It was the day after Thanksgiving, and my friend Skyler Hobbs insisted on visiting Pioneer Courthouse Square for the lighting of Portland's official Christmas tree. I tagged along to keep him out of trouble. Or so I thought.
Hobbs gazed up at the dark tree. “This 75-foot Douglas fir has been strung with 15,000 lights of the LED variety, meaning they are extremely energy-efficient.”
I stared at him. “You've gone green? You, the reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes?”
“Just because I am an old soul, Watson, does not mean I cannot be socially responsible.”
“Wilder,” I reminded him, “not Watson. Jason Wilder.”
The square was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people clutching Starbucks cups and food from the Honkin' Huge Burrritos cart. Their attention was focused on the stage, where members of the Oregon Symphony, the Pacific Youth Choir and the band Pink Martini were struggling to lead the distracted crowd in Christmas carols.
“If you start singing,” I said, “I'm out of here.”
“Oh come, Doctor, don't be such a scrooge.”
“Computer Doctor,” I said. “As for being a scrooge...”
But he wasn't listening, his gaze fixed on a shawl-wrapped woman worming her way toward us with an old-fashioned baby carriage.
Hobbs' brow furrowed.
“That woman has recently shaved a heavy beard and mustache. She is not a woman at all.”
Hobbs sidled forward, tipping his deerstalker cap. “Happy Christmas, madam.”
The cap slipped his from fingers, and as he swooped to retrieve it, his face came quite near the bed of the carriage.
With a growl, the “mother” wheeled the carriage about and pushed it away into the crowd.
Hobbs watched a moment, then stiffened. “Quick, we must stop him.”
“He has abandoned the carriage. You must retrieve it!”
Then he was off.
I followed, cursing. Hobbs was nuts, but I'd learned to trust his instincts. Reaching the carriage, I shouted, “Dirty diapers coming through!” and the crowd opened a path.
At the edge of the plaza, the streets were bare except for police cars and stern-faced patrolmen. Across the street I saw the phony mother, headed toward Pioneer Place Shopping Center with Hobbs hot in pursuit. I hurried after them.
The crossdresser stopped, yanked a cell phone from his pocket and held it up to dial. Glancing back, his eyes skipped over Hobbs, fixed on me and went wide as goose eggs. Spinning away, he turned to cross the street, but a bus was roaring past. Hobbs sprang onto the man's back, trying to drag him down.
I parked the carriage and ran to help, but the guy broke free and charged blindly into the street, just as another bus approached.
Man and bus met with a meaty crunch. The guy flopped to the blacktop and I grimaced as the big wheels ground his head to pulp.
Hobbs grabbed the carriage and hustled me away from the scene. A full block later he turned a corner and peered back.
“We are not pursued. We must take the carriage and depart at once.”
“And kidnap a baby? Forget it.”
Hobbs flung the carriage blanket aside, revealing a doll dressed in baby clothes. And beneath the doll, under another blanket, sat brick after brick of a substance resembling mozzarella cheese.
“When I stooped to get my hat, Doctor, I found none of the telltale scents of an infant. Instead, I detected the odor of the explosive known as C4.”
Replacing the blankets, Hobbs grabbed the carriage and hurried on.
“C4? We're carting a load of C4?”
“We are in no danger. The explosives were to be triggered by our late friend's cell phone.”
“My god, Hobbs. It would have killed thousands. We have to tell somebody!”
Reaching the next corner, we had a view of the square, two blocks away. Voices chanted, “Three, two, one . . . ” and the tree came alive with all of its 15,000 lights. The crowd began singing White Christmas.
“Would you tell those good people they nearly died? Now, when they are gathered in the spirit of peace and goodwill?”
#Back at 221B SW Baker Street, Hobbs said, “I must consider this carefully,” and curled up with his pipe, immune to conversation.
I flopped in front of the TV, trying to forget the carriage full of explosives in my car.
I must have dozed, because suddenly Hobbs was there beside me, and a newsman was saying, “Tonight, the FBI foiled a plot to kill thousands at Pioneer Courthouse Square.”
The face of a thin young man filled the screen. “After a year-long undercover operation, nineteen-year-old Somalian immigrant Mohamed Mohamud is now in custody. Tonight, when Mohamud tried to ignite a truckload of phony explosives with his cell phone, agents swooped in. The crowd at the square, authorities assure us, was never in the slightest danger.”
“A decoy,” Hobbs said. “The FBI was taken in by a decoy, while the true bomber escaped their notice entirely.”
“We have to tell them. And the media. You'll be a hero.”
“No. The public can never know. Our fellow citizens would fear to leave their homes, and the spirit of Christmas would be forever tarnished.”
“So what do we do with the C4?”
“In my line of work,” he said, “it may someday prove useful. I propose we bury it in the back yard beneath the azaleas.”
So we did.
I knew he was right about not going public. The story would cause panic and probably get us thrown in the slammer. Still, I couldn't help myself. Next morning I grabbed my laptop and started typing.
Hobbs let out a laugh.
“I am quite aware, Doctor, that you plan on submitting this adventure to the Internet magazine Do Some Damage, as part of their Christmas Noir celebration.”
“And you're okay with that?”
“I have made inquiries. That site caters to aficionados of the most lurid sort of detective fiction. If the editors choose to publish so wild a tale, who would ever believe it?”