Christmas,  Holidays

Christmas At Huffam’s

It’s a little bookstore in the corner of London named Huffam’s. Some say it’s the happiest place in England during the holidays. Christmas and Thanksgiving are part of this store’s DNA. It was ran, not by a native of the famous island off the coast of Europe, but an American. Who had a cute way of introducing himself.

“The name’s Masterson, John Masterson. You may have heard of one of my ancestors. He was a writer, they called him Bat.” He says it to every first timer.

How did Bat Masterson’s relative end up running a British bookstore? That had to do with another writer, one named Lafferty. He wasn’t famous, and was never signed by a traditional publisher. At one time though, his books were all over London.

Of course, no one knew they were his books. They thought they were Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, to be precise. I’ve read, and reread the classic, and I love it. Yet I wonder how many own it, without reading it?

At least in the story I’m about to relate to you, exactly 212. It all started on a rainy day in, Soho. John Masterson had just been laid off from his job, on the first day of November.

It wasn’t exactly his best moment. He came home, ate some eggs, and went to bed. John was depressed. So depressed, he ignored a phone call, and the second one, and the third. The fourth time, he

“Hi, this is the owner of a pet parakeet, and two pork chops. I’m not up to talking about anything today, try back in July. Maybe June if you’re lucky.”

The caller didn’t waste the few seconds before John hung up. “How would you like to help me con several people into happily ever after? Your tickets are by the front door. See you in four days, on the Fourth of July!”

John just stood there for a few minutes. He was trying to decide which of his friends was the rude gut with the fake accent. Eventually he checked the front door.

Two first class tickets to London, but who was his benefactor? For that matter, who was the second ticket for? Finally, what day were they for?

He had already seen that, but it was the only question he could answer. It made him feel better to know something. Would he go was the next thing he had to figure out.

After changing his mind four times, he packed, and was at the airport two days later. John brought both tickets, but wondered when the other person would show up. Would it be someone he knew, or a perfect stranger?

It was as John was pondering all of this when someone spun him around, and punched him in the face. John woke up a couple hours later, on the plane, with a black eye. He heard the voice from the phone call beside him.

“Sorry about that my boy. The gentleman that hit you thought you were a Police Sergeant I knew. His intention was to rescue me. If it’s any consolation, Tony The Eel felt terrible. My name is Lafferty.”

He had buzz cut gray hair, gold rimmed glasses, goatee and a large smile on his pudgy frame. He was dressed in a polo and jeans, but something about him looked odd. John thought of it in a second, he looked like a crook.

John began to ask his self what he had gotten his self into, when the man spoke. “Look my boy, I only really needed you to get on the plane. If you want to board a plane when we get to Heathrow, it’s fine with me.”

John’s head was a little dizzy. “You’ll pay for my trip home? I think that might be best. I think I’m not who you need.”

Lafferty laughed. “Never said I’d pay for your trip home. If you want to go back I won’t stop you, but I won’t help either.”

“Look John, can I call you John. Someone who didn’t know you, would quite frankly call you a loser. You’re out of work, you accept a trip from a stranger. It’s not a picture of confidence now is it? If you stay, you just might discover, well, hope.”

John got up, he didn’t know what else to do. He didn’t know where he was going, they were on the same plane. He went to the bathroom, and was going to throw some water on his face, but it was occupied. John came back and sat down.

The man beside him didn’t speak, though he looked like he wanted too. John Masterson didn’t either, he had nothing to say, at least externally. Later he explained, “I was yelling at myself inside my head, but that only lasted for a few minutes. It was just too pitiful to continue.”

Finally, when they touched down, John looked at him. “All right, I’ll do anything legal you want me to do, within reason, but nothing questionable, illegal, or harmful to anyone.”

He laughed. “My boy, all I want you to do is run a bookstore. I’ll do the rest.”

The next 24 hours passed quickly. They exited the plane, were picked up by an octogenarian lady that looked like she was either a beautician, or actress, and dropped off at the bookstore I had indicated at the beginning, Huffam’s.

John later told me that, at the first sight of the place, he forgot his troubles for about a minute. It’s always getting that reaction from people, even those who’ve seen it before. If you can imagine a quaint little, picturesque bookstore, full to capacity with Christmas, in a small package, you’d get Huffam’s.

Toy soldiers in the window, a fort made up of piled books, an oversized wreath on the door, evergreen and bows. It was so bright, you could almost smell tinsel in the air. What you could smell was the mixture of old books, rich coffee, and chocolate from the little coffee shop inside.

I was sweeping away snow from the front walk when they pulled up, so I saw it all. I opened the door with as much gusto as I could, bowed at the waist, and said, “Welcome to Huffam’s, a little bit of Old London Christmas in the modern town.”

My name, most people don’t ask, Lafferty calls me Cap. I always wear my topper. I never get tired of watching people’s reactions to Huffam’s. It’s as if you stepped into an ornament on a Christmas tree.

