This world outside the window was gray and gloomy, but there was no sign of snow, or even rain. The temperatures were fairly warm for December in New York, and the day felt more like early November. It was difficult to picture now close Christmas really was.
Trixie Belden compared the day to December days from her childhood. Was the day really so different – climate change or whatever – than what she remembered? Or was the real problem that she viewed days of the distant past through the eyes of a carefree child roaming the countryside, and recent years through the eyes of a disgruntled adult trapped in the busy city?
She suspected the latter was more accurate. When she had chosen her career, she had envisioned chasing criminals and hunting for clues all over the globe. Instead, she spent most days in her office, sitting at a computer, cyber-stalking her prey and staring out the window at the concrete jungle. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d taken a walk in Central Park, let alone gone hiking in the woods by her childhood home.
No matter how gray the day outside, the problem was far more internal. She really needed to shake off this funk.
Looking back down at her desk, she wavered between picking up the file folder with her current case, or filling out the response card for the wedding invitation lying beside it. She would never admit it out loud, but a good part of her mood was being caused by that stupid wedding invitation. Here she was, nearly thirty and hopelessly single, and her baby brother was hopelessly in love and gearing up for a Christmas wedding.
It was just wrong.
Not that she would begrudge her beloved Bobby his happiness, but in the privacy of her office, she could indulge her foul mood. At least for a minute.
Wondering how much more than sixty seconds she had wasted on self-indulgence, she glanced at the clock. Instant panic set in and she scrambled up from her chair. Hastily grabbing her coat and keys, she raced out of the office. She had promised to meet her best friend and partner, Honey Wheeler, at the church around the corner, because Honey had signed them up to help with the holiday bazaar. And Trixie was on the verge of being late… again.
Even Trixie’s foul mood couldn’t stand up to the fun and cheer at St. Andrew’s parish hall. There were crafts and games, food and trinkets, and all manner of Christmas fun. Trixie had been helping an elderly woman of the church who was selling her famous homemade carrot cake, and whose joy in the season was infectious. They were stationed right next to the area where the Girl Scout troop who met in the church hall had been helping younger children decorate sugar cookies. Watching the scouts interact with the children had been truly delightful.
Trixie thought of her college friend, Robin, and how much she loved being a Girl Scout leader. Realizing how long it had been since she’d talked to Robin, Trixie frowned. Honey chose that moment to check up on her friend.
“What’s with the frown?” Honey asked. “You’ve been unusually quiet all day.”
Trixie shrugged. “Just trying to shake off a Scrooge-y mood.”
Eyeing her suspiciously, Honey put her hands on her hips. “You’re not skipping out on Sleepyside this weekend, are you?”
“I’m going to the shower on Sunday,” Trixie grumbled, shoulders hunched defensively.
One elegant eyebrow slowly rose in accusation. “I’m going for the entire weekend, so I can spend some time with family and friends.”
Returning an equally accusatory glare, Trixie replied, “Really? I’d have thought you’d be holed up somewhere with the new boyfriend who’s so secret you won’t even tell me his name.”
Honey said nothing and attempted to maintain her glare, but she was not successful in hiding the color rising to her cheeks.
Understanding hit Trixie like a ton of bricks, and only served to further darken her foul mood. “Brian? You were afraid to tell me you were dating Brian again?” She snorted in disgust. “Don’t tell me the romance of the Christmas wedding swayed you.”
Irritation flared in Honey’s hazel eyes. “I didn’t tell you because I’m tired of your cynicism.”
Trixie looked away and said nothing.
Honey sighed. “Look, if you’re going to stay here, you could do some background research on the file I left on my desk. Or you could do some detecting and figure out where you lost your Christmas spirit. Either way, I expect to see you on Sunday with a smile on your face. Bobby and Bella deserve that, at least.”
“They do,” Trixie nodded in reply. “And I can manage to keep a smile on my face for a three-hour shower. But I know I couldn’t do it for the whole weekend, so I’m going to spare everyone else from suffering through my bad mood.”
