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"Tim Wiltham wants to talk to you about the IDS system. Carl needs five minutes to discuss a personnel matter. Gina Haring requested thirty minutes to go over the in-house newsletter. You have reservations at Le Bernadin at seven-thirty, a chamber reception, also at seven-thirty, tickets for tonight's Knicks game at eight, and your four-o'clock appointment is waiting in your office."
Gabe Housley stopped shuffling papers to glance at his assistant, Louisa, who matched him stride for stride as he walked down the hallway toward his office. "I don't remember seeing a four-o'clock on my calendar."
"I made the appointment while you were out." Louisa's smiles were rare, so when there was even a trace of oneas there was nowGabe was instantly alert.
"Who is it?" he asked warily. "Not another of Dad's clients who wants to murder him and sue me, is it?"
"I screen your appointments very carefully," she said, as if that were all he needed to know. Louisa Feigle had managed the day-to-day operations of Hous-ley Security since time began, and she did so with such efficient authority that Gabe was either completely in awe or completely annoyed. Sometimes he was hard-pressed to tell which. She checked her steno pad again. "Your father left word he's on a stakeout and won't be home for dinner."
Gabe rubbed the back of his neck. "I don't suppose he gave you any idea of where he is or what he's investigating this week?"
"Mr. Gunther never reveals the details of his cases. You know that."
"Dad doesn't have cases, Louisa. He has episodes. One week, 'Spenser for Hire.' The next, 'Columbo.'" Gabe paused outside the door of his office. "Tell me again why I let my father wander the streets of New York, pretending to be James Bond?"
"Because he's of legal age, sound mind, and it keeps him out of the office."
"I knew there was a good reason." Gabe passed the sheaf of reports into Louisa's capable hands. "I'll call Tim and Carl. Schedule Gina sometime tomorrow. Phone my regrets on the reception. Cancel the dinner reservations. Leave the basketball tickets in your desk drawer, and I'll pick them up on my way out this evening. If the police chief calls again about Dad's license"
"You're unavailable." Louisa jotted a note on her pad, as if she might forget which was about as likely as Gun ever applying for a P.I. license. "Anything else?"
"Call the deli and have them send over a couple of tuna salad sandwiches around six. On second thought, bring the basketball tickets to me before you leave. I don't want Dad to get his hands on them this time."
"He said he wouldn't be in the office for days."
"I'm not taking any chances. The old coot has a sixth sense when it comes to my Knicks tickets. Sometimes I think he has an informant at the box office." Gabe reached for the doorknob. "Now, who did you say is waiting in my office?"
To his dismay, Louisa's stern mouth curved with unmistakable humor. "The Harmons," she said. "Brother and sister. Short. Serious. Anxious to see you."
"If this turns out to be another elderly couple who wants a bodyguard for their aging Pekinese, I'm giving you the assignment."
Louisa's sudden and surprising laughter struck fear in his heart, but Gabe bravely entered his office. Two tall leather chairs faced his desk and away from him, and as he closed the door behind him, two strawberry-blond heads popped up over the red leather one head rising above each hobnailed chairback. "Hi," one said. A girl. He could tell by the Pippi Longstocking braids.
"Hi," said the other. A boy, if one could trust the boyish cowlick and absence of pigtails.
"Hi," Gabe responded, wondering if he could afford to fire Louisa for letting these kids into his office. "Your name wouldn't be Harmon, by any chance, would it?"
The cowlick nodded enthusiastically. "I'm Andy."
"I'm Abby. We're twins," Pigtails confirmed. "We're looking for a Bo Zo. Are you one?"
Gabe ignored the impulse to open the door and yell for Louisa. Instead, he strolled around the chairs and stood behind his desk, eyeing the two rug rats who'd breached his own unwritten rule of security no kids. Not in his office. Not in his life. But here they were, a boy and a girl, redheads, both of them, with matching blue eyes and a scattering of freckles across their noses. They were twins and they were trouble. Looking for a? Well, he'd scare them a bit and then he'd find out who put them up to this little prank. Placing his hands on the desktop, he leaned forward, trying to look as intimidating as possible.
