Wednesday, December 23, 2015

SHELLY HOBBES AND THE UNWRAPPED PRESENTS

For those of you who haven't yet made her acquaintance, Shelly Hobbes is a Master Detective. She began solving mysteries for her friends and neighbors at nine years old and has been applying Sherlock Holmes' unique brand of deductive reasoning ever since. Her best friend/sidekick, Warren J. Morton, chronicles her adventures, including this one which took place on December 23rd, 1997.

It was during Christmas break before what was to be our last semester at Valley Junior High and I was going over to Shelly’s house on Christmas Eve Eve (December 23rd, in case that wasn’t clear) to deliver her Christmas present. Shelly has always been notoriously difficult to shop for, partly because it was hard to think of something she’d actually like, but mostly because she had the annoying habit of trying to guess what was in the gift before she opened it. The reason the habit was so annoying is that she always guessed correctly, ruining my surprise. But this year, I had…

No, sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself.

I was walking down to Shelly’s house with the large box in my arms when I saw a police car parked out front. I walked a little faster for the next few steps until I was close enough to see the broken glass in the front window. Then I started running. I ran through the open front door to see Shelly’s parents answering the officer’s questions. Shelly and Myron were sitting on the couch next to them. Baskerville the Hound was sitting on the floor at their feet, and I swear he looked sort of…sheepish.

“Shelly!” I yelled, without thinking. In an instant, Shelly ran over to me and I barely had time to set down her gift before she hugged me so tight it knocked some of the wind out of me.

As it turned out, everyone was fine. The family had been out at the movies and had come home from the matinee to find the house broken into. Shelly and Myron investigated and concluded that nothing had been stolen. Not their mother’s jewelry, the TV or anything. Whoever had broken in had, however, unwrapped and gone through nearly all the gifts that were under the tree.

“It’s just as well,” said Mrs. Hobbes, trying to make a joke, “since Shelly and Myron already knew what was in most of them.”

But the really strange thing was that none of the gifts had actually been stolen. All the books, clothes, science equipment, the video games, the Sony Discman, the Thin Man videos were laid bare all over the floor. But nothing had been stolen.

“Baskerville was napping in the yard,” said Shelly, answering the question I was about to ask. “He’s a good boy, but he’s a lousy watchdog. And a lousy bloodhound, for that matter. He’s useless on investigations.”

The officer took their information and left. Mr. and Mrs. Hobbes went up to their room, saying they needed to talk. I think Mrs. Hobbes was more upset than she was letting on and didn’t want us to see her cry. Myron also went upstairs because, shaken though he was, he still had schoolwork to do over his Christmas break. This left me and Shelly alone in the front room, looking at the ruined Christmas presents.

“I’m so sorry, Shelly.” As I said it, part of me wanted to reach out and hold her hand. I didn’t, but Baskerville put his head in her lap and whimpered in what I couldn’t help but think was an apologetic tone.

“Don’t be sorry, Warren. You’re no good to me sorry.”

“Huh?”

“How are we going to solve this mystery if all you’re going to do is say sorry?”

“Wait, we’re going to solve this mystery? Are you sure we shouldn’t let the police—?”

“No, they’ll be as useless as Baskerville. No offense, boy,” she added, kindly. “They’ll file a report, they’ll run some names, they’ll get nowhere. As far as they’re concerned no one was hurt and nothing was stolen, so why should they care? But solving mysteries isn’t just about bringing bad guys to justice. It’s a puzzle. It’s something to figure out. A challenge. And you know me, Warren; I’m always up for a challenge.”

I still wasn’t too enthusiastic about this case. I mean, we’d never tried to solve an actual crime before. Not a real one. Pranks, playground bullies, petty theft among housemates, sure. But breaking and entering? And on Christmas Eve Eve? I was kind of hoping we could watch It’s a Wonderful Life or something, but once Shelly has decided to take a case, there’s nothing anyone can do.

The game was afoot, whether I wanted it to be or not.

“So, first let’s address the obvious question: Why?”

“You mean ‘Why would someone break into your house, unwrap all your presents and leave empty-handed?’”

“Exactly.”

“Maybe it’s personal. Like they just want to ruin your Christmas or something.”

“Possible, but not likely. Why would someone risk going to jail just to be a Grinch? No, they had a reason for wanting these presents opened.”