Reluctantly agreeing, Honey nodded. “I understand.” She reached out and wrapped her in a hug. “I just hope you find the happy Trixie I know and love sometime soon.”
Trixie hugged her back. “Me too. Enjoy your weekend.”
Pretending to be too busy to go home for the weekend worked for Trixie most of Saturday morning. She had done an intake on a new case on Friday morning, and she spent time doing background work and digging through the internet for information. She didn’t solve the case, but at least she had a full folder of information to review with Honey during their regular Monday morning meeting.
Their private detective agency had a pretty good system. Sometimes they worked cases together, sometimes they met with clients alone, but they met regularly to update each other and brainstorm. They believed that it was important for both partners to be aware of what was going on in their firm, and they both benefitted from bouncing ideas off each other.
Frustrated with not being able to do anything else on her case, Trixie remembered Honey’s request to look at the folder on her desk. Honey had had a client meeting out of the office, and they had not had a chance to discuss the new case. Trixie went over to her partner’s office to retrieve the file.
Walking into the room caused an involuntary eyeroll. Trixie and Honey had very different styles of organizing themselves, and Honey’s “not a hair visibly out of place” style drove Trixie nuts. There was at least one drawer in her office that was chaotic, but as long as no one could see the chaos Honey was happy. Trixie’s desk was often covered in piles, but she knew where everything was and nothing went into a drawer unless it was filed properly. If it still needed attention, it needed to be where Trixie could see it. Trixie didn’t care who could see the chaos; Honey worried about appearances. Neither was quite as extreme about it as they’d been as teenagers, and it was an ingrained part of their character that they accepted about each other. But Trixie still rolled her eyes at the spotless desk.
Dead center in the middle of the desk blotter was a single file folder. Obviously the one Honey had mentioned, Trixie picked it up and read the label. Her dark December mood instantly went from gray to ebony, as the client in question was Honey’s adopted brother, Jim.
Years ago, Trixie and Honey had been a part of the closest group of friends ever known, known as the Bob-Whites. When they were young, they believed they would always be that close. Life had taught them otherwise. They still kept in touch, and some of them were still best friends, like Trixie and Honey. But as an entire group they had fallen apart long ago. And as far as Trixie was concerned, the fall had started when Jim Frayne had begun dating his first college girlfriend.
She scowled as she carried the file back to her own office. Maybe she was to blame for the fall of the Bob-Whites. After all, if she still held a grudge ten years later for the broken heart she’d suffered when Jim had started dating, then maybe she needed a serious attitude adjustment.
Other people survived broken hearts. Her brother, Mart, and her friend, Diana, had dated very seriously all through high school. Their breakup had been ugly and painful. Both had moved on and found happiness with other people, and they were back to being friends. Not as close as they once were, but certainly friends. Why couldn’t Trixie manage to do the same with Jim?
Probably because she hadn’t found happiness with someone else. Regardless, she was a professional and Jim was a client. It was time to dig into his case like she would for anyone else.
She sat down at her desk and opened the file. Glancing at the first page, took her breath away. Her hand shook as she reached out to pick up the photo inside. There were times when she thought she might just be the master of all coincidences. There were other times, like now, when she wondered if the truth was that she was the instrument of guardian angels, always just where they needed her to be.
Her interest was piqued and she was hot on the trail of a mystery. Like always, that improved her mood significantly. She proceeded to lose herself in reading the file and getting down to work.
It was incredible how chaos seemed fun when it was filled with love and joy. Trixie looked around her and shook her head in amazement. This was, by far, the most unusual bridal shower she had ever attended.
Bobby was marrying a widow with two young daughters. Since he had far more family than she, they had talked about going with the trend of a “couple’s shower”. Bella’s children had then chimed in with, “But we’re gettin’ marriaged too!” Bella and the girls had their own house, so many traditional shower gifts were unnecessary. In the end they had opted for an all-ages party, gifts optional, designed as a casual celebration before the wedding. Since it was being held in December at Bella’s church hall, it had morphed into a holiday festival similar to the one Trixie and Honey had worked days before.
