They had lunch in a small sandwich shop in a shopping center. Mary and Roy had salads. Plum and Chris got burgers, and with the food, the fog seemed to lift from Chris’ mind enough to ask a couple of questions.
“Mary,” he said. “Don’t you have to go to work?” Mary paused with her fork near her mouth, like he asked a surprise question.
“No,” she said rather quickly. “I called. I got the week before Christmas off. It is the first time in forever I am not running around like a crazy woman the week before Christmas…” She began to ramble. Plum kindly interrupted.
“Lucky you,” he said, and pointed at her, but nudged Chris to get his attention. “Christmas is our busy season…you know…for detectives…” Plum also got ready to ramble, to no doubt tell an expertly crafted bit of half-truths, but Chris interrupted.
“As much as I appreciate you taking us to Lilly, who exactly is paying your fee. I assume this isn’t for free.”
“Well, um…” Plum had to think about that.
“We are not at liberty to say,” Roy interjected.
“Exactly,” Plum said, and brightened. “Our lips are sealed. Wouldn’t be good detectives if we couldn’t keep confidentiality. But I can tell you, it is someone who has your best interests at heart. Those others took your little girl. Tsk, tsk. Even if we weren’t getting paid, it is our moral duty to take you to her. Yes sir. Our lips are sealed…” He finally rambled off for a verbal stroll, stretching his tongue and lips the way others might stretch their legs. Chris wondered what it might take to seal the man’s lips.
Chris interrupted with another question. “So, where did they take Lily?”
“Taking her, still, I imagine,” Roy interjected again.
Plum looked at the beanpole of a man who appeared tall, even when sitting down. Plum glanced at Mary, passing unspoken words, before he spoke. He grimaced, like telling the plain truth about something might kill him, but the others were not going to say it, and Chris kept staring at him, waiting for an answer.
“Okay,” Plum said, and let out his breath, like he had been holding it, expecting something bad to happen. “They are taking her to the Christmas village to see Santa Clause.”
“The real Santa,” Plum said, in all seriousness. “The original, you might say…” Plum let his voice fall away. Chris continued to stare. He did not know how to interpret that bit of information. Roy stood up before Chris decided to call Plum crazy, or plum-loco.
“Are we ready to find Lilly?” Roy asked, diverting Chris’ attention back to the important point.
Mary stood. “Think of Lilly.”
Chris stood slowly and picked up his backpack. Lilly mattered, wherever those people may have taken her. “Do I need to give you money for lunch?” he asked, trying to hold on to something concrete in his mind. All the same, his mind raced, thinking Lilly got kidnapped by some cult that used the idea of a real Santa Claus to lure in unsuspecting kids; who knew for what nefarious purpose.
“All taken care of,” Plum assured him. “Follow Roy.” Plum pointed. Roy already stepped out the door and Mary stood in the door, looking back at Chris, with her eyes big and full of concern. She appeared to be wondering about something.
They walked all afternoon, and Chris figured they had to be at the edge of the city, if not out of the city altogether. They wandered through some neighborhoods which were not the best. In those places, Chris found his worry for Lilly grow. He hoped she did not end up in such a place, like tied in the back room of a warehouse, or some such thing. Then again, he considered the poor people who had to live in such conditions. The more poverty he saw, the more his feelings turned from worry about Lilly to worry about all the people who might be trapped there in one way or another. He wished for something he could do to make their lives a little easier, or at least a little happier. Chris noticed much less snow in that place, and what remained had turned to a dirty, cold gray slush that stuck to his boots and gave no cheer.
Plum stayed unusually quiet in the afternoon. He followed behind the couple, his head lowered most of the way, like a man doing penance for something terrible. He looked like a man who spoke out of turn, and maybe ruined everything. Chris had to fight the urge to tell the man to cheer up. But then again, if Plum knew something he did not share about Lilly’s situation, he needed to think about that. He needed to share what he knew. Chris turned to look at Mary
Mary walked dutifully beside him, her head lowered like Plum, but she sighed now and then, and appeared anxious about something. Chris decided something important. He reached over and took Mary’s hand. Immediately, Mary lifted her face and smiled at him, and Chris decided he liked to see Mary smile. He spoke over his shoulder.
“Hey, Plum. Whatever you are fretting about, it can’t be that bad. Cheer up. The important thing is finding Lilly safe and sound, and I am trusting we will do that.”