As it just so happened, the only gifts that had been unwrapped had been the ones purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Hobbes for their children. These, Shelly informed me, had all been bought the day before at the Vermissa Valley Mall…where they had also been gift-wrapped. This struck us both as a good place to start.

So, on the day before the day before Christmas, we went to the mall and, fighting the crowds, made our way to the free gift-wrapping kiosk which had been set up by the local Baptist Church. At the moment, there were only two people behind the counter: An older woman wearing the second ugliest holiday sweater I’d ever seen, and a slightly younger woman wearing the undisputed champ of ugly holiday sweaters.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” said Shelly. “My name is Shelly Hobbes. This is my associate, Warren. Do either of you have a few minutes to answer a few questions about your gift-wrapping operation?”

“Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Second Ugliest Sweater, “but it’s two days until Christmas and we’re very busy, so maybe you should just—”

“My house was broken into this morning and the evidence leads us back here.”

Objectively, it was still a pretty weird thing for a thirteen-year-old girl to say to a relative stranger and I don’t know whether it was her kind nature or the spirit of the season, but the lady (Alice) agreed to answer a few questions. Leaving her associate in charge of the kiosk, she took a seat with us at a nearby bench.

“We do this every year,” Alice began. “We rent the kiosk and wrap people’s gifts for free. Part of our community outreach, you know. And if it gets a few people to come see us on Sunday, well that doesn’t hurt either, does it?”

“How exactly does it work?” asked Shelly.

“Nothing fancy. We take the person’s name, make a list of all the gifts they want wrapped and the names that should go on the tags. To Mommy from David, To John from Karen, like that. Then we tell them to come back later—five minutes, half an hour, an hour, depending on how busy we are and how hard the gifts will be to wrap—and we try to have them all ready when they do.”

Shelly explained about what happened and how only the gifts that had been wrapped at the kiosk had been opened. She had even brought a photo of her parents, in case that would jog Alice’s memory. “I think I remember them,” she said as she looked at the picture Shelly had brought. “But it’s hard to say for sure. There were so many people yesterday. We ran out of paper twice and I had to run out for some more.”

“Is it just the two of you working the kiosk?” I asked.

“Yes, just me and Margaret.”

“So when you were out getting paper, she was alone.”

“Good catch, Warren!” said Shelly, softly.

“Well, yes, but only for a few minutes. I just went across to the Hallmark store and bought a few more rolls of paper.”

“Did anything happen here at the mall yesterday?” asked Shelly. “Anything exciting? Unusual?”

“Now that you mention it, I do remember hearing something about a robbery.”

“A robbery? Where?”

“Not far from our kiosk, actually. There,” she pointed across the mall. “That Software, Etc. Apparently someone did…I don’t know, something to do with those gift card things.”

Remember, this was 1997 and gift cards were only just starting to replace gift certificates as the standard gift-giving alternative. Being from another generation, it’s not surprising that our informant didn’t understand how they worked. Of course, the thief would have had to activate the blank gift cards so that they could be used at the store to make purchases in the future. We spoke to the manager of the Software, Etc. and he confirmed that someone, posing as an employee, had activated ten gift cards, effectively stealing a thousand dollars. As he was leaving the store, however, the manager noticed him. He hadn’t seen him before, because of the crowds, but when he realized that the guy didn’t work there he gave chase and his assistant manager called in Mall Security.

By the time they caught up with the guy, he had ditched the Software, Etc. tee shirt he had been wearing and when Security searched him they couldn’t find the gift cards on his person. So, even though the manager was sure he was the guy, they had to let him go.

“How far did you have to chase him before you caught up to him?” Shelly asked.

“Almost to the other end of the mall,” said the Manager. “Why?”

“No, it’s just a little surprising that it took so long for someone young and healthy like you to catch such a big, old, fat guy.”

“He wasn’t big, fat and old! He was younger than me, and in great shape. Probably an athlete!”

“Oh, yeah, I know the guy. Long blond hair, lots of piercings…”

“What? No, he had dark hair, buzzed. No piercings…what are you talking about?”

“Thank you,” said Shelly and we headed back to the gift-wrapping kiosk.

“What was that about?” I asked.

“Something I’ve been wanting to try for a while. Instead of asking people for information, make them think you have the wrong information. People prefer correcting you to helping you.”

“And tidings of comfort and joy to you, too.”

