Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

Hang THIS On Your Christmas Tree, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 2

Kiernan Willman was slight of frame, with dark, curly hair, gray eyes, and generally appealing features. He grinned when Charlie opened the door, and Kippy emitted a gentle, almost undetectable sigh at the sight. But Charlie did hear it, and laughed. "Uh, hey, Kiernan. What's up?"

The other boy was their own age, but somehow seemed younger. He radiated a certain sense of inexperience - almost of naïveté - which Charlie found charming, and Kippy simply adored. Kiernan looked uncertainly at Amy before replying. "Well, I was just taking you up on your offer to come and visit anytime. Is it okay?"

"Of course it's okay!" Kippy said, pushing past Charlie to stand beside the new arrival. Kippy smiled, and turned to look back at Charlie. "Tell him it's okay, Charlie."

Charlie heard Rick snicker then, and glanced back to see both him and Adrian grinning broadly.

"Sure, it's fine." Charlie turned back and smiled at Kiernan. "You didn't bring your sister?"

"No, not this time. She'll be home for Christmas break in a day or so, though."

Amy, standing nearby, nodded. "I'll leave you to your business then."

"Thanks, Amy," Charlie said, grinning. "You're a gem!"

The woman couldn't quite hide a slight smile, but her eyes offered a mild reproach at the familiarity of the comment. Charlie sighed inwardly at that, wondering at Amy's apparent desire to always be professional, and her seeming intent to keep everything and everyone at a slight distance. Amy needed to loosen up, but so far no one had figured out a way to make that happen. Max had said to give her time, and all would be fine. But it had been a year now, and despite the fact that Amy was just wonderful at running their operation, the woman was still by her own choice on the outskirts of their little group.

Maybe it was the fact that she was older? She was five years younger than Horace's fifty-four, and while the age difference between himself and the boys seemed not to matter at all to that man, maybe the idea of working for a bunch of kids bothered Amy? She was, in fact, older than Charlie's own mother. Did she feel that difference too keenly, or was it something else altogether? Whatever the problem, it bugged Charlie, and he had resolved to deal with it at some point.

Amy nodded once again, and turned and headed back to the front office. Kippy elbowed Charlie gently then, drawing his attention to Horace, who was watching Amy leave with an obvious expression of regret. The older man sighed, turned then...and caught Kip grinning at him.

The ghost hunter's cheeks colored immediately, and his eyes shifted to Charlie, who was also smiling now. "What?"

Kippy grabbed Horace by the wrist and drew him into the room, while Charlie did the same for Kiernan, and shut the door.

"I didn't say a word!" Charlie said then, working hard not to laugh. "Your expression was doing all the talking!"

"I'll say!" Kippy joined in. He leaned in and smiled sweetly at the older man. "Did I spy a sigh with my little eye?"

A brief look of embarrassment crossed the ghost hunter's face, and then he smiled. "Your maturity is showing, Kip."

But Kippy was undaunted. He moved closer to Horace and gave him a gentle punch with his fist. "You like her, huh?"

Horace looked over at Charlie. "Why do I feel like I'm in sixth grade again?"

It was Charlie's turn to sigh. "Because you are. Leave him alone, Kip."

"Why? I just think it's totally sweet that Horace likes Amy."

"She's a very appealing person," the ghost hunter said defensively.

"You should talk to her more," Kippy suggested. "I think she likes you, too."

"Really?" For a moment the ghost hunter's face changed, and years peeled away as a youthful exuberance took hold. "I didn't think I had a chance with her!"

"You won't know if you don't try," Kippy returned patiently. "If I hadn't chased Charlie down, where would I be today?"

Charlie blinked at that. "I thought I chased you down!"

Kippy smiled at him. "All good hunters make the prey think it's their own idea to be caught."

Ricky started laughing at the expression on Charlie's face. "Hell, I knew Kippy caught you, back when it happened. You didn't?"

Charlie stared at his boyfriend a moment, and then suddenly realized it didn't matter at all. "Well, I wanted to be caught, obviously. And I couldn't have been happier since it happened!"

Kippy's face compressed into a soft pout, and he moved closer to rub up against his boyfriend. "Oh, Charlie. You say the sweetest things!"

Charlie put an arm around his boyfriend and kissed him. "I love you," he whispered.

"I love you, too," Kippy said back, just as softly.

It took them both a moment to remember they weren't alone. But then they did, and drew slowly apart. Charlie looked up and found Kiernan watching them.

"Sorry. We get carried away sometimes."

The witch boy smiled. "At least you two have love. It's better than being alone!"

Kippy turned to openly appraise him. "With pretty eyes like yours, some lucky girl will get you." And then he laughed. "Or boy!"

Kiernan's eyes widened, and he gave his head a brief shake. But his smile didn't waver a single bit. "It'll be a girl, is my guess."

Kippy sighed. "Oh, you country boys never know what you want!"

That brought a round of laughter from everyone. Kiernan blushed, which Kippy found just delightful. "So you've never been attracted to guys?" he asked, pressing his point.

