‘‘But, Padlock, I simply cannot fathom how you figured it out!’’

Removing his pipe from his mouth, Padlock Combes smiles at his friend.

‘‘Can you not, Dr. Dobson?’’

The good doctor shakes his head. The table of his dining room is laden with the remains of the festive banquet; the goose is only halfcarved, the butter on the vegetables running cold. The brandy on the Christmas pudding is un-lit. Napkins have been left on the tablecloth, their linen rumpled, and the wax from the tall candles is in danger of dripping down the brass candlesticks.

It is hard to believe, surveying the luxurious scene, that mere hours before a thief had been apprehended at the very same table.

‘‘Not for the life of me, my dear Padlock. I don’t suppose you would care to enlighten me?’’

‘‘But of course, Dobson.’’ Padlock sets his pipe down on a nearby napkin, taking care that the ash would not fall onto the tablecloth. ‘‘You will recall, I suppose, the incident of the Christmas pudding thefts at the confectioner’s on Regents Street?’’

Across the table, Dobson sits up a little straighter. ‘‘Indeed I do. Dolly was there just the other day, collecting our sugared almonds. A terrible business.’’

‘‘Indeed. But after a little investigation, my dear Dobson, I discovered that similar puddings had been stolen from similar shops right across London this week. Thefts as far as Kingston, if you’d believe.’’

‘‘No!’’ Dobson leans forward, abject horror on his face. ‘‘But who would do such a thing? And the week before Christmas!’’

Padlock shakes his head, and reaches forwards for a piece of shortbread biscuit. Really, Dolly Dobson had truly outdone herself this year with her sweetmeats.

‘‘Who would? Now, that was the question of the hour, Dobson. The thief had left no clue but the slightest smudge of ink on the doorframe of each shop. Barely anything for the police to go on, God bless them.’’

‘‘Yes, yes.’’ Dobson waves his hand, making the flames of the candles flicker. ‘‘But how did you decipher the mystery?’’

Padlock reclines in his chair, a certain smugness passing over his face.

‘‘You see, Dobson, on visiting each crime scene I was able to identify that the ink from each smudge was the same ink, and that each smudge was in the same place on each doorframe. With a little – ahem – experimentation, I was able to deduce that to make such a smudge, the rogue would have had to force the door open with his left hand.’’ ‘

‘I see.’’ Dobson, who did not see, nods knowingly. ‘‘And?’’

Padlock smiles and reaches for a toffee. ‘‘And, once I had identified the patent of the ink and traced it to the auction house, all that remained was to catch the guilty clerk in a trap of my own making. The luck was with me, for I found only one at the auction house.’’

‘‘And invited him at once to my festivities tonight,’’ Dobson concludes.

With a gracious inclination of his head, Padlock continues his tale. The toffee has stuck to his teeth, making speech a little difficult. ‘‘I had Scotland Yard on standby, and when he made a move on Dolly’s pudding, as I knew he would, I gave them the signal.’’

He grins, having finally swallowed the sweet.

‘‘And so you see, my dear Dobson, that was how I came to save your Christmas dinner.’’

Pushing back his chair, Dr. Dobson makes his way to the window. Out in the street, children are playing in the snow. Candlelight frames fir trees in bay windows, and a carriage with gift-wrapped bundles drives down the road, on its way to another party. It makes him smile to know that their pudding too will be safe this year.

‘‘I see it now, Combes, I see it very clear. Genius of you, really.’’ He turns back to the table, and then frowns. ‘‘However, there is one thing I do not understand.’’

‘‘Oh?’’ His friend’s brow furrows with concern. ‘‘And what might that be?’’

Dr. Dobson points to the empty plate in front of him. ‘‘Dolly promised me she would leave me a mince pie. I saw it myself, just a moment ago. I wonder where it could have gone?’’

Padlock Combes brushes at his moustache imperturbably; a few crumbs fall into his lap.

‘‘My dear Dobson, I am sure I don’t know what you mean.’’