Shelly elbowed me in the stomach as we returned to the kiosk. We gave Margaret the description of the culprit Shelly had tricked the store manager into giving us and Margaret confirmed that, yes, he had asked her to wrap a gift for him.

“It was a Sony Discman,” she said, consulting the list from the day before. “The tag was supposed to read ‘From Stanley Sirk, To Kristen Lays.’ He picked it up about an hour later.”

“One last question,” said Shelly. “And please be absolutely certain before you answer as it could be the answer which cracks this case wide open.”

“Laying it on a little thick, aren’t you?” I murmured in her ear, and she elbowed me again.

“How many of those Discmen did you wrap yesterday?”

Margaret checked the records. “Three,” she said. “Oh, it looks like your parents bought one.”

“Exactly!” said Shelly. “And, if I were you, I’d call the person who bought the third Discman. His house has probably been broken into by now. Thanks for your help and happy holidays!”


“I know you’re getting tired of hearing me say this,” I said, “but what exactly happened?”

It was that evening and me and Shelly were about to exchange gifts. We were both sitting on her couch, with our gifts to the other in our hands. But I wanted the whole thing cleared up before we proceeded.

“Okay,” she said with the patient sigh she reserves for these explanations, “here’s what happened: Stanley Sirk went to the mall wearing a regular tee shirt. He bought the same kind of Discman that Mom and Dad bought me and asked to have it wrapped. He then put the stolen Software, Etc. shirt on over his regular shirt and entered the store where he used login codes and information (probably stolen from the same person from whom he stole the shirt) to load ten gift cards with a hundred dollars worth of credit each. These he slipped surreptitiously into his pocket and walked out of the store. That, you may remember, is when the store manager noticed him and went after him. He had enough of a lead, however, that he was able to go back to the gift-wrapping kiosk and, while Margaret was still alone and helping another customer, he hid the gift cards inside the box that the Discman was to be wrapped in. Then all he had to do was evade the authorities long enough to ditch the shirt so that, when they caught him, there’d be no evidence tying him to the crime. And then he could just pick up his beautifully-wrapped present, take it home, open it and he’d have his gift cards.”

“But,” I said, piecing it together, “the gift cards weren’t in the present he took home…and two other people had bought Discmen that day!”

“Exactly! He went back to the mall and, during that second period when Margaret was alone at the kiosk, got a look at her list of presents. He saw my parents’ names and looked us up in the phone book. He probably thought it was his lucky day when he realized we were out. He broke in and tore through the gifts looking for the Discman.”

“But he didn’t find it there either. And if he was just looking for the Discman, why did he open all the presents?”

“Either the Discman just happened to be the last gift he opened or, after he opened it and found the gift cards weren’t there, he got so frustrated that he went through the rest just to make sure.”

“Incredible.”

“No, not really. Stanley Sirk is one of these guys who just thinks he’s clever. You could tell that from the gift tag he wanted on the present Margaret wrapped for him.”

“The tag?”

“From Stanley Sirk to Kristen Lays? The two names are anagrams for each other, Warren. He might as well have written ‘From Me to Me’ on there.”

“Shelly, this is a big deal. You actually solved a real crime.”

“I didn’t really,” said Shelly, but her nose was turning ever-so-slightly pink. “I mean the last guy who bought that Discman yesterday actually caught the guy. Too bad for Stanley that he was home when he broke into his apartment. I bet he wasn’t expecting a green beret to be waiting for him.”

“Yeah, sure, he caught the guy and the police actually arrested the guy. But you still solved the mystery. I don’t care what you say; I’m calling this a win for the Master Detective.”

“I wish you’d quit calling me that…but thanks, Warren. Now, shall we do this?”

We looked at the gifts we were holding. The one she was giving to me was about the size of a shoebox. Mine was in a much bigger box, a cube which might comfortably fit a microwave oven. Showing a great exertion of strength, I set my gift to Shelly on the table in front of her and she slid hers over to mine. I was doing my best not to grin. But when Shelly picked up the box and realized it was much lighter than I had led her to believe, I admit I barely stifled my laugh. In fact, the box was so light it might’ve been empty. She shook it, moved it around, turned it in her hands. At that moment I felt like no gift could be better than the one she had just given me: the look of utter confusion on her face.

Frustrated, she actually tore away the paper and opened the box…only to find that I had taped her gift to the inside of the box so that it wouldn’t make a sound when the box was moved. It was also much, much smaller than the box itself, and could’ve been put in a manila envelope more comfortably. She carefully detached the gift itself from the box and I could tell that I had done well.