The red stained cherry wood bookshelves, trimmed in gold and holly. Trees in strategic corners, Christmas lights glistening. A beautiful carved Nativity above the grand fireplace. With little Christmas surprises that seem to pop up just when you least expect them.

Lafferty looked like a lump of coal in this otherwise festive setting. “Here’s the deal John. You run this place, and it’s cast of characters, you’ll meet them a little later. All you had to do is give away one of these books with certain sales.”

“Every time that radio plays the sound of reindeer paws, the click, click, click you grew up hearing about, you give away a free book. You will also tell them it’s a first printing, and give them this ticket. Have them return December 23 for a special drawing. Tell them nothing more.”

John looked at the book. It was a small green book, with gold lettering. The title on it was Christmas Carol By C.D.L. He noticed the L was so faint it was almost invisible, compared to the C and the D. As was the little decoration above the title, it was just visible enough, that it could be mistaken for the letter A.

Lafferty didn’t wait around to argue. By the time John looked up, he had left. It was up to me to show our new boss around, and introduce everyone.

“May I present Charlie, he does a reading from the famous A Christmas Carol every afternoon during this time of year. People love the look, they tell him if they didn’t know better, they’d think he was him.”

Charlie bowed at the waist, and took his place on his small stage near the south window. The candlelight danced, reflecting on the frosted window. You could almost hear the sounds of old London whistling as it did.

Marie was far less glamorous than Charlie. She was dressed, not like a happy Mrs Claus, but more like a frumpy old governess. Of course, when she smiled, all that plainness fell away from our baker. Her white hair and green eyes had a warmth to her that could have equaled Mrs C herself.

Rosemary and Harry looked, I guess the only word is normal. They we’re pretty much dressed like millennials. The only Christmas look about them was the jolly sprig pinned to their two caps. They made great coffee so people forgave their lack of festive attire.

Lastly was Nigel, our book expert. He wore a pinstriped shirt, green apron, and red pants. The only thing on his head was a whisp of hair above each year, and little round glasses. He always had a book in his hands.

Greetings were given and returned. Then each went about their busy work. I was about to do the same when John asked for a word.

“Cap, what do you know about Lafferty? What does he get out of all this? If you don’t look at these books close, you’d think it was one of the most famous Christmas books in history. He’s cheating these people.”

I looked at the shelves of books. “It seems to me there is an old English metaphor about books and their covers. Lafferty’s methods can seem unusual, but he gets results. He keeps the old place running, for a long time now. Well, it’s about time I get back outside.”

John wasn’t convinced. I think he suspected I was either an accomplice, or someone happy to stay quiet as long as I kept me job. I’m afraid his view of the store darkened that day. Something would happen to lighten it up that evening.

Earl walked in about seven. “Good evening, you must be the new counter man. Lafferty picked a Yank this time. Two years ago it was a Canadian. He’s running the hospital now, doing a lot of good. What’s your after Christmas plan?”

John looked at the colorful character that Earl was. He didn’t work at the store, you might all him a traveling salesman for us. He was dressed like a corporate executive, five hundred dollar, three piece suit, fancy shoes, and the loudest neon green necktie you ever saw.
It was like Earl. His rough cockney accent, and over the top demeanor didn’t seem to match the refined look he carried.

“What hospital? How is Lafferty connected with it? Who are you?” John sounded more bewildered than demanding, Huffam’s has that effect on people.

“Just call me Earl, I’m in stocks you might say. Lafferty built a Children’s Hospital in Alberta. He does a lot of good, with methods that are a bit unusual. People ever see it coming. Well I just wanted to see the next protege, I’ll be going now. Evening governor!”

With a wink he left, and John began to think. Maybe old Lafferty wasn’t the villain he seemed. Perhaps there was more nice and less naughty going on, my words not his of course.

He still needed a little push towards Merry Christmas, but he was getting closer. It was my turn to give it to him. “Closing time Mr John, you can go home, I’ll lock up.”

He had his coat and scarf on before he realized, he didn’t have a place to go. “Lafferty didn’t tell me where I’d be staying. I don’t know this city, do you know how to get a hold of him?”

“You won’t reach Mr L until he wants you to, he’ll be by later tonight. In the mean time, you’re probably hungry. Let’s catch a bite to eat, and then we’ll come back by.”

I took him to a little place a few streets away. It was a store too, a bakery with a little dining area. Julie ran it, she was another American living in London. “Hello Cap, can I help you? John? What are you doing in London? How’s the parakeet?!”

She left us standing there as she exited through the door to the back room. “It looks like Mr L isn’t the only one with secrets. I don’t think she’s happy to see you.”

He bolted to follow her. I ate a doughnut while the dynamite exploded. “Too wrapped up in your work to travel, and now you’re in London? Who’s watching your parakeet?!”

I ducked instinctively when he replied the landlord, and I was in another room. He didn’t duck, and a jelly doughnut hit him in the face. “Hey, well you didn’t have to leave.”

Suddenly she looked at him, burst into tears, and came back to where I was. She found a corner and sat down. Julie whispered get out to John. I followed him out.

