“This, my dear Watson, is a tale for which the world is not yet prepared. I fear it must be relegated to that battered tin dispatch-box of yours.”
“Wilder,” I said, looking up from my laptop, “not Watson. And I wouldn’t know a dispatch-box from a box of Honey-Nut Cheerios. Go smoke your pipe and let me concentrate.”
Grumbling, my friend Skyler Hobbs took up his calabash pipe, filled it from the Persian slipper that held his tobacco, and settled into his favorite chair. The room was soon engulfed in a pungent blue haze.
It’s not easy, you see, being the roommate of a guy who thinks he’s the second coming of Sherlock Holmes.
Hobbs was probably right about the story. It was sure to cause panic in the media and get us both thrown in the slammer, but something deep within compelled me to write it down. So I did.
I had never thought of Skyler Hobbs as a big fan of Christmas, but this year he’d insisted on going downtown to Pioneer Courthouse Square for the annual lighting of Portland’s official Christmas tree. I tagged along to keep him out of trouble. Or so I hoped.
Hobbs gazed up at the monster tree. “This 75-foot Douglas fir,” he informed me, “has been strung with 15,000 lights of the LED variety, meaning they are extremely energy-efficient.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve gone green.”
“Just because I am an old soul, Doctor, does not mean I cannot be socially responsible.”
The square was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with people clutching Starbucks cups and delicacies from the Honkin’ Huge Burrritos cart. Their attention was focused on the stage occupying the northeast corner of the square, where members of the Oregon Symphony, the Pacific Youth Choir and the wildly popular band Pink Martini had assembled to lead us all in Christmas carols. Individually, any one of those groups would have been great, but together they were a mess. No wonder so few people were singing along.
As usual, Hobbs seemed able to read my thoughts.
“I had not taken you, Doctor, for such a scrooge.”
“Just because I make a living as Jason Wilder - Computer Doctor,” I said, “does make me a doctor. As for being a scrooge . . . ” I gave it up, because he was no longer listening.
He was focused instead on a large, dark-clad woman worming her way toward us with an old-fashioned baby carriage. Her head was wrapped in a shawl, and most of her face was lost in shadow. The carriage stopped several feet away, where two other ladies turned, cooing, and bent for a look inside the hood.
The dark-clad woman shooed them off. “Sleeping!” she yelped. Her voice was high-pitched, and her accent odd.
Hobb’s brow furrowed.
“Quite recently,” he said, “that woman had a heavy beard and mustache. In short, she is not a woman at all.”
Before I could stop him, he sidled forward and said, “A Merry Christmas to you, madam.” All politeness, he doffed his deerstalker hat, but it slipped from his fingers and fell to the brick plaza.
Instantly, Hobbs swooped down to retrieve it, practically burying his face in the bed of the carriage.
The “mother” shoved him away. “Sleeping!” This time the odd voice was tinged with anger.
As Hobbs rose, the guy turned the carriage and pushed it away from us, forcing the crowd to clear a path.
Hobbs stiffened. “Quick, Doctor. There is evil afoot. I must stop that man.”
I grabbed his coat sleeve as he moved away. “Why?”
“He has abandoned the carriage!” he said. “It is imperative that you retrieve it.”
Then he was off.
I followed, cursing under my breath. Hobbs was nuts, no doubt about it, but I’d learned to trust his instincts, even if it mean risking a kidnapping charge. Grabbing the carriage, I shouted, “Baby coming through! Wet diapers!” and the crowd, full of good cheer, parted before me.
Reaching the sidewalk, I found the surrounding streets bare except for police cars and a good number of stern-faced patrolmen. The hooded man was now half a block away, with Hobbs in hot pursuit. I hurried after them.
At the next corner our quarry yanked a cell phone from his pocket, and held it up to dial. When he glanced back, his eyes skipped over Hobbs, fixed on me and went wide as goose eggs.