“Is this…is this…?”

It was. It was a Mylar bag containing a very old, very rare magazine: Beeton’s Christmas Annual. A British periodical originally published in 1887…the first ever appearance of Sherlock Holmes.

“Oh…my…”

“Do you like it?”

“Do I like it? Warren, this is the most wonderful present anyone’s ever given me!” She gave me a great big hug. At the time, it was the happiest moment of my life. “Now I feel kind of silly.”

“Why?”

“Well, my gift to you isn’t—”

“Don’t worry about that. I’m sure I’ll love it.” I opened it. Under the tissue paper was a very nice picture frame. Silver, very fancy, very elegant. But the best part was the picture inside. A picture I had forgotten even existed. A picture of two little kids posing in front of a Christmas tree; a little girl in a deerstalker hat and a little boy having the first merry Christmas of his life.

“I called Mrs. Holloway,” said Shelly. “She’s still there. She still remembers us. She sent me the picture, I picked out the frame. Remember? That was our first Christmas together.” I remembered only too well. The first of what would be many, many merry Christmases with the wonderful girl sitting next to me, whose keen powers of observation I very much hoped wouldn’t pick up on the tear rolling down my cheek. If they did, she didn’t mention it. She just said, “Merry Christmas, Warren.”

Shelly Hobbes Returns“Merry Christmas, Shelly Hobbes.”



This story is reprinted from Shelly Hobbes Returns, the second of two books about Shelly Hobbes available from the Galleons Lap Store at Lulu.com (also available through Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, and other fine online retailers)


Thursday, December 17, 2015

FOR GOODNESS SAKE

If you’ve got a few minutes, I’d like to tell you about my friend, Frankie. Frankie’s a good kid. He does as he’s told, he’s nice to his sister, he respects authority and he’s kind to other people. But he wasn’t always like that. In fact, it wasn’t so long ago that Frankie was a real troublemaker. He goofed off at school, pulled pranks, talked back to teachers and parents, picked on his little sister and pretty much did whatever he felt like doing.
            
But all that changed last Christmas. The rest of the year he had been worse than ever, and his father told him that if he didn’t straighten up, Santa wouldn’t bring him any presents at all this year. Frankie pretended not to care, but secretly he was very worried. He’d gotten presents before, but what if this year was the year Santa finally gave up on him? He had been pretty naughty all year round, even by his standards. And there was one present he wanted more than anything: The new GameStation 4000. It was the coolest video game system ever and he knew all his friends at school were getting one, so he had to have one too so they could all play together. But would he get one after all the bad things he’d done?
            
Yes, Frankie was pretty sure he would be getting nothing for Christmas until he saw the flier hanging up on the school bulletin board:

ARE YOU ON THE NAUGHTY LIST?

I CAN HELP.

CALL 555-4646
(that’s 555-HO-HO)

Having nothing to lose, Frankie called the number.

"Hello?" said a weird, deep voice.

"Um, I saw your flier? The one about getting people of the Naughty List?"

"320 Sycamore. After school tomorrow. Ask for Dixon." Then they hung up.

The next day after school, Frankie went to 320 Sycamore and was greeted at the door by a woman who was, apparently, Dixon's mother. She showed Frankie to the basement, where Dixon was working on his very fancy and complex array of computers. Dixon was much younger than Frankie was expecting; about two years younger than Frankie himself, which put him in second grade.

"You're Dixon?" Frankie asked. "The one I spoke to on the phone?"

"Sorry about the voice modulator," said Dixon, without taking his eyes off the screen. "Can't be too careful."

"So you can get me off the Naughty List?"

"I can. For a price."

"What price?"

"Every single check and/or giftcard you receive this Christmas."

"That seems pretty steep."

"Not if you want something other than coal this year."

"How are you going to do it?"

"Easy. Over the past several years, Santa has been upgrading his Naughty/Nice list to a computer database of every kid in the world. It makes his job easier but, more importantly, it means that, for the first time in centuries, the List is accessible by outsiders."

"Wait, wait...you're going to hack into Santa's computer?"

"Of course. I got into the Pentagon's internal servers last week. The North Pole is nothing."

"And all I have to do is give you all the money I get as Christmas presents?"

"Don't worry. You don't have to pay until after the holiday."

"That's pretty trusting of you."