Trixie was trying to decide between rescuing Bella from Aunt Alicia, and offering to assist with children’s games. Then she spotted Jim walking in with two small boys. Honey appeared from nowhere right behind her, leaning in so only Trixie could hear.
“Did you look at the file I left for you?” she asked.
Trixie nodded. “The one on the right, correct?”
“Yep,” Honey nodded. “He’s fostering them both for the holidays, but the other one has a well-documented history. Tommy, on the other hand…”
Trixie nodded again. “I’m going to go help decorate cookies.”
Trixie spent the rest of the afternoon helping children decorate cookies, and helping them sneak more bites than their parents would have liked. Sugar highs never bother the single person who gets to hand the children back to their parents afterwards; it was Trixie’s favorite part of being the spinster aunt.
When Bobby wandered over to check on the children, Bella’s younger daughter, Dominique, jumped up and hugged him. “Daddy, Daddy! Look what I made!” Dancing with delight, she showed him the gingerbread family she’d decorated. “It’s us!”
Trixie watched the little scene silently, overcome by both shock and awe. She’d been unable to picture her little pest of a brother as a father until now. Moms walked by, silently chucking her under the chin to close her gaping mouth and giving her a knowing wink. Trixie gulped and turned to focus on another child, hoping no one else had seen through her as clearly as her mother had.
The party ended eventually, as all things do. Many hugs and well wishes were shared as everyone parted company. Trixie received her fair share of hugs, some received grudgingly and others lovingly. Nothing quite prepared her for the running grab around the legs she received from Jim’s little ward, Tommy. She hugged him back with a pat on the head, and then hoped no one noticed her slip a strand of his hair into her pocket.
On Monday morning, Trixie left Honey a voicemail about being unable to meet. She went to visit a friend at a forensic lab who could expedite some tests for her, grateful that he could get her results the next day. She then spent the rest of the day hopping from personal errands to meeting with clients, finding anything to keep her out of the office and away from her partner.
After meeting with her forensic friend on Tuesday, Trixie finally headed into her office. She found Honey pacing back and forth anxiously.
“Hey,” Trixie said, eyeing her warily. “Is something wrong?”
Honey stopped and faced her, wringing her hands. “We need to talk.”
“O…kay…” Trixie moved to the casual seating area of their outer office, deciding this sounded like a more personal conversation that would work better if they weren’t facing each other across a desk. “So, talk.”
Still wringing her hands, Honey perched on the edge of her seat. “I know you have a problem with me dating Brian,” Honey began.
“Incorrect.” Trixie’s interruption was swift and succinct.
Honey looked at her, genuinely puzzled. “Then why do you get so sarcastic and pessimistic every time?”
“EVERY TIME.” Trixie threw up her hands. “That phrase is the heart of the problem, Hon! You start dating, are happy as can be, have some problem you never share, break up again, and make each other and everyone around you miserable. Time and time again. I’m sick to death of seeing two people I love so much hurt each other!”
Honey’s eyes filled with tears and Trixie sighed deeply. “Honey, neither one of you has ever been remotely interested in anyone else. I don’t know what stumbling blocks you have, but I wish you could get past them. I want nothing but happiness for either one of you, and I would love to see you find that with each other, but that never seems to be how it works out.”
Wiping a tear from her cheek, Honey tucked her hair behind her ear. “You’re the only one who’s never tried to meddle or take sides.”
“And you can’t figure out how the Queen of Meddling can leave it alone?”
Honey chuckled, just as Trixie had hoped. Trixie grinned. “Listen, we’re talking about my favorite big brother and my best friend. If I take sides, I’m the one who loses. It’s completely selfish.”
“You’re usually the unselfish one,” Honey smirked, relaxing a bit.