Kiernan watched him a moment, and for a moment Charlie saw something more behind the boyish inexperience. Kiernan gave a little shrug. "No, I have. I had a best friend when I was younger, and we played around a little bit. I liked him a lot." He shrugged again. "I just think I like girls better now."

Kippy sighed. "Well, you can't win 'em all." But he smiled at Kiernan, determined to be supportive now. "Any prospects?"

"I don't know. If I was just going on looks and personality, I'd say yes. There's a lot of nice, pretty girls in Kinniston. But--" Keirnan paused, looking a little hesitant now.

"But...what?" Kippy finally asked.

The other boy sighed. "I really want a girl that's a witch, like me."


Charlie could see the decision in the witch boy's eyes, and he understood it fully. Kiernan had grown up in a world of witches - a world of skwish. To go forward in life with someone who was not of the same bent as he was would be limiting. Or, at least Kiernan seemed to think so.

Adrian looked at Rick, and then both of them turned to stare at Kiernan.

"There have to be some witch girls in your town," Adrian said pointedly.

"Yeah," Ricky added. "I mean, Mr. Wolfbridge said that ten percent of the town were witches, and that some others had skwish. There have to be some girls in there, somewhere."

"Oh, there are," Kiernan acknowledged. "But some are older, and some are younger. There just aren't that many right around my own age." He dropped his eyes a moment. "There aren't any that know. Special."

Kippy sighed. "You mean that are special, and are witches?"

"Well, yeah."

Charlie nodded. "Be careful not to fall in love with someone who isn't a witch, then," he advised.

"Oh, I already know about that, too," Kiernan returned. "It's not like I haven't been chased."

Kippy emitted a little chuff of air. "No surprise there!"

Kiernan frowned. "I don't want to be with someone who won't understand, Kip. I mean, if I found I liked a girl who wasn't a witch, I'd have to tell her before going any further. And we are warned from when are first able to speak not to trust those that are not witches with the knowledge of our existence. It''s dangerous."

"I can see that," Charlie volunteered. "Maybe less so these days than at one time. But even now, the world is not in a particularly tolerant mood."

"There you go." The witch boy nodded. "And there's my mom. She would be against me going with a girl that wasn't like us. And having my mom against something is, know."

Kippy laughed, and Charlie smiled.

"We remember!" Adrian put in then. "She's tough!"

"As nails!" Ricky added. "I can get what you're saying about that!"

Kiernan nodded. "It's just too complicated if I like a girl that isn't a witch."

"You never have?" Charlie asked.

A brief look of discomfort crossed the witch boy's face. "Yeah, I have. But it never really took, because I knew there was no future in it."

"That's a shame," Uncle Bob said. "Love really shouldn't have such constraints."

Kiernan just smiled, and it was then that Charlie realized the boy didn't know Uncle Bob.

"Oh, I'm sorry! Kiernan, this is Bob Travers, Rick's Uncle. Uncle Bob, this is Kiernan Willman, the guy we told you about meeting in Kinniston."

Uncle Bob stepped forward and offered his hand, and Kiernan shook it warmly. "Welcome to the funhouse," Uncle Bob said, grinning.

Kiernan laughed at that. "Thanks. I already know about that!"

"Are you calling us clowns?" Kippy asked, tossing a mischievous look at Charlie.

Kiernan took the question in a surprisingly knowing way. "Not unless you really want me to."

Charlie grinned. Kiernan's polish was a little better than his ingenuous appearance let on. Anyone that could handle Kippy was not to be treated as a rube.

Kippy's eyes twinkled at the response, but he took the easy way out and decided to say no more. Kiernan smiled at that, and then looked around the activity room. "See you got the tree up. It looks great!"

"We love Christmas," Adrian said. "It's special."

Kiernan smiled at the tree again, and then sighed. "I know."

"Come on over and plop yourself down," Ricky said, waving a hand towards the sitting area. This was formed by three long sofas set in a u-shaped pattern, with the open end facing the two giant flat screen TVs. A long hardwood coffee table, custom-made, was positioned in the center to service all three sofas . End tables, that matched the coffee table in design and finish, stood at the corners all the way around and provided plenty of space for food and drinks.

They entered the 'U' and all found seats. Kiernan examined the coffee table, smiled, and laid a hand on the polished surface. "Beautiful work. Where did you get it?"

Kippy smiled. "A friend of ours over in Canandaigua made it for us. He's a monster in the shop."

"I'd say so," Kiernan agreed. His eyes moved around the room some more, and then came back to find Charlie's.

"So," Charlie said, smiling encouragingly. "What's on your mind?"

The witch boy laughed. "Is it that obvious?"

"Well...I'd say it's no secret you have something you're thinking about."

Kiernan sat forward. "Frit and Pip visited me yesterday. They invited me to do Christmas. I said I wanted to talk to you guys first."

Kippy brought his hands together in delight. "What's to talk about? Christmas with the elves is fun! You should..."