"Not really. If you don't pay me, I hack into the school's system and change all your grades for the semester to F's. Deal?"

Frankie only had to think about it for a moment. If it meant getting off the Naughty List, and getting his GameStation 4000, it was worth it. "Deal," Frankie said, and Dixon went to work. It took longer than Frankie had expected and he didn’t really understand what the kid was doing in the first place, but finally, two hours later, the deed was done.

"You're all set," said Dixon.

“That’s it?”

“Yes. School starts again on January 3rd. You can put my fee in an envelope and stick it in my locker then. In the meantime…Merry Christmas.”

Frankie went home confused and nervous. Had this really just happened? Had this little kid actually gotten him off the Naughty list and on to the Nice list? What would happen on Christmas morning? Well, that was still a whole week off, so Frankie had nothing to do but think and worry until then.

When Christmas morning finally did come, Frankie crept downstairs and…there were presents for him under the tree! It had worked! Frankie had been bad all year, but still got presents from Santa! He started to think of hiring Dixon to work his magic every year from now on, so he could misbehave and still get toys. But for now he was happy to just play with his GameStation 4000. Sure enough, it looked like all his friends were online playing with their new GameStations.

Well, almost all of them.

Frankie had one friend, Steven, who had been expecting a GS4K for Christmas but he wasn’t on the server. Frankie didn’t worry about it, because he figured Steven was probably spending time with his family or going to a Christmas party or something else lame like that. Steven was kind of a goody-two-shoes, but he never squealed on Frankie and let him copy off his test a few times, so he was all right as far as Frankie was concerned.

In the days following Christmas, Frankie still never saw Steven online. Finally he called him and asked why he wasn’t playing.

“Because I don’t have a GameStation,” said a very upset sounding Steven.

“What? You didn’t get one for Christmas?”

“I didn’t get anything for Christmas, Frankie! Santa didn’t come!”

This didn’t make any sense. Steven was a good kid. Why would he…just then a terrible thought came into Frankie’s mind. He said goodbye to Steven, hung up, then called Dixon and told him what he thought might have happened.

“Yes, I know,” said Dixon, carelessly. “You see, if there were suddenly dozens of names in the ‘Nice’ column, Santa would notice. That’s why my algorithm is so clever. It doesn’t just move you from ‘Naughty’ to ‘Nice,’ it changes someone else from ‘Nice’ to ‘Naughty.’ That way the number add up the same and Santa never gets wise.”

Frankie was horrified. It was his fault that Steven didn’t get any Christmas presents. Steven, who was always cool and deserved presents had nothing under his tree, just so that Frankie could have what he wanted. He felt awful. But he knew how to make it right.

That night, Frankie snuck out of bed, loaded up all his Christmas presents in his sister’s red wagon and carted them down the street to Steven’s house. Then, very quietly, so as not to wake anyone, he unloaded them all (including his GameStation 4000) on Steven’s front porch. He wrote a quick note and stuck it to the top of the pile then rang the doorbell and ran. The note he had written read:

Dear Steven,

Sorry these are late, some of my elves goofed up. Merry Christmas!

Love,
Santa

Frankie went back home, put his sister’s wagon away, then got into bed. He had done it. He had given away every single one of his Christmas presents. He had, really, gotten nothing for Christmas…but he was happy. Because he had done something nice for someone else. And he was smiling as he fell asleep.

When he woke up the next morning, there was a present on the foot of his bed. There was a note on it which read:

            Dear Frankie,

I guess you learned your lesson about what Christmas is really all about. Keep up the good work, and Merry Christmas!

Love,  
(The Real) Santa.

Frankie tore open the present and saw a brand new GameStation 4000. It was the only Christmas present he had that year, but it was more than enough.


Well, it  took a long time, but Santa's IT guys eventually traced the hack back to Dixon's IP address. First, they sent an email to Dixon's mother telling her what her son had done, and she was so angry she took all of Dixon's Christmas presents and gave them away. In addition, Santa's team sent him a computer worm which fried his system beyond all recognition. This meant, among other things, that he couldn't make good on his threat to give Frankie straight F's, which meant Frankie didn't have to give him all his Christmas money and giftcards.

Frankie put that money to good use, however, buying belated Christmas presents for his family and friends. And ever since then, he's been one of the best kids in town. So, this year, when Santa makes his list and checks it twice, Frankie will have earned his place on the Nice List...

How about you?