Lafferty pulled up outside in a cab. “There you two are. Come on, I’m gonna show you where you’re going to stay. It’s the apartment building behind the store.”

John was muttering by now, but I could just make out one partial sentence. “… didn’t see a building behind the store.” When we pulled up though, there it was, just a little taller than the store.

Lafferty pushes a key into his hand, pushed us out, and left. John was surprised that the room number was the same as in Soho. He was even more surprised when the apartment looked almost identical to home, except the color scheme.

There were tans, blacks, muted reds, and greens. There was even a parakeet, a green rose ringed parakeet. “Well John, I’m going to leave you for the night. See you tomorrow.”

He told me later he stared at the parakeet for an hour then went to bed. John also told me how surprised he was when he saw his neighbor across the hall when he was leaving. It was Julie, although she didn’t stay to talk.

Over coffee at Huffam’s, John talked to me about her. “That’s how we met actually. She had the apartment across the hall. I was bringing home London, my new parakeet. She asked me what’s it’s name was.”

“When I told her, she said she’d love to move to London. I told her I would too. I asked her out that day.”

“John boy, then what happened? Why did you let her go? Was it worth what you lost?”

He wasn’t crying, but he had the sadness of a child on Christmas morning who just opened a package that contained canned corn. I’ve seen it happen, it was a weird one, there was a blizzard, but that’s another story. John was also at another Christmas, last years.

“I was going to propose, in fact I did, and she said yes. It was great, until my company wanted to transfer me to London. I turned it down, she gave me the ring back, and I never saw her again. She even hired movers to clean out her apartment.”

There wasn’t time to ask him about all the stuff he left out. Lafferty’s first special customer came in. The radio played click, click, click, and John looked at the radio. Maybe it was the sadness but John did exactly what Lafferty had told him, without hesitation. I think he just wanted the old woman to leave.

It happened like that for a few days, until it was someone he knew. It was Julie. “I’m not here to see you, I’m here to buy a book.” John didn’t know what to say when the click click click happened.

He just stood there a minute, until it happened again. His hand was on the book, but he couldn’t find the words. Julie noticed, and walked over to the counter.

“That’s the book I was looking for, I’ll take it.” She had to pry it out of his hands. “Let go of it John, or is this how you treat your London customers?”

“Fine, here!” He didn’t say another word until she left the store. “You’re good at leaving things aren’t you Julie?” John walked to Charlie’s corner, and watched him doing a reading.

When Charlie was done, and the onlookers scattered, Charlie addressed John. “You’ve seen your Christmas Past haven’t you my boy? It’s not pretty, but that’s why it’s not the end of the story.”

John smirked. “Not all stories end like yours do Charlie. Sometimes Scrooge ends up alone. I don’t see a second chance on this one.”

Charlie leaned in, with his biggest smile, and heartiest Dickens accent. “That’s why it’s so magical, because you never see it coming. No one knew at the beginning that Scrooge was the hero of the story.”

John looked odd at this, but didn’t say anything. He got more and more quiet. Something in him was building, we weren’t sure what that was. He smelled a batch of Marie’s treats, and wandered over.

“Something for a sweet tooth John? Try one of my broken heart cups. Oh don’t give me that look, it’s not as morbid as it sounds. Here, take a fork and break into it.”

“Why not, I’m got experience.” When he did, vanilla filling with tiny heart candies flowed out. It was a lava cake.

“Hearts may brake, John, but they also heal. When they heal, they can actually be stronger than before. They just have to keep beating, to keep trying.”

I thought that might upset him, but he seemed to go further into his self instead. Rosemary and Harry brought coffee over. As usual they acted as normal as ever. I think it helped a little.

Oddly enough. It was Nigel that set him off. “Mr Masterson, just what are you trying to pull? I’ve worked at Huffam’s for a number of years every Christmas, and never before have I witnessed such a behavior!”

John thought he was talking about Lafferty, and his books. “I just hand them out Nigel. Lafferty’s behind the books when the radio plays.”

“Im not talking about Lafferty’s little show. I’m talking about the way you haphazardly run this store. Your heart isn’t in it. Tell me Mr. Masterson, can you commit to anything?”

John just huffed and walked towards the door. He headed straight for Julie. “Why did you leave? No I wasn’t ready to go to London, but I wasn’t ready for you to leave either.”

Julie didn’t walk out, but she wasn’t retreating either. “Maybe because I found out why you didn’t want to go to London. At least I was open with you.”

“What are you talking about? I told you I couldn’t leave work then. You said that you understood, but two days later, you were gone.”

“So Tracy had nothing to do with it? You got a letter from London the next day. It went to my box by mistake. I wanted to open it, but I didn’t. I put it in your box.”

“That night at dinner I asked you about the mail. All you said was that you got some bills. That wasn’t a bill. You’ve always been mysterious about the London thing. I finally knew why.”