Kippy trailed off as his eyebrows jumped upwards, and Adrian suddenly cocked his head to one side. Both boys turned to look at the Christmas tree. Charlie felt a certain odd tension in the air of the room just then, and turned to look, too, just as there was a loud pop and Frit and Pip appeared. The two elves were shepherding an enormous package between them, taller than they were, wrapped in beautiful colored paper, and adorned with red ribbons and an enormous red bow.

"Shew!" Pip called out, drawing a hand across his brow. "That thing is heavy!"

"Awkward," Frit agreed, smiling at the huge box. "But worth it!"

Kippy emitted a squeak of joy and charged forward. The two elves turned, grinning, and opened their arms, but Kippy managed to open his wider and get them around both of them! Charlie followed, and soon there was a rush to meet the new arrivals. Frit and Pip loved being hugged, and just as plainly loved hugging everyone in return. Several minutes passed before the commotion died down.

"Merry Christmas!" Frit called then, grinning.

"In five days!" Pip added, laughing.

"We brought your present!" Frit continued, patting the huge wrapped box.

"It's for all of you!" Pip put in, nodding energetically. "To go in this room! We'll bring the stuff we got for each one of you later!"

Kippy stepped back, appraising the huge package with a grin. "Very nice. But we already have a refrigerator."

"It's not that!" Frit called, hooting.

"Guess again!" Pip interjected, his eyes merry. "Bet you can't!"

"Oh, I wouldn't want to spoil it, anyway!" Kippy said then, reaching out again to pat the two elves on the shoulders. "Thank you, from all of us."

A chorus of thank yous! followed, and then the two elves were drawn back to the sitting area and everyone made themselves comfortable.

"Your timing was spectacular, as always," Charlie said, grinning at the elves.

"Our ears were burning," Frit returned, giving one earlobe a swipe and smiling at Kiernan. "Someone was talking about us!"

Kiernan laughed. "I was just telling the guys that you invited me to do Christmas. I wanted to talk to them first, because I was hoping to do some Christmas stuff with them, too."

"We all do it together!" Pip said. "It's tradition!"

"If you do it with us, it will also be with them!" Frit agreed.

"Well, we hadn't been asked yet..." Kippy said, feigning upset.

"We always do!" Pip said, briefly looking horrified by the idea that the boys had been forgotten.

"Always!" Frit agreed, but with a smile. "Stop playing!"

Laughter circled the table.

"What about Max?" Kippy asked then. "Is he coming anytime soon?"

Frit and Pip looked at each other and laughed, and then each held up their bare wrists. Tiny pops accompanied the appearance on each wrist of an enormous watch, from which the figure of Santa Claus smiled, his arms forming the hands by which the time could be told. Both elves made a show of looking at their new watches.

"Ten, nine, eight..." Frit said, smiling.

"Seven, six, five..." Pip added immediately, struggling to control his expression.

Both elves spoke then: "Four, three, two, one...blast off!"

Again Charlie felt the odd tension of the air in the room, and another popping sound came and went, and there stood Max, his arms full of wrapped gifts. He grinned at them, his eyes bright. "Ho, ho, ho, fellas!"

Once again Kippy led the charge to welcome the elf, who protested the attention as he always did. "Careful, careful! Some of these gifts are fragile, fellas! Not to mention me!"

Max was hugged and kissed, and the gifts taken from his arms and placed under the tree. Then Kippy led the elf back to the sofa and pushed him down and sat next to him. "About time you showed up!"

"Aw! It's my busiest time of the year, you know that!"

"We're glad to see you," Charlie said, giving Kip the eye. "We know you're busy."

Max released a huge puff of air. "That's putting it mildly. I had to finagle time a little so I could come by and not miss anything back at the shop."

Charlie cast a brief look at the doorway to the room, thinking of Amy out at her desk. "What about our office manager? She'll be wierded out if she goes to go home at the end of the day and it's still lunchtime out in the world."

Max grinned. "Give me some credit, Charlie. The difference is between here in your world and back at the shop. No one here will notice any changes."

"Grandpa is super with time!" Frit reminded. "And he's always getting better, too!"

Charlie laughed at that. "Have you got yourself a hernacki yet, Max?"

The elder elf looked delighted. "Still working on that, but Keerby's helpin' me. Shouldn't be much longer."

Charlie was referring to one of the strange energy beasts that lived in the impervious zone of the universe, and which had mastered the creation of chrono-cores, which allowed one to visit alternate time streams and realities. Keerby befriending one of the beasts earlier in the year had allowed them to return to their own space and time after Pyewacket had hastily disposed of them to an alternate reality at Halloween, thinking he was protecting the Willmans and the witches of Kinniston.

"You'll get it," Kippy reassured, smiling. "I can't imagine any self-respecting hernacki not loving you!"

Max smiled. "Aw, geez. That's nice for you to say, Kip."

Charlie leaned forward. "You know I felt you coming? And Frit and Pip, too? I don't think I ever did before."

"You're getting stronger, is all," Max returned. "Teleportation is a point-to-point affair. On the receiving end, there's a little stretching of spacetime to allow the movement to happen. The sound you hear is the air, equal to the volume of the transfer, being suddenly displaced as the portal is opened." The elf's eyes twinkled in a smile. "You know, basic stuff."

