"Come on, Jim. Open the door," Trixie said impatiently. Their winter coats, which had been lovely out in the cold Manhattan winter, were much less comfortable in the overheated building where the Wheeler's penthouse was located. Plus their bags of Christmas presents were getting heavy.
Finally Jim got the door open and the rest of the Bob-Whites tumbled inside. Soon the living room was covered in coats and packages and boots as they all sorted themselves out. Mart appointed himself in charge of the closet and went around collecting everyone's coats and boots, while the rest of the group hurried to find good places to hide their presents before they could wrap them in secret.
"Wasn't Miss Trask supposed to be here by now?" Jim asked, glancing up at the clock as they assembled in the living room once again. Miss Trask had been delayed by a phone call from her brother just before they left Sleepyside, and she'd waved them ahead so that they could catch their train, saying that she'd meet them at the apartment when they were finished with their shopping.
"Maybe one of us should call," Honey started, but was interrupted by the sound of a key in the lock.
The door swung open and Madeleine Wheeler walked in, talking rapidly on her cell phone. "I'll be there, Neal, don't you worry. I just need to check in at home first. Got to go. See you tonight." She closed the phone and looked at the group, who had fallen silent at her arrival, and her voice quieted a bit, "Miss Trask's sister has taken ill. We arranged for her to fly out tonight instead of waiting for tomorrow. Matt and I tried to convince your parents that you were old enough to stay in the city alone, but they wouldn't agree, so here I am."
Immediately there were cries of protest. "What about the show tomorrow?" asked Mart, while simultaneously Trixie protested, "We can't go home now," and the others made similarly upset comments.
Mrs. Wheeler looked taken aback by this flurry, but quickly replied, "Who said anything about going back? I was closest, so you'll have to do with me as chaperone for tonight."
"Oh, that's wonderful," Honey said, a little too eagerly, trying to make up for what she suspected the others' reactions would be. Of all the adults available for the task, she knew her mother was the least desired.
To her relief, the other's good manners (and desire to stay in the city) overcame the sense that having Mrs. Wheeler around wouldn't be much fun, and Jim gave a rousing cheer, and the others quickly joined in.
Dinner was surprisingly pleasant. Somehow Matt and Di ended up cooking while the others sat in the big kitchen and egged them on. Even Mrs. Wheeler sat smiling in the corner and laughed at a few of the jokes, though once she slipped out to take a call.
Still, once dinner was ready, she turned off her phone and entered the conversation with a will. Somehow the discussio turned to her family and her childhood, and for the most part, she answered readily. Only Honey knew how much of what she said was true.
Honey kept her mouth shut. She'd heard these stories before, and for the most part, they were accurate. Most of the lies were ones of omission, as she kept to the carefully constructed persona she showed to the world. If she didn't know her mother's friends, hadn't been at the right boarding school at the wrong time, she would have accepted her mother's facade at face value too.
She knew, and she knew her mother knew, that there were other stories that would have gone over better with the Bob-Whites, but those could be saved for another day, when they were all older and Trixie was less impressionable. Someday the day would come, Honey suspected, when her mother's friends would try to recruit her and Trixie, and she wasn't sure how she felt about that yet. But there was plenty of time to worry about that later.
But the stories seemed to interest her Bob-Whites enough. And her mother was being congenial, the way she was at dinner parties, laying on the charm.
The reason became clear as they cleared away the dishes, and Mrs. Wheeler casually mentioned that she had come into town for the opening of an art exhibit of a friend of hers, and wondered if they'd be willing to tag along.
Di was immediately enthusiastic and Honey was willing to back up her mother, but the others took a little convincing. Objections that they didn't have anything to wear were quashed by Mrs. Wheeler, who said that the event was casual. Other objections were tidied away just as easily. Honey had seen her mother use this particular talent before, on catering staffs and diplomats alike, and before the Bob-Whites knew it, they were all being herded out the door into the cold night air.