“That was a wedding announcement from my cousin. I wasn’t planning on going. I didn’t mention it because…”

He stopped, looked strange, and pulled out his wallet. John handed her an old picture. It was of younger John, and his cousin Tracy.”

“We had just graduated college, and she had this really great software idea. What she didn’t know how to do, was to market it. I started the business with her, we started marketing, things we’re taking off.”

“I got her a meeting with a British company. We decided to take a few days, and make it a vacation. She met a young executive there, seemed to be a nice guy. He swept her off her feet, came into the business, and he pushed me out before they sold the company for two million.”

“We used to be so close, she was like my sister. Tracy let this man, that I’m sure will hurt her, not only cheat me, but drive us apart. So that’s the real reason I wanted to avoid London.”

“I should have told you sooner, and was going to that week. I just was trying to wrestle it out of my mind, how to put it into words. You moved before I could, I’m sorry.”

She hugged him, and apologized for not being understanding, and for leaving so soon. She explained that she had been hurt in college, and had a defensive mechanism of leaving before getting hurt again. “I thought I was over it, then I got scared.”

I’ve regretted it every day since, even when I hit you with a jelly doughnut. Yet it’s still hard to let go and let people in. Maybe Tracy knows she’s hurt you, maybe she can’t find the courage to take the first step. Maybe the invitation was her trying.”

John looked at her, then looked at the picture. “Wasn’t the invitation for December 23? We could still go, if you’ll go with me? I can’t go alone.”

She went over to her purse, and pulled out something. When she came back, she was wearing his engagement ring. “I go where you go, from now on, even when we’re scared.”

We were trying not to smile too much when he came back with Julie, hand in hand. “All right everybody, I want to talk to you all. First, I’ve been talking to Julie, and she told me some things I’d like her to repeat to you, then we want answers.”

Julie was grinning from ear to ear. “As you all know, and I suspect you know a lot more than you pretend to, I’ve been here for about two months longer than John. Mr Lafferty hired me to run his bake shop. He said his chef from Huffam’s would train me, Marie.”

“Only when Marie showed up at Sweet Surprises, she had a full business suit, drove a rolls, and had perfectly manicured hands. Then changed into a spotless chef’s jacket and hat. Imagine my surprise when I saw her dressed the way she is now.”

“I would have been more suspicious if Mr Lafferty hadn’t sent me for the book. He had to know I’d see her. Then I got to thinking’s our how Cap visited every week. How Rosemary and Harry were transferred from Sweet Treats to Huffam’s before John arrived.”

“As my Grandmother would say, the jig is up fellas. What’s going on here? Who are you, really?”

We felt it best for Charlie to go first, partially because we knew the ham couldn’t wait. “Allow me to introduce myself, my reference, or name as you’d put it is Dickens. That’s Digital Identifier Computerized Kinetic Energy Nanodroid.”

I hopedthdy wouldn’t suddenly blurt out, you’re a robot, Charlie is sensitive. To their credit they didn’t. We moved ahead quickly. “Sorry about this dears, my name is Marie, though you may be more familiar with my last name.” She whispered it to Julie with a wink.

Julie’s eyes sparkled, then shook her head. “I thought as much, but you’ll never convince him. He’d sooner believe the parakeet was his Uncle Harold.”

John looked at Julie, then Marie. “Just call me Mrs C dear. I like to help out wherever I can. Cap here, or Cornelius is our lead, well humbug in the group. He keeps all of us on the same page while the gentleman you know as Lafferty does big picture things.”

“Pleased to truly meet you folks without the wrapping paper. Nigel here actually built Charlie, they’re a pretty good team. Charlie wows, while Nigel computes.”

“Rosemary, Harry, I think you can finally look, well normal, and drop the disguises.” I know longer said it, than they did. John’s has dropped as he watched two seemingly normal humans, turn into two very colorful pointy ear individuals in red and turquoise outfits. The holly on their hats was still there to make them identifiable.

“In 75 years John, you and Julie are the only ones to figure us out before Christmas Eve. No, we aren’t cheating anyone with the books. Tricking yes, but only for their own good. You see, each one of them had a problem that required a special solution.”

“To help them, we had to get them here. That’s where Mr Lafferty came in. You were a big help. On Christmas Eve, most of them, will get a very wonderful surprise, and an answer to their issue.”

Nigel spoke up. “Except for three people. You and John are finding out part of it early. The other one, well, his surprise comes Christmas 23.”

Charlie frowned for the first time in thirty years. “Nigel, don’t give the finale away before the prose is penned.” I stepped in, those two could discuss coffee for 20 years if you let them.

“Suffice it to say young ones, we now need you to help in a slightly different way. You have to leave Huffam’s. Mrs C will help you shop, her rolls is out back. You’ve got a wedding to get ready for. The rest will take a few days.”

They looked so sad when I pushed them out the door. Like they were leaving a snow globe they had always wanted to escape too. It couldn’t be helped though, we had things to do.

Mrs C got each of them a wardrobe for the Wedding, and kept them occupied at Sweet Treats until time for the Wedding. She kept them busy with side projects, adventures, and surprises. Anything to keep them away.