Charlie laughed at that. "Yeah, basic stuff."

That elf 'magic' was actually based in science was something that Charlie readily appreciated. He understood enough physics to feel comfortable with what he knew about the way it all worked, and to understand that the mind was the coordinating trigger for measurable and explainable events, even if they were ones that human science had yet to embrace. That skwish was much more widely occurring within the human population than they had originally known was something they were coming to understand, and the discovery of the witches of Kinniston had only brought the fact home that there might be other individuals or groups out there using the powers that they were just now discovering for themselves.

"So, anyway," Max continued, "that sorta stretchy feeling you get right before someone materializes is you sensing the portal being established. You'll eventually get so that you feel skwish being used anywhere near you, for whatever purpose."

"If there are other humans using skwish, too, it's going to be weird," Kip said. "We might just be walking down the street and suddenly feel someone doing that."

Max shrugged. "You may as well get used to the idea. But I don't think you'll be finding any humans that are as good with magic as elves. Or, at least not many. If there were a lot of you, we'd sense it, and we don't. On the other hand, the best magic-user I ever met is Nicholaas, and he's a human, not an elf. So what does that tell you?"

Ricky gave a grunt. "That human superusers may be out there, but there won't be a lot of them."

"That's about right." Max gave a positive nod. "That's a good word you got there. Superusers. I like it. Because that's what you guys will be turning into, at least among humankind."

Kippy crossed his arms and feigned a hurt look. "Well, it's all your fault, for rubbing off on us like you do!"

All three elves laughed.

"You learn fast!" Frit said, looking happy at the fact.

"For humans, anyway!" Pip added, winking at them.

"You have come along pretty well," Max agreed. "Just keep on being careful. You guys got sense, so I don't feel I hafta worry about you all the time."

"I promise we'll be careful," Charlie agreed. "The last thing I want is to accidentally vaporize the planet or something."

"That would be messy," Max agreed. "And planets are really hard to put back together once you disrupt them." The smile that came with that pronouncement assured them all that Max didn't feel the least bit of worry that any of them would be capable of such an event anytime in the near future.

"So can you stay a while?" Uncle Bob asked. "Sure would be nice to have you around for the holiday."

"Wouldn't mind seeing a few magic tricks, if you don't mind," Max agreed. "Like I said, I got time on my side, so I'll be around for the holiday."

"What about Nicholaas and Ronja?" Adrian asked. "Will we be seeing them?"

Max tapped his chin with a fingertip, obviously thinking that one over. "Well...probably. They have a couple of special projects they're doin' this year in addition to everything else, so I figure it will probably be Christmas Eve when they get around to visiting. And it will be a time trick of some sort, so they can do it, let me tell you."

"Time is proving to be a pretty useful tool," Charlie observed. He smiled. "Well, about half the time, anyway."

Max grinned at him. "Hey, I like the way you did that!"

"Charlie," a new voice said then. It filled the room, yet was a quiet, precise voice, giving the impression of good manners and assurance.

Charlie grinned at Max, whose eyebrows had risen quizzically. "That's Irving. The little AI that runs this room."

The elder elf's mouth twitched in an almost-smile. "Irving?"

"My mom's granddad was named Irving," Charlie volunteered. "I was on Engris buying the com set up for this office, and had to decide on a name to be impressed on the new mind after it was created. I wanted something familiar. My great grandad was an early aviator, and my mom used to haul him out a lot when I was a kid."

Kippy slid closer and wrapped an arm around Charlie's. "You mean when she was talking about your room? I remember that."

Charlie nodded, smiling at Max. "I'm not a slob, by any means. My room was always pretty acceptable--"

"Organized, is the word," Kippy interrupted, rolling his eyes theatrically.

"--but my mom is a little bit of a neat freak," Charlie continued, "and when she'd come into my room when I was little and she thought it looked a little junky, she'd frown at me and say, 'Not even granddad Irving would fly over this mess!'"

Max laughed at that. "Sounds a little like my mom!"

Charlie nodded. "Anyway, that's what came to mind, so that's the name I gave him." Charlie glanced up at the ceiling, even though he knew the AI was located in a hidden safe cabinet built into one of the walls. "What's up, Big Irv?"

"I'm receiving a message from Pacha'Ka. They have arrived in orbit and are seeking to establish communications."

Charlie gaped a moment at that, but immediately turned it into a smile. "Hey, they're early! Especially as they said they might not get here until Christmas day!" He grinned at Kippy, who also looked delighted. "Put them on, Irv!"

"Contact established."

"Pacha!" Charlie called, making no attempt to reign in his delight. "You made it!"

There was a brief swirling motion in the air at the open end of the seating array, and then a large holographic image of the control room of Pacha's starship appeared. The little Kift was sprawled comfortably on one of the floor cushions that amounted to seating aboard his race's vessels, while behind him stood Mike, Bobby, and Kontus. All wore large smiles that equaled Charlie's own.

"We couldn't miss Christmas!" Mike called, his arm spasming slightly. As it was currently placed around the waist of Bobby Felsen, Mike's boyfriend, the net effect was to draw that boy closer. Bobby responded by laughing, and nodding towards the group on Earth. "I didn't want to miss the holiday, either. Not after last year!"