Trixie snorted. “In what universe? If you’ll recall, the general consensus is that the trip to the Ozarks was a prime example of how whiny and selfish I can be.”
Honey rolled her eyes. “The trip to the Ozarks was 16 year ago.”
“Are you accusing me of growing up?” Trixie pouted.
“I would never!” Honey laughed. Slowly sobering, Honey started wringing her hands again. “Trix…”
“Let me guess,” Trixie said, raising her hand to stop Honey. “Did Brian get the job in Houston?”
Honey nodded and re-tucked the same strand of hair that refused to stay behind her ear. “The thing is… most of the time what comes between us is one of us feeling like the other is choosing some THING over the other one. It started when I chose to go to college with you instead of the school he was at.”
“What?” Trixie practically shrieked.
Honey winced and shushed her. “He has long since admitted that he was being selfish and I made the right choice for me. Just like I was being selfish when I got mad that he took a residency in Baltimore instead of New York, when it was clearly the better job but it was farther away from me.”
“You want to go to Houston.” It wasn’t a question. Trixie could see that Honey wanted to choose Brian… over their partnership. Knowing that she would never stand in the way of her best friend’s happiness, Trixie just nodded. “You do what will make YOU happy, and don’t worry about anything else.”
She jumped up and pulled Honey into a tight hug. “BUT… we have a case that we have to solve before you go anywhere.”
With that, Trixie pulled her partner – for now – into her office so she could lay out all the information she had gathered.
The long drive was making Trixie stir-crazy. Deciding she needed a change of scenery far more than the convenience of a Thruway rest stop, she took the next exit and wandered through the streets of Painted Post. The little town felt like it was a million miles from everywhere, but it glistened with gaily-strung Christmas lights. It was so dark that it was hard to believe it was still early evening, but it meant she could take a break and enjoy driving past the holiday decorations while still having time to complete her mission tonight.
The drive through the mountains, and now through small-town holiday cheer, had done much to restore Trixie’s normal Christmas spirit. Hopefully the rest of her night would go just as well.
When she arrived in the town of Conesus, she followed Honey’s careful directions until she arrived at the Frayne Camp and Academy. She pulled over on the road and took a good look before heading down the long and winding driveway. It was her first visit to the result of Jim’s lifelong dream.
As a teenager, Jim Frayne had dreamt of a school for orphaned boys that felt more like a camp. Time, maturity, and a study of the reality of modern education and childcare laws had slowly adjusted his vision. By the time he’d found a location that pleased him, south of his childhood hometown of Rochester on the shores of Conesus Lake, he had decided on a more practical strategy.
The Frayne Camp and Academy held summer programs for troubled youths, with occasional programs at other times of the year, such as spring and winter breaks. In addition, Jim provided year-round schooling to a very small handful of other children who were placed in his care as a foster parent. He didn’t always get to reach as many children as he would like, but the ones he did work with he helped immeasurably.
When Trixie stopped her car in front of the main house, Jim was standing on the porch. His frown turned to curiosity when he identified the driver of the unfamiliar vehicle.
“To what do I owe the honor?” he asked Trixie as she walked towards him.
“It seems you hired my partner to do some detective work for you,” Trixie said.
Jim raised his eyebrows. “No, I hired your FIRM. It was easier to talk to my sister, but you’re the better detective so I hoped you’d both work on my problem.”
Momentarily flabbergasted by Jim’s praise, Trixie faltered. “Um, okay. Well, I have some information for you.”
Jim invited her in, and offered her a drink. He took her to the kitchen, where Tommy and Donavan were drinking hot cocoa. She joined them for cocoa, and then for a bedtime story seated around the Christmas tree.
While Jim took the boys to their room and tucked them in, Trixie wandered the main areas of the house and took in the views from the windows. After months of feeling cooped up in the concrete jungle of New York, she felt suddenly like she could breathe freely.
When Jim returned, he asked her to join him in his office. Once the door was closed, he seemed to feel comfortable speaking freely. “What did you find about Tommy’s background?”