"Why aren't you in school?" he asked gruffly.
"It's four." The girl, Abby, didn't seem intimidated. "School's over at three. Don't you know?"
"I haven't been to school in a while."
"Don't you have kids?"
"No." The word popped out, fast and firm. "I'm not married."
Abby eyed him curiously from the depths of the red leather chair. "Our mom's not married and she got us."
"Some people are just lucky, I guess." Gabe shifted his weight, wondering how his intimidation skills had gotten so rusty. "Where is your mother?"
"Upstairs." Andy patted the chair arms and explored the room with an inquisitive gaze. "Where's your mother?"
"My mother is " He wondered if he could say 'dead.' It might frighten them. They might start screaming or crying. Better to avoid that possibility, altogether, he decided, and settled for a vague "I don't have a mother."
"We don't have a daddy," Abby informed him matter-of-factly. "Mom says daddies are redumbbant and we don't need one."
Gabe hadn't a clue as to what that meant, other than that their mother must be a really cold fish. And an irresponsible cold fish, to boot. "Does your mother know where you are?"
"You can call her Mom." Andy smiled, displaying a gap the size of two missing front teeth. "That's what we call her."
"Sometimes we call her Kate the Great." Abby intercepted a stern glance from her brother and made a face at him before she turned a quite beguiling smile on Gabe. "But that's a secret, so you can't tell her."
Kate Harmon. Gabe fitted the names together and had a vague sense of it being familiar, although it didn't trigger any real recognition. "Don't you think you'd better leave, before she comes looking for you?"
"She won't," Abby assured him. "She's busy."
"I'm a little busy, myself," Gabe said sharply. "So why don't you two run along and play a joke on someone else?"
The twins exchanged glances, and then Andy slid from the chair and stepped up to the desk. "It's not a joke," he said solemnly. "We want to hire you."
"We have to find somebody who's a real person." Abby seconded the motion. "That's why we need a Bo Zo."
Gabe frowned. "What did you say?"
"We need a Bo Zo," Abby repeated, looking at him strangely. "You know, a detective."
"A detective? You think a detective is a Bo Zo?"
"That's what Mom said." Andy reached across the desk, picked up a pencil sharpener shaped like a Colt .45 and aimed it at the window. "I heard her. She said a gory-fried house detective finds things because that's what everybody pays the Bo Zo to do. We asked Janeen and she told us you're the house detective, so we came to hire you."
Gabe jerked the pencil sharpener from Andy's lethal fingers and put it back on the desk. Then he sank into his big black chair and observed the redheads, wishing they were a nice, simple older couple with an arthritic Pekinese. "Look, kids," he said. "This is a security company. We install and monitor alarm systems. We provide bodyguards and security personnel. We do data searches and investigative reports. But we don't do detective work and we don't find missing persons."
There was a brief consultation of glances. "We have money." Andy clutched the edge of the desk and leaned forward with a somber man-of-the-world air. "We didn't expect you to do it for nothin'."
"We have our own credit card." Abby offered that information with a smug toss of braids.
Gabe knew next to nothing about kids, but he was impressed to discover that they arrived with their own credit. "You can use a credit card?"
"Yessss." Abby stretched the word as if she found the question silly. "Can't you?"
"I deal in cash," Gabe said, just to be disagreeable.
Andy disappeared below the edge of the desk, and when he bobbed up again, he was holding a handful of bills. He opened his hand over the desk and the money fell in crumpled ones. Three of them. A fourth stuck to his fingers, and he had to shake it loose, causing Gabe to wonder where the kid kept his cash. Not that he actually wanted to know.
Andy looked expectantly at Gabe. "Is that enough?"