"It was fun, wasn't it?" Kippy called. He laughed. "Hi, Kontus! How's my big guy?"

The Trichani stretched his muzzle sideways in a huge grin. Tall and broad-shouldered, and superficially resembling a terrestrial brown bear, the alien's intense dark eyes were amazingly expressive, leaving no doubt as to the joy he was feeling just then. The big alien had mastered English by now, and his deep voice boomed out at them.

"Kippy! Hello! And Charlie! And...all my friends are there!"

Adrian and Ricky waved and mugged at the new arrivals, and Uncle Bob and Horace joined in. Kiernan, who had met the Trichani back at Halloween, also grinned excitedly and clapped his hands together.

Pacha looked amused by the trading in visual emotions, a faint but fond smile edging onto the normally peaceful expression on his Koala-face. Koalas were apparently not equipped to make a really human smile, but Pacha had been practicing, and had arrived at a fairly good imitation. The shapechanger had grown to like the image of the Earthly animal, introduced to him by Mike, a native of Australia, and used the shape generally as his own now. Charlie thought that the Kifta race's most oft-used shape, which resembled a large, upright white rabbit, was also a cute one; but he had to agree that the Koala shape was hugely appealing to a great many races they encountered.

"Are you guys coming down?" Ricky asked, waving a hand around at the more than ample seating. "Plenty of room!"

"We wanted to check with you first," Pacha replied, blinking his eyes at them. "Now that you are running a business, it would not do just to appear unannounced."

Kippy tsked. "You people are always welcome here, day or night."

Charlie nodded. "Come on down. We were just about to discuss what we'd like to do for the holiday!"

Those in the holographic image laughed.

"Something fun, I'd say! " Mike proclaimed. "You fellows don't do anything halfway!"

"That seems to be true," Kontus said dryly. "Amazing exploits seem to follow you around like the tail on a Vroben."

"Whatever that is!" Adrian returned, laughing.

"I think that goes both ways," Horace said, smiling. "It was the four of you that sent back those incredible images of the ice palace on Natchuhor, wasn't it?"

"Oh, it wasn't really ice," Bobby called back. "Illia said it was crystallized carbon. You know...diamond?"

Everyone laughed. Illia was the artificial mind that ran Pacha's ship, and therefore an authority on most things. The knowledge that artificial intelligences manufactured out in the empires could pack into a tiny space was nothing short of phenomenal. Even Irving, the somewhat smaller mind that oversaw all off world tech within the offices of Planet Earth Inquiries, was a towering genius by Earthly standards.

"You can tell us about it when you come down, hint, hint," Kippy said, starting to sound impatient now.

Charlie smiled, and patted his boyfriend on the arm.

Mike leaned forward then in the holographic image, and gave them a toothy grin. "I see the elves are already well-represented. Will we be seeing Nicholaas and Ronja, too?"

Everyone laughed. "We were just discussing that!" Charlie called. "Just...come on down and let's get comfortable!"

"We have time one our side!" Ricky added.

"An amazing feat, I still say!" Kontus returned.

Pacha raised a tiny hand then. "I suggest we wait until we are among them. It will be easier to speak that way."

Max, who had been listening quietly until then, smiled and waved a hand at the holo. "Shall I time you?"

The little Koala laughed. Tchk-tchk-tchk. "If you wish."

Pacha looked back at the three standing behind him, and then all four of them vanished from view within the holo. That projection immediately closed, and was replaced with the real thing as the four popped into the room. Pacha offered his slightly crooked smile to Max, and laughed again. "Fast enough for you?"

The elf looked delighted. "I'd say! You've got teleporting down pat, looks to me. How have you been doing on the other stuff?"

"Well, I think. I have managed to slow time to where we can do two day's work or exploration between sleep periods. But I still have a ways to go, I think."

"Well, sit down and stay a while," Max said, pointing at the open ends of the two side sofas.

Mike picked up Pacha and cradled him in one arm, and joined the others as they took their seats.

Charlie turned to stare at Max then. "You've been teaching Pacha time control?"

"Sure. He's been teaching me a few things, too. All in the name of cultural exchange, you know."

"Oh, of course!" Kippy put in, frowning. "I thought you had to have the talent for such a thing?"

Max shrugged. "If you're an elf - or a human - yeah. But Pacha's folk are different. They're sort of open clear across the band. They get very good at things that interest them or they are aware of and need, but never really develop things they don't know are talents. I mean, certain magics just don't develop on their own in them like they do in us. Nothing really suggested to them before that they could control the flow of time, so it ain't a big do among 'em now. But they can be taught a lot more, in general, than elves or humans that don't have a particular talent."

Pacha emitted another chuckling laugh. "Your kind tend to specialize and become tremendous in certain areas, Charlie, while my kind seem to be average all across the spectrum of Ka."

"He means skwish," Kippy said, smiling at the look of incomprehension on Kiernan's face.

"And you mean craft," the witch boy translated, understanding dawning.