“The same day you met with Honey, I met with a new client,” Trixie began. “A couple who have been searching for their son since he was stolen from them when he was three. The FBI never found any real clues as to what happened to him, and after four years the case is considered cold. They hired us just because they wanted to feel like there was someone out there still looking for Jason.”
Jim was stunned. “If they were the same boy, that would be an unbelievable coincidence.”
“I know,” Trixie said, understanding that it sounded crazy.
“Then again,” Jim grinned, “you’re Trixie Belden. You’ve always turned unbelievable coincidences into magic.”
She smiled and blushed.
“But are you sure?” Jim sobered. “I don’t want to take any chances.”
Trixie nodded. “I don’t blame you. I had a hunch, but I followed it up with plenty of research. I even ran DNA tests. I’m absolutely sure.”
Jim looked disappointed. “I adore Tommy. I wanted to apply for permanent care of him, but I wanted to make sure all my bases were covered.”
“His name is Jason Barto. He has two parents who love him and miss him.” Trixie was both firm and gentle. “You need to do right by him.”
“Thanks, Trixie,” Jim nodded. “That’s the kind of news that hurts less when delivered by a friend. How do we get him home?”
The last two weeks had been a whirlwind. Returning Tommy/Jason to his parents had been an emotional and overwhelming experience for everyone involved. Jason and his mother had each referred to Trixie as their guardian angel. Then the word had gotten out about the solved missing child case, and the press had come calling. Reporters were everywhere.
Then Trixie and Honey had announced the closing of the Belden-Wheeler Detective Agency, and Honey and Brian had announced their engagement. Not only had that brought more reporters, but it had brought Trixie several job offers.
The craziness had only been complicated by the usual hectic pace of Christmas, as well as the last-minute preparations for Bobby and Bella’s wedding.
Finally, the day had arrived. It was Christmas Eve, and the Beldens’ family and friends had gathered to watch the happy couple exchange their vows. The ceremony had been simple, elegant, and beautiful. Now everyone was gathered in the reception hall, beautifully decorated with Christmas trees and poinsettias, and each table sporting a centerpiece handmade by the children – a snowman’s head made from a milk jug and stuffed with lights. There was plenty of food, fellowship, and fun.
Watching Bobby dance with his new daughters, Trixie stood off to the side and smiled. Honey wandered over to stand with her.
“You look like you found your holiday spirit,” Honey smiled.
“I did,” Trixie grinned. “I just had to remember that helping others is the best way to help yourself.”
“So, what are you going to do when I leave for Houston?” Honey asked worriedly. “Did you decide?”
Smiling, Trixie shrugged. “I have a couple of job offers that look good. I’ve decided to concentrate on the ones that aren’t in The City, because I want to live somewhere I can actually see nature. They’re all over the state… Albany, Buffalo, Rochester… I’m going to take some time, meet with people, and make whatever decision feels most comfortable.”
“Rochester?” Honey queried.
Trixie wasn’t going to rise to the bait. “Maybe, maybe not. You never know where life will take you. You just have to let go of the past so that you’re free to take hold of whatever the future may bring.”
Just then the crowd hear a jingling of bells and a deep, “Ho, ho, ho!” All the children ooohed and aaahed over the surprise appearance of Santa Claus, bearing gifts of all sorts. Everyone in the room received at least a token of holiday spirit from the bride and groom. When Santa reached Trixie, he winked one green eye as he handed her a wrapped package.
Later on, as the evening was ending, Moms noticed Trixie hadn’t opened her gift. “Aren’t you going to see what’s inside?” she asked.
“Nope!” Trixie smiled. “Why would I give up the best gift of all? A mystery!”
She would open the package… later. She would figure out her job situation… later. Right now, she just wanted to sing carols and be with family. It was easy to let the world get in the way of Christmas. Tonight, she was going to let Christmas block out the rest of the world, and enjoy every minute of it.