The big man spun away, and seemed about to dart across the street. But a big Tri-Met bus came roaring past, forcing him to wait. This delay was all Hobbs needed. He sprang onto the guy’s back, trying to drag him down.
I parked the carriage and dashed forward to help, but the hooded guy had already flung Hobbs aside and charged blindly into the street, straight into the path of another bus.
Man and bus met with a meaty crunch, and the guy flopped to the blacktop. I grimaced as the big wheels thumped over him, crushing his skull like an eggshell.
“Come, Doctor! Quickly!” Hobbs took the carriage in one hand, grabbed my arm, and hustled me away from the pulpy mess.
A full block later he turned a corner and stopped the carriage, peering back around at the scene of the accident.
“The police have arrived,” he said, “but we are not pursued. We must return to your automobile and depart at once.”
I held my ground. “Not until you tell me what’s going on. Do you know the penalty for kidnapping a baby?”
In answer, Hobbs flung the carriage blanket aside, revealing a small, pink form in baby clothes. But was not a baby at all. It was a doll. And beneath the doll, under another blanket, sat brick after brick of a substance resembling mozzarella cheese.
“What the hell?”
Hobbs tapped his nose. “When I buried my nose in the carriage, I found none of the telltale scents of an infant. Instead, I detected the odor of the explosive commonly known as C4.” He took hold of the carriage again and pushed on up the street.
“C4? You sent me bouncing down a sidewalk with a cartload of C4?”
“I assure you, Doctor, you were in no danger. The explosives were set to be ignited by a call from our late friend’s cell phone.”
“My God, Hobbs. That guy was going to kill thousands of people. 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 huge tree came alive with all of it’s 15,000 energy-saving lights, and a great cheer went up. The crowd began singing, I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.
“Would you tell those good souls of the horror they nearly faced? Now, when they are gathered in the spirit of peace and goodwill?”
I didn’t know what to say.
Back at 221B SW Baker St, Hobbs said, “We bear a heavy responsibility. I must consider it carefully.” And with that he curled up with his pipe, immune to conversation.
I planted myself in front of the TV, trying to ignore the carriage full of explosives parked just inside the door.
I must have dozed, because suddenly Hobbs was there beside me, and the eleven news was on.
“Tonight,” the news lady said in frantic tones, “the FBI foiled a plot intended to kill thousands at Pioneer Courthouse Square. After a year-long undercover operation, nineteen-year-old Somalian immigrant Mohamed Mohamud is now in custody. Authorities say that when Mohamud tried to ignite a truckload of phony explosives with his cell phone, federal agents swooped in. An FBI spokesman assured us they were in complete control of the situation, and the crowd was never in real danger.”
I discovered my mouth was hanging open. I turned to Hobbs. His was too.
“A decoy,” he said. “The FBI was taken in by a decoy, while the true bomber escaped their notice entirely.”
I reached for the phone. “We have to tell them,” I said. “And the media. You’ll be a hero.”
Hobbs yanked the phone from my hand.
“No. The public can never know. The citizens of our fair city would be afraid to leave their homes, and the spirit of Christmas would be irretrievably tarnished.”
That night, Hobbs strapped the C4 to concrete blocks, wheeled the carriage halfway across the Ross Island Bridge and dumped the package over the side into the cold waters of the Willamette River.
Hobbs was right, of course. Going public with the story would cause panic and probably get us thrown in the slammer, but I couldn’t help myself. I grabbed my laptop and started typing.
Hobbs let out a laugh.
I looked up at him. “What?”
“I am quite aware, old friend, that you plan to submit a narrative of this case to Davy Crockett‘s Almanack of Mystery, Adventure and the Wild West.”
“And you’re okay with that?”
Hobbs got his pipe going and let out a cloud of smoke. “I have made inquiries. That publication caters to aficionados of the most lurid sort of popular fiction. If the editor chooses to publish so wild a tale, who would ever believe it?”
© 2010, 2012 by Evan Lewis
A shorter version of this tale originally appeared on Do Some Damage, as part of their 2010 Christmas Noir celebration.