Honey had her own suspicions about what was going on. No matter what her mother said about being out of that life, there was always a friend who needed a hand. And Madeleine Wheeler was always a willing accomplice. It could be worse, though. At least her mother was no longer doing this professionally.
They got to the exhibition just as it was opening, and Madeleine wandered about with them, sharing tidbits about the artists and their work. The event took up the whole floor of the building, clearly designed for the purpose. The space was divided into many small rooms to maximize the number of paintings that could be hung.
About fifteen minutes into the circuit of the exhibit, Trixie pulled Honey aside. "Your mom keeps looking at her watch. Any idea why?"
Honey shrugged. "Probably wondering where her friend has got to." If you could call him that. "I wouldn't worry about that."
But Trixie wouldn't let go that easily when she scented a mystery, so when Mrs. Wheeler suggested that they wander a bit on their own while she found her friend, she tapped Honey on the shoulder.
From the look in her friend's eyes, Honey knew what she was going to say before she said it.
"Let's see what she's really up to," Trixie murmured.
Honey could think of so many things that were wrong with that statement. "Why? Trixie, you don't think my mother is involved in a mystery!" Funny how easily that evasion came from her lips. She hadn't even had to lie. She looked up to see if she could spot the others to help her convince Trixie not to get involved, but they had all wandered off into other rooms (Di) or towards the buffet (all of the boys).
"Well, something's going on," Trixie insisted as she started to edge in the direction Mrs. Wheeler had gone, leaving Honey no chance but to follow. "Don't you want to know what it is?"
Honey tried to keep her voice steady, thinking of all the things that could be going on and how much she didn't want Trixie involved in that world yet. "She had to change her plans to take over for Miss Trask. J.J. lives in England and doesn't get over here very often. Maybe this was the only time she could see him before he left the States." Maybe. But if this involved J.J. and Neal, it wasn't likely to be a simple case of seeing a friend.
They followed Madeleine through three rooms, almost losing her once or twice in the crowds before Trixie stopped in a doorway, staring into the next room at whatever was going on in there. Honey edged around to see what and stilled. There was J.J., alright, the light glinting off his thick glasses as he introduced her mother to a man in an expensive suit. Judging by the picture in the brochure Honey had picked up, he was the owner of the gallery.
Honey nearly jumped out of her skin when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She half turned to see a familiar face, and froze. "What are you doing here?" she asked in a low voice, keeping one eye on Trixie, who was too engrossed in spying on the people in the other room to notice. It was an absurd question, but it made her feel better.
"Is that any way to greet your long lost uncle," the man replied with a particularly engaging grin.
Despite herself, she grinned back. "I'd hardly call living in South Carolina, lost, Uncle Kelsey." Her voice was just a little too sweet. "Sorry about this," she pointed an elbow at Trixie. "Mum had to baby-sit." Not that anyone would actually call it that. "I hope it hasn't messed up your op."
He shrugged at her. "It was bound to happen sooner or later. We have contingency plans. Which will probably be useless, but they make everyone feel better."
Honey knew those contingency plans. Her mother had drilled her in what to do if Trixie had ever stumbled on Mrs. Wheeler's double life. And she had to agree with her uncle about their potential effectiveness. "So now what? She's not going to budge. Or wait, Mom's the decoy, isn't she? Trixie's in the best place she could possibly be."
"Bingo. We should be done in about ten minutes. If your friend's attention starts to drift, try to redirect it back to your mother." He gave her another grin and then slipped away.
It was a good plan, and Honey's experienced eye quickly spotted Neal on the far side of the room. She deliberately drew her gaze back to the other room. She knew that watching him work would draw attention that he didn't want.
Her mother, on the other hand, was there to be seen. Her musical laugh rang out of the other room at something one of her companions said and for a second Honey was distracted. This wouldn't have been so bad, if Trixie's eye hadn't been caught by something else entirely. When Honey looked back at her, her friend had half-turned and was staring at Neal. Neal, being Neal, tipped his hat at her, which Honey knew was precisely the wrong move.
