.”

 

“Yes, Sir, Lieutenant.  BWG 1,” Brian’s voice responded.

 

“Roger that, BWG2,” came Dan’s voice.

 

A giggle, then Honey said, “10-4, BWG3.”

 

“Go ahead and answer, Shamus,” Jim urged, handing her the radio.

 

Sighing, Trixie keyed the radio and answered, “BWG4 standing by, Sir.”  Turning, she placed the radio on the passenger seat.

 

“Trix, I know you’d love to be in the thick of things, watching the officers do their work,” Jim acknowledged, placing his hand along her jaw and turning her to face him.  Once he locked his eyes on her sapphire ones, he continued softly, “But just like Lt. Molinson made a promise to your folks, when I first met you, I made a promise to myself that if a situation was dangerous and it was ever in my power, that I’d do whatever it took to keep you safe because you mean everything to me.  I plan to keep that promise to myself.  Always.”

 

“I don’t understand, Jim.  What are you saying?” Trixie whispered, searching his emerald green eyes.

 

Jim cupped Trixie’s face with his hands.  “What I’m saying, Shamus, is…”  He took a deep, steadying breath.  “What I’m saying is that I love you.  I love everything about you.  I want you to not only be my ‘special girl’ but I want you to be my girl for real.  For dating and loving.  I hope forever.”  He drew her face to his and pressed his mouth to hers for a sweet first kiss.

 

When Trixie moved and placed her arms around Jim’s neck, he pulled her tight and the kiss bloomed from sweet to thorough.  The pair finally came up for air, resting their foreheads against one another.

 

“Gleeps,” Trixie whispered, a shy, happy smile appearing.

 

“Gleeps, indeed,” Jim’s husky voice responded.

 

“Jim?”

 

“Yeah, baby.”

 

Trixie lifted her head to look at him on hearing the endearment.  “I like that,” she said grinning.  “Baby.”  She kissed him gently on the lips before lifting her head again.  “Yes,” she whispered.

 

“Yes?”

 

“Yes, I’m so glad you love me because I’ve loved you since I was thirteen.  Yes, I want to be your girl.  For dating and loving and forever.  So, yes,” she ended softly.

 

Jim took her lips in another scorching kiss.  Breaking for a breath of air, he asked, “What would you say to our first date being today?  We could watch the kettle and ring the bell until the charity can get a replacement volunteer here.”  He paused as her eyes twinkled and she began to smile.  “Then we’ll go to Wimpy’s for lunch.”  Laughing, he asked, “What do you think, baby?”

 

“It’s perfect, Jim,” Trixie answered, smiling.  “It’s so us.”  Giggling, she leaned in and quickly smooched his lips.  “A stake-out, a boyfriend that I love and our first date.  Now that’s what I call a perfect Christmas.”

 

“Everything’s perfect with you, baby,” Jim agreed, sealing their holiday happiness with a kiss.  

 

The End

 

 

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Author’s Notes -

 

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!!!    

 

We were not able to commit to participating in the Jix Author Secret Santa event when asked in July.  There were just too many things going on in our personal lives to know for sure we’d have time.  Fortunately, the first of December, we got time, our muses spoke to us and we were able to get this story done.  As it was, there were a few others who were posting so we worked out a schedule to stretch out the holiday fun.  Hopefully, our story will give you a few minutes of relaxing reading as your holiday meal digests.    

 

Orange Julius is a fruit drink beverage made of orange juice, milk, sugar, ice and vanilla flavoring.  They are wonderful and refreshing.  Especially after a long day shopping.

 

Hill Street Blues was a critically acclaimed, Emmy Award winning police drama on NBC from 1981-1987.

 

1988 Chevrolet Custom Van is a full-sized cargo van that has with been modified luxuries and features to make it extremely comfortable for road trips or camping.  These vehicles were the  predecessors to the minivans and SUVs we drive today.

 

John Jay College of Criminal Justice is the preeminent national and international leader in educating for justice. 

 

The green kettle and bell ringer in our story represent the fictitious Sleepyside Charity Challenge Organization and are in no way a reference to the Salvation Army and their red kettle campaign.  The Salvation Army is an international charity organization that uses the trademarked red kettles and volunteer bell ringers to inspire passersby to place donations into the kettles. 

 

The background is from Wonderworld.org

 

Header photo from SheKnows.com

 

Divider kettle is from MS Clipart.

 

Editing of this story is by the lovely Joycey and Kelly.  Any errors or weirdness is the property of the Smush Sisters.

 

Word count - 7644