"Just so," Pacha agreed. "No matter the name, the ability is the same."

Kiernan sighed. "It's awesome to know that things can be learned." He smiled at Charlie. "I'm still hoping I'm going to be able to do that."

Max waved a hand at the witch boy. "You got some obvious talents already. The things you'd already learned before you met us are pretty good for humans studying all on their own."

Kiernan nodded. "Well, I'd like to learn more. Nothing I know now can compare to teleporting or moving things at a distance."

All the elves smiled. "That's just how it seems to you!" Frit said.

"You're better than you think!" Pip added.

"They're right," Max agreed, nodding. "You have that same ability your mom has to tell when people are being truthful, and what their intentions are. You have a great way with Pyewacket that says you can handle all them sorts of energy critters well, and you and your sister both have that knack for goin' invisible that's pretty impressive."

Pacha'ka turned to look at Kiernan. "What's this? Invisibility?"

Kiernan shrugged. "Not really. It's just this thing we do that causes people not to look at us."

The Kift's eyes narrowed speculatively. "I'm not sure I understand."

Kiernan looked over at Max, who nodded and smiled. "Show him."

The witch boy gave a little sigh, and rose to his feet. He walked out of the seating and went over to stand by the Christmas tree...and vanished.

Well...that was how it seemed at first. Charlie caught a fleeting bit of motion out of the side of his eye, but when he looked, there was nothing to see. Several more times the same thing happened, but whenever he looked, there was no sign of Kiernan. Charlie looked all around the room, but Kiernan was simply gone now.

"Most disconcerting," Pacha said then, shaking his small head. "I know you're here, but my eyes cannot seem to find you!"

Kiernan reappeared then, standing on the other side of the Christmas tree. Pacha frowned at him, and then managed a crooked smile and a short laugh. "Excellent! You fooled my eyes quite handily!"

"It's not really invisibility," the witch boy said, coming back to retake his seat. "And it works best if I don't move. If I move, you might catch a bit of it out of the sides of your eyes, but when you look, nothing is there. What happens is that your eyes are not allowed to look my way, no matter how hard you try."

"Yet my range of vision seemed quite normal," Pacha returned.

"It is. Your eyes are simply not allowed to land on me. They sort of skitter by, every time. It's like creating a blank area where your eyes can't go. But it's not true invisibility. It can't fool a camera, for instance."

"Remarkable. How did you ever come upon such a talent?"

Kiernan laughed. "My sister and I can both do it. It started to come out when we were little, playing hide and seek in the neighborhood. We were the champs. No one could ever find us!"

Pacha closed his eyes a moment, and then nodded. "I sense there is a way to counter that talent, but it is not clear to me as yet."

"We have a couple of new talents here, too," Charlie said. He prodded Uncle Bob and Kippy to relate their new accomplishments, to which Pacha seemed genuinely pleased.

"Wonderful! I sense the growth of all of you. This can only result in good things, I hope."

"So do we," Kippy said, smiling.

Mike leaned forward then, and brought his hands together. "So. We're early because we chose not to get started on our next search. We weren't sure we could get done and still get here by Christmas. So we just came ahead."

"And we're glad you did," Kippy told him.

"What was next, anyway?" Ricky asked, his interest plain.

"Donofra," Mike said, turning to smile at his boyfriend. "Bobby found the reference to it."

"A colony world of the Chorbai," Bobby spoke up, taking the cue. "According to the records, it was a new world opened up by the Chorbai in their initial wave of colonizing the star systems nearby their home world, about five thousand years ago. They had dropped about ten thousand colonists when evidence of a previous civilization on Donofra was discovered."

Ricky's eyes widened. "At what level?"

"Sufficiently advanced for star flight," Bobby continued. "Most of the remaining examples of the native technology were in below-ground works. It soon became evident to the Chorbai that the surface of the planet had been pretty much wiped clean by some tremendous force about eight thousand years prior to their arrival. The then currently existing flora and fauna seemed to have repopulated the planet from some small stronghold where it had survived. But of the original civilization, nothing remained but their vaults below ground."

Adrian was also looking fascinated now. "So what did these Chorbai do?"

"Marked the place as an antiquities site and removed the colonists. Sent them somewhere else."

Kippy looked at Charlie before leaning closer to Bobby. "So what is the lure of the place?"

"Well...according to the Chorbai records, the technology they found in place on Donofra was superior to their own. The fact that the world was sterilized by some even greater force led them to believe that it was due to some sort of conflict that had raged long before their time. That would be about thirteen thousand years ago, now. They were a little spooked by that, and while they took samples of some of the technology to study, they left most of it in place. They seemed to be afraid of somehow summoning a return of whatever had happened there before."

Horace nodded. "And what of the Chorbai?"

Bobby frowned. "Their migration from their home world went largely in the other direction from Donofra, towards galactic center. Today they are a component of the Moth Empire. Donofra lies some two thousand light years beyond the Moth border."

"So it's a treasure hunt, pretty much," Uncle Bob said, smiling.