Trixie opened her mouth to sound the alarm, but before she could, Honey did the only thing she could think of. Grabbing her friends arm, she whispered an emphatic, "Don't," even though she knew it was too late.
However, it wasn't too late. Trixie didn't make a sound. But in the end that didn't matter.
The gallery owner came running out of the other room. "You." With a gesture he summoned security. Neal turned and bolted out the French doors into the courtyard.
J.J. brushed past them, pretending he didn't know Honey, and she did him the same courtesy. She knew their operation would be that much trickier, now that Neal had been spotted.
"I saw him. Taking the painting down," Trixie said. "I should tell them." She started forward, stopped and then turned on her heel to stare at the painting, thinking carefully about what she saw. "No, he was putting the painting back. Do you think he replaced it with a fake?"
Knowing Neal, that was entirely possible, but Honey wasn't about to say so.
It didn't really matter. By now the man and the guards had left the room and Trixie had that look on her face that meant that she was putting pieces together.
Her mom laid a hand on Honey's shoulder from behind, startling her. Giving her daughter a smile as she passed, she moved on to mingle as if nothing had happened.
Honey followed Trixie as she moved slowly around the room, neither saying a word until Trixie reached behind a seat cushion and extracted a piece of paper and showed it to Honey. She gestured for her friend to follow her into the other room.
"Wasn't your mom in here?" Trixie asked.
"She's out in the other room. Didn't you see her?" Honey pulled out her cell phone and pretended to be checking her messages, before tapping a quick message to her mother and slipping the phone back into her pocket. She watched through the doorway as her mother read the message and looked back up to give her a quick nod before disappearing through the other door.
Meanwhile, Trixie was looking at the piece of paper. "A deed, I think." She started to unfold it, but was interrupted by a flurry of excitement outside.
The security people brought Neal, clearly a captive, back into the room, followed by a policeman. As he was being read his rights, a woman walked through the door.
"Lauren Cruz, FBI. This man is wanted for forgery. We'll take it from here."
Trixie started towards the doorway. "I should show this to them-"
Honey opened her mouth to protest, but couldn't think of a reason that Trixie would accept. Thankfully, Brian chose that moment to walk through the other door.
"Your mom says we need to go now." He glanced through the open doorway and spotted the agents in their FBI gear. "And I don't blame her."
Trixie started to protest, but Brian was implacable, and Honey was just relieved.
When they arrived back at the penthouse, Kelsey was already there waiting, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. "You got it?" he inquired of Madeleine, without waiting for introductions.
"Trixie has it. She spotted it when Neal had to leave in a hurry. You'll pass it on to Peter?" her mother replied crisply. "Kelsey, these, as you may have guessed are the Bob-Whites." She ran through their names quickly. "This is my brother Kelsey."
He grinned at them all. "Pleased to meet you. Or see you again." This last to Jim. He turned to Trixie. "That document is all we need to put a massive forgery ring out of business. But the FBI couldn't get a search warrant. If Neal had been caught with it on him, we wouldn't have been able to get it off the premises. Thank you."
"So this Neal was working with you?" Mart asked curiously.
"Unofficially. Arresting him was a back up plan, but we wouldn't have been able to use that document in court," Kelsey answered easily. "Especially if the gallery owner had realized he'd taken it. Evidence laws. It's complicated" He shrugged.
Trixie looked slightly bewildered, but passed him the document. "You're the person Mrs. Wheeler was supposed to meet?"
"Yup, I'm not in town much. We had a slight change of plans." He clearly didn't think this was a good thing. "Not because of you. We were hoping to get at the document before the show tonight." He gave his sister a quick hug before heading towards the elevators.
Mrs. Wheeler hustled the Bob-Whites inside, as if she feared that one of them would chase after her brother with more questions.
Once they were inside, Honey breathed a sigh of relief as she listened to the others pepper her mother with questions and her mother field them deftly. None of them suspected that Mrs. Wheeler was part of that world too, and it was a relief to be able to put that revelation off for one more day.