You might have guessed, but we planned for them to figure it out. It’s the same reason that you let a child think they’ve figured out that they’re getting their most hoped for Christmas toy, but you give it to them in the most unexpected way possible. This way, you have also kept the excitement of the surprise.

What they didn’t know was why we let the charade be revealed early, well, at least part of it. We can’t reveal all of our surprises, can we? Where would the fun be in that?

On the 12 of December, Earl walked into Sweet Treats. He was out of breath, and in a hurry. He bypassed John and Julie, and went straight for Mrs C. He also had dropped his accent, for his more traditional Swedish accent.

“Mrs C, you have to help. I’ve got 14 people coming to this party, and I’m two short. Cornelius has got Harry and Rosemary masquerading in the bookstore, and I need two helpers. Any ideas?”

Mrs C sat down with a chocolate. “Oh dear, and everyone else is dealing with jingle jangle. John, Julie, is there anyway at all you could help us out? All you have to do is dress up as servers, carry a few platters, watch, and listen.”

Julie instantly grinned, shaking her head yes. John was hesitant, but not willing to say no to Julie, or Mrs C, he agreed. Within five minutes she put them in her Rolls, told them the clothes were in the back, and told them to listen to the SPS.

They were so shell shocked, it barely registered when they got out of what had been a Rolls Royce, but was not a catering van. Julie giggled, and John scratched his head.

Earl motioned them inside, told them where to change, and sent them to the kitchen, again to Mrs C. “Hello Dears, you made good time. I took a shortcut. Here are the trays, the guests are arriving.”

One of the guests was Freddy Lunsford, Tracy’s fiancé. John saw him before he saw John, and slipped back to the kitchen. He told Julie when she followed, and Mrs C.

She laughed. “Relax kids, neither of you looked like yourself since he walked through the door. There’s no way he could guess who you are. It comes in very handy when necessary.”

John tested this by walking straight to the man, and offering him a bite to eat. Lunsford didn’t even blink, “No, thank you. Where’s our host?”

John pointed in Earl’s direction, and lingered close enough to hear the conversation. “I think I’ve got a buyer for those 212 books your boy scattered over London. Can you get them back? It could be worth twice what he’s expecting, I’ve got a buyer.”

Earl explained Lafferty should have them all back by December 23. He asked if Lunsford could meet him at Huffam’s that morning. Around 10:30 with the buyer and the cash.

“We can make it. Though I’ll have to hurry. I’ve got another pigeon I’m securing. Once she’s wrapped up, I’ll have more money than I could spend in a lifetime.”

Julie pulled John back before he could hit Lunsford. He didn’t even realize that he had dropped his tray until she grabbed his arm. They both headed for the kitchen.

“I heard kids. Yes, we certainly must do something about Mr. Lunsford. If for no other reason than poor Tracy. John, I’m afraid you can’t tell her until we have the proof. Lafferty won’t have that until December twenty third.”

John shook his head. “Marie, or Mrs C, that’s the Wedding Day. I can’t let her get married, but I can’t stop her Wedding either. We need to do something now. The twenty third will be too late.”

“Let me call Lafferty. To see if he can adjust his timetable. In the mean time, you too head to this address. Ask for Inspector O’Brien. Give him this folder, and no, you can’t look inside. Tell them Marie C sent you.”

This time when they got out of what had been a Rolls Royce, and then a Catering Van, it was a black sedan, with a left orange fender. Even Julie thought it was a strange choice.

They assumed it meant something, but didn’t know exactly what, until the met with the Inspector. When they told him Marie C sent them, he looked out the blinds, and laughed. “Orange fender. She said she wouldn’t forget. Okay, let’s see what you got.”

He went through the folder quickly. Nodded a few times, then grabbed his coat. “Let’s go, but I have to warn you, things with Mrs C don’t go the way you always expect.”

I think John had a little too much of a mixture of excitement, anger, despair, and confusion for one day. He wanted to slow things down a bit. “Wait, Inspector, where are we going?”

“You’re going to introduce me to your cousin. Then I’m going to express some concerns about her fiancé. Then she’ll probably throw me out, but don’t worry, she’ll blame me, come on.”

Julie drove, John wasn’t up to it. Especially when the black sedan was now a silver rental car. They almost passed it until Julie thought to try the key.

Tracy had a flat in London, a very nice one at that. “John, you are coming to the Wedding! That’s wonderful. Listen, I’ve been meaning to call you. I’m …”

The Inspector interrupted. “Hello Tracy, good to see you again. A colleague of mine ran across your boy’s name. They sent me the file. Given the history, I thought I better call in person. Can I have a word.”

“John, this man who slipped up the stairs behind you may be a policeman, but he’s not a nice one. He’s accused my Freddy of being a crook. He won’t be happy until he sticks something on him. Will you excuse me?”

John nodded, still as bewildered as ever. Julie patted his arm. She was trying to explain everything to him when they heard shouting.