"Yes," Pacha agreed. "Any technology remaining on Donofra is certainly behind the level that exists within the empires now. But as you well know, there is a huge market for antique alien technology, especially the unique technologies of vanished races. The profit lies in examples of the tech itself, rather than any discoveries likely to be made that would add to existing technology today."

"Sounds like fun," Charlie said, nodding. "Maybe we could go with you after Christmas?"

Bobby clapped his hands together. "That would be nifty!"

"It'd be a ripper!" Mike followed with, laughing. "There's plenty for everyone."

"You would be welcome," Pacha agreed, offering a crooked smile.

Mike looked around the room then, and his eyes landed on the two large flat screen TVs hung on the wall. "I'm surprised you're still using them, since this room has a multi-point holo display."

Charlie grunted. "We have to have the room set up so that we can bring others in here. I think if we started showing off holography at the level you guys use, there would be problems. The technology doesn't exist on our world, not at that level of perfection."

"Oh." Mike gave a nod. "Right. Didn't think of that."

Kontus leaned forward to look at the TVs. His nose twitched, as if he was getting their scent, and a look of uncertainty filled his eyes. "What do they do?"

Charlie was briefly surprised by the question, but then laughed. "No reason you would know, if you've never seen one." Charlie opened a drawer in the side of the coffee table and produced a remote control. This he aimed at the TVs, and the one on the bottom immediately lit. It quickly passed through its boot process, and a picture appeared on the screen. It was crystal clear, the colors were perfect, and in any other circumstances Charlie would have been impressed. But the two-dimensional picture, when compared to the three-dimensional perfection of empire holography, seemed quaint even to Charlie's eyes.

Kontus stared a moment, and then nodded. "Oh. I have seen this sort of technology before."

Kippy laughed. "In a museum?"

The big Trichani looked embarrassed. "I did not say that."

"It's okay," Charlie reassured. "Everyone has to grow at their own pace."

Kontus looked satisfied at that. "Exactly."

"What's going on there?" Ricky asked, pointing at the screen.

Everyone turned to look then. They were tuned to the regional news channel, and it looked like one of the reporters was at the scene of some sort of breaking incident. A banner across the bottom of the screen said, in bold red letters: 'Christmas Bandits Strike Again'. The reporter had his microphone extended towards the face of a harried looking police officer, who looked faintly like he'd rather be elsewhere.

Charlie stared a moment, recalling the earlier news broadcast Kip had been watching in the conference room. Was this the same event, or a new one?

"Turn that up, will you Charlie?" Ricky asked.

Charlie depressed a button, and the volume came up.

"...say that this case appears to be like the four other burglaries committed by the Christmas Bandits, Lieutenant Punsky?"

"We haven't determined yet that this is another of those crimes, no."

"I see. Well, I spoke to a building employee earlier, and was told that a Christmas tree and a figure of Santa Claus wearing a sign that says 'Merry Christmas!' was left behind in place of the merchandise that was stolen. If that's true, then this would indeed be another burglary by the Christmas Bandits."

"Well, that has yet to be determined."

"I see. This same person told me that no doors or windows were broken, and that the building itself was not damaged or disturbed. And that the building has an alarm system, but as in the other burglaries, it was not set off by the perpetrators."

"I can't comment on that just now." The cop's eyes narrowed. "Who did you say you talked to earlier?"

"Um...I didn't get his name. He just said he was one of the warehouse workers inside."

"I see. Well, no one has been authorized to release information on this case as yet. Once we have a handle on this situation, an official statement will be handed out to the media."

The reporter cast a look over his shoulder at the building, a fairly nondescript structure they were standing close enough to that it largely present as a brick wall. A loading dock was evident, as well as several large roll-up doors. "I was also told that several hundred thousand dollar's worth of merchandise was removed from the building last night, and that nobody saw a thing." He turned and waved a hand at the busy street, where people were walking by on the sidewalk and gawking, while traffic streamed by on the road. Across the street, a busy strip mall containing a fast food restaurant bustled with activity. "This is not exactly a lonely area, even at night."

The cop was trying hard to conceal his annoyance now. "We're still looking into the facts of this case. Anything I might say now would only be speculation."

The reporter nodded. "Have your people determined how the burglars got inside the other four buildings they have robbed?"

"I can't comment on that, either. Those investigations are still ongoing."

A note of exasperation crept into the reporter's voice. "Well, can you say that this burglary was similar to the other four burglaries you can't comment upon?"

"No, I can't. I'm sorry, but that's all I have to say just now." The Lieutenant smiled as if they had just had a very nice conversation, and turned and walked away back to a knot of police milling around several cars and an evidence truck. Yellow warning tape was strung everywhere, and several other officers were monitoring the watching crowd, ensuring that no one crossed the marked boundaries.

The reporter, evidently not expecting to have his interview cut short that way, struggled for a moment to fill the vacant air-time." you can see, things here are still up in the air, Marjorie. But this most recent break-in does appear to be the work of the same bandits that have burglarized other buildings in the area."