“Good of you to say,” Plum said, though his expression changed little.
“Yes. That’s right,” Plum said, and at least he looked up.
“And he lives in the Christmas village? … Of course, he does.” Chris paused before his next thought. “So, the kidnappers are taking Lilly to this Santa, and we are following?” It was a question.
“Yes,” Plum assured him. “As near as we can figure, that is where they are going. Roy tracked them to the entrance to Middleton. Roy is the tracker, you know. The thing is, we don’t know the way they may have gone from Middleton. The trail should be good and fresh, but that is why I said prepare for a week. We don’t know how long a trail we might have to follow, if you see what I mean.”
Chris nodded before he shook his head. “So, you basically don’t know where you are going. You don’t know where this Christmas village is. We are just hoping we don’t lose the trail.”
“You could say that,” Plum admitted, and dropped his head again.
Chris looked at Mary, who shrugged as she spoke. “They are the only lead we have. We will find Christmas town. Sometimes, you just have to believe.”
Chis slowly nodded for her. Somehow, he could believe it when Mary said it. He wanted to smile for her, but he saw something that made him drop her hand instead. An old minister set up a nativity scene on what appeared to be church grounds. Two young men were harassing him, and the young woman kicked the baby Jesus into the dirt. Chris rushed between the combatants.
“What is wrong with you?” he asked. “It’s Christmas.”
“Christ crap,” one young man said.
“We don’t want any sky god shoved down our throats,” the other said.
“It is illegal to make a public display of your stupid religion.”
“It is illegal to promote discrimination.”
“Like a hate crime. Like hanging nooses and burning crosses.”
“You need to get it off the street.”
“I’m offended by your stupid religion.”
The young woman, who looked like a poor copy of Courtney, merely laughed.
Chris spouted back. “What offends you? Christmas is about love, joy, and peace. Are you against love, joy, or peace, or all three?
The young men paused and stared, surprised at being interrupted in their intolerant rant. The young woman gave an angry growl.
Look. We have a family here, and a baby. Christmas is about family, and children. Are you offended by family or children? We got wise men bringing gifts. Christmas is about giving. Are you offended by gifts, or by generous people? So, the shepherds bring in the sheep. They are kind and gentle. And the Angels sing Joy to the world, and on Earth, peace to all people. Christmas is the time when the light came into the world. Even if you don’t believe in the light, plenty of people do, and a reminder is a good thing to help people remember to strive for the light. Would you rather be surrounded by people who follow the light, or those who live and do evil under the cover of darkness? Are you offended by the light? I understand some people are offended by the cross, and some by the resurrection. Some people don’t think they need forgiveness, and that is sad. But Christmas is all about hope and good will toward all people. There is nothing to be offended by. It is a beautiful celebration of all that is good.”
Before the others could respond, a police car pulled up, blue lights flashing. The three thugs took off running as the police officer got out to talk to the old minister. Chris heard the officer say they could not watch twenty-four hours. Those young people would probably be back to vandalize the nativity, or some others just like them. Chris did not understand. A nativity does not force anyone to believe anything. It is simply a reminder that there is good in the world. Christmas is the only celebration in the year that encourages people to be good and do good for each other. How can anyone be against that?
Mary collected Chris, taking his arm and pulling him aside. Roy stood by a non-descript door in a building across the street.
“This way,” Roy said, and opened the door for Plum. Mary escorted Chris through the door and into a small, empty room that smelled of pine and sawdust. She held his arm as they walked through the back door. Chris imagined it would let him into the main part of the building. His jaw dropped when he saw it led them back outside, and to a very different outside than he imagined. The snow looked white and deep, and a 1957 Chevy rolled down the plowed road in front of them. An old Ford followed. Chris recognized the tailfins.
“An antique car show?” Chris asked. He noticed the buildings were not very tall, and they had space between the buildings and parking lots where trees and bushes grew. He did not doubt that beneath the snow sat well-cut lawns and probably plenty of flowers on a spring day.
“Nope,” Plum answered.
“We are in Oz and suddenly everything is in color,” Chris tried again, as he looked at all the neon signs, and the streetlights decorated for Christmas. For that matter, everything looked decorated for the season.
“Um…nope,” Plum said. He had to think about that one for some reason.