“You have no right to do this! I don’t think you have any evidence at all! It’s over Steven. Leave us alone!”

“This isn’t about us Tracy, it’s about a crime. He’s cheated before, and he’ll steal again. I wish I was wrong, but you know I’m not!”

The Inspector stormed out without acknowledging John and Julie. Tracy was flushed. She excused herself for a few minutes, then came in a little calmer.

“I guess I should explain. It’s a mess John. First Steven, remember that exchange program when we were teenagers? I think you were playing football then, so you were pretty occupied. He was an exchange student for half a year. We dated, and even though we broke up, kept writing each other for a year or two.”

“A few weeks after you left London, there was some trouble concerning the way Freddy was running the financials. It was a mistake, but the authorities tried to prove otherwise. Coincidentally Stephen was the person assigned to the case.”

“He’s kept at it for months, but he can’t make a case. I hate to say it, but I think he’s jealous. This so called new evidence looks completely stupid to me, and unconnected. I may have to report Steven, J just hate to have o do that, he was always so kind growing up.”

John loved his cousin like a sister. After he heard all of this, his nerves went out the window. He asked if he and Julie could help in any way. “Are you sure you all are going to be okay?”

Tracy just stood there, not knowing what to say. “John, about what happened when you left. I want you to know, I …”

He stopped his cousin. “Tracy, don’t worry about that. His argument about holding profits and not dispersing made a lot of sense. The money he dispersed for you wasn’t just salary, it was living expenses. I’m really good. As a matter of fact, I’m engaged myself. I’d like you to meet Julie, she’s my fiancé.”

They spent about two hours together, then John and Julie decided it was time to get back. Julie asked him about it all on the way to the car. “How can you just let her off the hook that way?”

“Because I love her, and because I know her. Something you should know about our family. When we fall in love, we see stars, and not much else. Tracy wants to believe that this Freddy is perfect. Until she sees it herself, she won’t believe anyone else.”

“Now I’m the one that’s worried John. If Mrs C is right, then Freddy’s a crook. We can’t let her marry this guy. What are we going to do now?”

“We’re going back to the Inspector. He knows a whole lot more than he’s telling. About Freddy, about Tracy, and about Mrs C. He’s going to tell us something, or have to lock us up for Christmas.”

Steven was waiting for them outside the headquarters. “Let’s grab some coffee. You two don’t know the least of it.”

Steven paid for the coffee, and settled them all at a back table. “All right, do you want to start with Freddy, Tracy, or Mrs C? I know a lot about the first two, and very, very little about the third.”

John gave him the look of a big brother, so the Inspector started with Tracy. “I thought it was coincidence too, when I was assigned the case. Still did for the first two days in fact, until I went through the folder again. I caught a whif of a particular smell.”

“Sugar cookies.” Julie said, looking at the Inspector. “You smelled sugar cookies didn’t you? Every time she walks in the room I smell them.”

He nodded. “I had only dealt with one person who smelled like them up until this case. So I reached out. She said she was busy, but to look for an old orange and black friend. I’ve seen that car, or whatever it is, before.”

“As for Tracy. She was to put it bluntly, and probably naively, the love of my life. I was sixteen, but I fell in love with her. She said we’d grow up and apart, and it looks like she did, I didn’t. Yet, no matter what I feel, I wouldn’t blackmail someone else, even for her. Lunsford is dirty, I just can’t prove it, yet.”

John hadn’t decided about Steven, but he had about Freddy. “He’s dirty. He’s working on a deal over counterfeit first edition books. His buyer is supposed to pay millions for them on the twenty third. Mrs C’s associate Lafferty is involved.”

“Until recently, I thought he was a crook. Now, it looks like he’s some sort of, I really don’t know what. Things don’t make sense when it comes to Mrs C, and Huffam’s. I don’t have time to care. I have to save my cousin.”

“Well, we’ve got a week until the Wedding. Let’s get to work. Though I have to warn you, I think Mrs C will win the day on this one.”

The three of them went through financial records, ran down leads, and interviewed anyone remotely connected to Lunsford. They came up totally empty. The three were at dinner together the night before the Wedding, when Mrs C joined them.

“Hello Dears, you’ve been busy I see. While you’ve done some good work, it’s time to stop now. You have to get ready for tomorrow, but first, I need the three of you to stop by Huffam’s, tonight.”

You didn’t argue with Mrs C, so the three of them showed up at my door after dessert. “Welcome back my friends. Steven, it’s been a while. I think you all may find a few changes since you’ve been inside last.”

This time, it looked like any other bookstore. Charlie was nowhere to be found. Nigel was running the bakery. Harry was behind the counter. Rosemary was at the coffee area. All were in red aprons, and dressed like, well bookstore employees.

Any hint of decoration, or happiness seemed hidden. You could still feel it, but it was just below the surface. Christmas was undercover, and very much at work. I led them to a little side room where Lafferty was waiting.