Gabe fought the impulse to tell the boy to stuff the dollars back in his pocket and looked at Abby, instead. "Where's your money?" he asked.
"I only have one dollar," she said with a pout. "You don't need it, do you?"
Just like a female, Gabe thought. The little twerp was going to let her brother use all of his cash without ever once volunteering to add hers. "You're in luck," Gabe said in his best businesslike tone. "Five dollars is my consultation fee."
Andy looked over his shoulder at Abby, who rolled her eyes, sighed, and bent forward to pull a folded dollar bill out of her sock. "Here." She handed the money to Andy. "But you better make sure Santa pays me back."
"He will." Andy happily added it to the other four. "Five," he said. "Now you're hired."
Gabe hadn't meant to be hired. He'd meant to get these kids out of his office. "It isn't quite that easy. Your mother's going to have to give her permission."
Both freckled faces looked horrified by the prospect. "We can't tell her we came to your office," Abby said. "We'd get in a lot of trouble."
"Well, I could get in a lot of trouble, too." Which was true, Gabe realized as he said it. "You should just take your money and forget about hiring a detective until you're older."
The two red heads shook vigorously, in an emphatic dual denial. "We're going to be eight on our birthday," Abby blurted out. "And then it'll be too late."
"Too late for what?"
"To believe in Santa Claus," the boy said seriously. "Do you believe Santa is a real person?"
Gabe closed his eyes. I had to ask, he thought, then cleared his throat and dredged up his best diplomatic tone of voice. "What I believe isn't important. It's what you believe that counts."
Andy was having none of that. "It is, too, important," he insisted. "Me and Abby have to know. Do you believe in Santa Claus?"
Gabe decided he would fire Louisa for this right after he strangled her. "Well, of course!" he lied with a boisterous laugh. "Doesn't everyone?"
Abby shook her head. "Our Mom doesn't. She says nobody older'n eight believes in Santa."
"She says Santa's a myth." The string of s sounds lisped through the gap in Andy's teeth. "She says he's just a made-up story. She says we don't need Santa to have a nice Christmas."
Abby nodded concurrence. "She says we don't need a daddy, either."
He was in over his head here, Gabe realized belatedly. But he was not going to tell these two fatherless kids they didn't need a dad, let alone that there wasn't a Santa Claus. Let their mother be the Grinch. She was obviously a bitter wrinkled-up old crone who sapped all the wonder out of Christmas and begrudged her children the magic of fantasy. Plus, she'd had the gall to call him a "Bo Zo" when he couldn't even recall who she was. "Your mother's wrong," he stated firmly, sitting straighter in his chair. "Santa Claus is as real as you are."
Their voices were out of sync, but their desire for reassurance was unanimous.
Gabe nodded. "He's real."
Andy and Abby grinned at each other, then beamed their delight on Gabe. "Do you know how reindeer fly?" Andy asked, his eager tone revealing that this, too, was an important question.
Gabe barely hesitated. If he was going to get hanged for a liar, he wanted the lies to be his best. "Special hay," he answered. "It's very rare. Only grows in the Alps, and there's only enough to feed eight reindeer for one day every year. Oops. Did I say eight reindeer? I meant to say ten. I forgot about Rudolph, and he eats enough for two."
The twins traded excited glances, and then Abby nailed him with a candid "What do you know about the elves?"
"Let's see." Gabe searched his memory for any and all elf info. "They're usually short, but that isn't a requirement. They usually have pointed ears, although that's not always true, either. They wear a lot of green. They have funny-looking hats and shoes with bells on the toes." Feeling pleased with those imaginative little details, he checked the twins' expressions and realized they were expecting something more. "Hmm " he said. "What else could you want to know about Santa's elves?"
"Their names," Andy supplied readily. "We want to know their names."
"Uh, sure." Gabe didn't have any idea whether elves even had names. "Um. Dancer, Prancer, Donner and Blitzen ."
"Those are the reindeer," Abby informed him with a frown. "Everybody knows that."