A small inset appeared at the bottom right of the screen, showing the concerned face of the news anchor, Marjorie Dawes. She immediately nodded. "As you said earlier after talking to one of the employees, it appears that there was no forced entry to the building, and no one saw all that merchandise being removed. Did this building also have cameras inside, in addition to the burglar alarm system?"

"It did. The worker I spoke with said the camera system appears to have failed sometime after 2:00 AM. The break-in obviously occurred after that time."

"But there was a Christmas tree and a Santa left behind? With the 'Merry Christmas' sign on it?"

"That's what I was told."

"That's amazing. Well, it doesn't seem like there is any more information forthcoming at this time. Thanks for your report, Chris, and I hope there will be more soon."

The on-site reporter smiled amiably. "I'll let you know the moment we learn more. Thank you, Marjorie."

The inset grew and took the place of the live reporter. A second anchor could now be seen sitting next to Marjorie. "It appears we have yet another mystery on our hands, doesn't it, Marv?"

"Yes, indeed, Marjorie. This would now make five buildings burglarized by the Christmas Bandits since the start of December. And if the dollar amount of this most recent burglary is correct, that places the take for the Christmas Bandits to date at over one million dollars."

"Am amazing sum! And it almost seems as if the bandits are thumbing their noses at the authorities, by leaving their calling cards of a Christmas tree and a Santa figure wearing a Merry Christmas sign. Someone seems to have a perverse sense of humor!"

There followed a brief recounting of all of the Christmas Bandit burglaries to date, showing pictures of the places victimized, describing their security, the cameras, the alarm systems, and how no one had seen or heard anything, even when security guards were in the same building. It was a concise list of the facts, something that Charlie always admired. It ended, and the newscast went to a commercial, which jarred Charlie out of his thoughts.

He muted the volume, thinking back over what he had just heard about the Christmas Bandit burglaries, and realizing that he hadn't really been paying attention to this story in the news. He'd really only glanced at the articles in the paper in passing, being focused on other things. But this most recent burglary seemed to be ringing a warning bell somewhere in his mind, and now he wanted to look at the facts more closely.

And those facts seemed straightforward at this point. All the victims had been large chain stores or their warehouses, and in each case several hundred thousand dollars of merchandise had been lifted and transported away, without anyone seeing or hearing anything. Two of the burglarized facilities had had watchmen. Neither had witnessed anything out of the ordinary. And in each burglary, there was no obvious way the burglars had gotten inside. Nothing broken, nothing damaged. Alarm systems and surveillance cameras had all turned up nothing. And in cases where people were outside in the area, no one had seen or heard a thing.

It was almost as if...

Charlie gasped, and turned to look at Max. "You guys don't have any rogue elves on the loose, do you?"

Max frowned, and then pointed at the TV. "You mean that? No, Charlie. Our people wouldn't do that. And we would know, if someone did."

Kippy turned to look at Charlie. "Why do you think elves are involved?"

A slow crawl of premonition rose up Charlie's spine "Well, look at the facts. Someone is getting inside these places without breaking in."

"Maybe they have keys," Ricky suggested.

Charlie shook his head. "Even if they did, someone would see or hear something. The alarms would go off. The cameras would record who it was. None of that has been happening."

"Like they're invisible?" Adrian suggested, warming to the idea that something strange was happening.

"Or like they're magical," Kip added quietly.

"Some unusual method of entry is being employed," Charlie agreed. "And some unusual method of removing what they steal is being used."

Ricky nodded, also looking interested now. "Unusual is cool!"

Mike leaned forward. "Are you suggesting that someone is teleporting inside these places? Here? On earth?"

Charlie shrugged. "I...I don't know. I'm not really suggesting anything. It's just a feeling I have. But the fact that no one sees or hears anything makes me wonder. And that the cameras and the burglar alarms are failing in every instance is pretty damning. That doesn't sound like magic at work to you?"

Max stared at the silent TV screen now, and then turned to look at Charlie. "Possibly. But it ain't elves, Charlie. Has to be humans."

"That makes it even more interesting!" Kippy said.

Ricky sat forward then, a smile on his face. "We gonna check it out?"

"Do you think we should get involved?" Horace asked.

"Getting in the way of the police is not a good idea," Uncle Bob added quickly.

"We won't get in their way," Mike said, grinning. "We'll just go around them!"

Charlie sat still a moment, thinking, while the others grew silent and watched him. The sudden feeling that something unusual was going on with the Christmas Bandits was strong. Where he had not paid much attention to the story before, it suddenly seemed to have taken on a new life for him. Something strange was happening!

He nodded then, and waved a hand around the room. "Well...we're Planet Earth Inquiries, aren't we?" He nodded. "I say we inquire into this."

For a moment no one said anything. Kippy looked around at the others, and then put his hand on Charlie's knee and squeezed it. "I'm with you."

Ricky laughed. "All for one, and one for all, right?"

Adrian sighed, and leaned up against his boyfriend. "I'll go along."

"It sounds like another treasure hunt to me!" Kontus put in, looking delighted at the idea.

A quiet murmur of assent from the others circled around the coffee table, until Pacha'ka gave a nod and offered up another crooked little smile. "It seems we have arrived just in time for the fun!"

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