“Not a lot of time you three. Here’s what’s going to happen. You all have an invitation to the Wedding. Lunsford invited you Steven, he wants to gloat. You’re going to let him. John, Julie, you are there for Tracy.”

“I can’t stress this enough. You need to be there, but you have to stay out of the way. It could always be dangerous, and I don’t want that. We’re almost to unwrap this case.”

“Listen Lafferty, I’ve been pushed, told what to do, confused, and manipulated since I left Soho. I don’t have to do anything you, or Marie, or whoever says. I want answers, and I want them now.”

Lafferty’s cell phone rang, he answered, and walked out ignoring John’s question. Steven told them he’d see them tomorrow, and walked out. Julie leaned over and whispered to John.

“That can’t be Julie. It doesn’t make sense. How can any of this be connected to that. I think they’re all crooks, and somehow we’re going to be left holding the bag.”

“John, why do you think they went to so much trouble to bring us back together? If they were crooks, why are they trying to patch you and Tracy up? If they were just trying to get Lunsford, and nothing else, why go about all the extras?”

“For once John, stop being afraid. Trust, hold my hand, and take a chance. You may just get everything you want for Christmas this year.”

He hugged her. “I already have everything I need for Christmas now. Still, if there’s any chance any of this is real, let’s stick around and see the fireworks, or the snowflakes.”

212 people, that’s how many were supposed to show up at Huffam’s the next day, and they did. The problem was, Huffam’s wasn’t there. Neither was Sweet Treats. Or Lafferty, his merry band, or me. We had a Wedding to attend.

Freddy was there though, and so was his buyer, at least for a few minutes. The man was not very happy to arrive at an empty lot full of people. He drove off pretty quickly, and demanded to know what Lunsford was up to.

“If you’re trying some scheme to cheat me Freddy, I’ll be very angry. I was supposed to pick up a shipment from your contact at some nice little, out of the way bookstore. I didn’t plan for a crowded lot in the middle of London. You’ve got until tonight to get me my shipment, or pay me four million dollars for my trouble. “

“Four million, that’s ridiculous. Look, I don’t know what’s going on, but you’re not taking me for four million. I’ll give you back my finder fee of 200,000, and skip my commission, but you’re not getting richer out of me.”

The man in gray reached into his coat and pulled out a few pictures. “Freddy, that first one is your little hide away. The second is a picture of the honeymoon suite you’ve got booked in Dubai. That last one, well, you recognize the family plot don’t you? Which one of the three do you think you’ll end up at, if I don’t get my money?”

He stopped the car and waited for Freddy to get out. Just before Lunsford shut the door, he said. “Bring as much money as you can to the Wedding, if you know what’s good for you.”

Freddy had a dilemma. If he went to the Wedding, he could lose a lot more than the money he didn’t have. If he didn’t go, he’d lose the money he would get by marrying into Tracy’s fortune.

A hunter once told me, when you give a scared rabbit two choices, you never know which one he will take. So a good hunter, sets two traps. That way, you’ll end up with rabbit stew, and not carrot soup.

I don’t care for either, but I never forgot the advice. That’s why Tony The Eel has been seared three rows back from Lafferty and John on the flight to London. It’s also why he had been working at the airport as head of security since the day after he got off the plane.

Freddy tried to book a flight to Vancouver, Tony The Eel stopped him. That’s why we call him Tony The Eel, he catches the slippery naughty ones for us. He put him in a cab, and headed to the Wedding.

Tony is a little intimidating, when he’s not smiling. The hardest thing for him to do is hide his smile. He’s a softy. Lafferty didn’t tell John everything that happened. Tony wasn’t trying to hit him, it just happened, but more about that later.

John and Julie were with Tracy. All three were nervous, but for different reasons. John and Julie definitely knew they didn’t want the Wedding to happen. Tracy had thought she did, but now was having second thoughts.

She wouldn’t admit it though. Tracy couldn’t bring herself to say that, after she had put up with so much to this point. She needed someone to rescue her. No, it wouldn’t be Stephen, as much as he would have wanted.

She needed someone tough enough to stand up to Freddy, and his cohorts. Tracy also needed someone kind enough to understand what she was going through. Kind and tough fits a lot of people in our group, but none better than Mrs C.

John and Julie would have wanted a huge takedown of crooked Freddy. Mrs C knew that Tracy’s heart couldn’t handle that. So, when Freddy arrived, and was placed in his dressing room, she went to Tracy.

“Hello dear, how are you doing? A little nervous I think aren’t you? That’s perfectly natural for a new Bride, as long as it’s the right kind of nerves.”

“You see, I remember when I was young, and I was to marry my Nick. Some people loved him, others weren’t too impressed with his chosen profession, but I didn’t let that stop me.”

Tracy looked at the kindly Wedding planner, who had offered to help her on her big day. “You didn’t? What if they were right? How did you know you were doing the right thing?”

Mrs C laughed. “That was simple. Nick may not have been rich, but he was kind, and honest, and loving. I trusted him, but more than any of that, there was something else. I knew in my heart, that we had each other’s back, that we were in it for each other.”

Tracy could rationalize a lot of things that Mrs C had said, but not that last one. Even she knew that Freddy was first for Freddy, and not her. If he was that way towards her, what would he be towards anyone else?

“Mrs C, I can’t get married today. I don’t… I can’t … What am I going to do?”

Mrs C held her hands, hugged her, and whispered that it would all be all right. “You wait hear dear. I have a friend who knows just what to do in these situations, people call him Lafferty.”

A few minutes later, Lafferty in a 3 piece suit walked into the Wedding venue, and asked the Inspector to join him. They passed John and Julie. Somehow to John, Lafferty looked different.

He even thought, how could he have suspected Lafferty of being a criminal. John now felt he very clearly looked like a policeman. People tend to see what they look for, at least that’s been my observation.

Lafferty went into the room with Stephen to talk to Freddy, he asked John and Julie to join him as witnesses. “Freddy when you concocted this crazy plan to sell counterfeit versions of Charles Dickens classic, I saw a chance to close in, so I went undercover.”

“You had a bait and switch tied in with a con, and a ponzu scheme all rolled into one. You sold those people a chance to win money, also hinting that one of those funny books might be a first edition Dickens in disguise.”

“Had the raffle happened, and they lost their shirts, Stephen would have locked you up. Thankfully for you it’s Christmas, and they didn’t end up at Huffam’s. Stephan can’t arrest you for what didn’t happen, provided, you give the money you took from them back.”

Freddy was sweating. “I’ve already spent it. All I have is the money I got out of the deal with Tracy and cousin here. Plus I’ve gone to have four million or my buyer for the books, for the next phase will kill me.”

“Don’t worry about Charlie, he is also with me. He gave you three choices as I recall. One being your little hide away. This is your escape card Freddy.”

“When you were 11, you wanted a certain board game, but it was missing one of the two cards. That always bothered me. Consider this it. You’re going to go to Surrey, and start a new life. An honest one, otherwise you may wake up next Christmas with a gift you don’t want.”

Freddy looked towards the door.”What about the Wedding? She’s going to be disappointed. Still probably better off without me. It’s a deal, if you’re serious.”

Lafferty nodded towards the back door, near the fireplace, and Freddy left. Stephen looked at Lafferty. “Nice bluff, ‘Agent’, considering your jurisdiction is somewhat questionable. Thank you for saving Tracy, and maybe Freddy.”

Lafferty smiled. “He needs a little more help, but he will be okay by next Christmas. Now for you Stephen, pride is an awfully empty companion to spend Christmas with. Go to her son, trust me, oh, and here’s an early present.”

John and Julie smiled, and watched as Stephen headed back down the hall. John was still facing the door to the hall when he addressed Lafferty. “So all this was an elaborate plan to rescue Tracy. Only one thing I want to know Lafferty, is who you all really are?”

Julie kisses him. “He’s gone honey. He’s got things to do.”

“I didn’t hear the back door open. How did he get out? Who are they really Julie, and don’t tell me their Elves like that little illusion Harry and Rosemary pulled on me.”

Julie laughed. “My lovable skeptic. He didn’t use the door. His name isn’t Lafferty, but he does laugh a lot.”

As she whispered to John who he was, a “Ho, Ho, Ho”, came from the roof. Along with the click of reindeer hooves, and sleigh bells.” John’s eyes got pretty big as he watched Lafferty’s sleigh speed past the skylight.

By the time he ran to Tracy’s room, Mrs C, and most of us were gone. Stephen and her were crying happy tears, and a ring was on her finger. I was standing quietly in the corner.

“Cap, or Cornelius, here explained everything. Stephen proposed, and I said yes. I’m going to get in place. Stephen has a suit waiting from Mrs C. Talk to Cornelius, then you to join us, but hurry.”

She giggled as she left the room. It was my turn to talk. “The sleigh is double parked, and my boss is waiting. They’ll be happy together, and you two will too. Do me one last favor? Take these three ornaments back to that empty part of London we met at. Harry and Rosemary will do the rest.”

John and Julie watched the wedding, ornaments in hand. That evening they went back to those empty lots. Harry and Rosemary were waiting. Considering what the ornaments looked like, the Christmas gift was no longer a surprise, but extremely special.

Harry and Rosemary took the three building ornaments, and in a moment, John and Julie were standing back at Huffam’s. Charlie was sitting on stage, looking very much like Mr Dickens. “Santa said the bookstore, bakery, and apartment building are yours if you want them. We only ask to maybe borrow a room a few days a year?”

Huge smiles in the affirmative, as Charlie exited the only way that made sense. He opened a certain Christmas classic, and promptly disappeared inside.

The two we’re trying to find the right words to say to each other, but didn’t have time. A customer came in, wanting a last minute Christmas gift. That’s how an out of work New Yorker, and an American baker, and a magically transported Paracheet, made London their home. Special things happen when you visit Christmas at Huffam’s.

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