Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

Hang THIS On Your Christmas Tree, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 3

"Did you know that burglaries are one of the least solved crimes in the country?" Kippy asked, looking up from the laptop screen. "The average solve rate is only ten percent, and that's everywhere in the country." He frowned. "If people don't see the crime taking place, it is very rarely solved."

"What about cameras and burglar alarms?" Adrian asked.

They were still seated in the activity room. Max had left for now, but said he would be back as soon as possible. Frit and Pip also wanted to run briefly, but both said they weren't leaving until a course of action was laid out. That the two saw these crimes as just another fascinating adventure was obvious. Crime was not unheard of in the elf world, but it was simply non-existent compared to within its human counterpart. That they might actually solve a new mystery had both elves grinning happily.

Kippy shrugged. "Well...cameras and security systems are largely responsible for that ten-percent solve. Those, and witnesses. Burglaries of places where there is no one around are much less likely to be solved."

"But there were people present at a few of these capers," Mike pointed out. "Security guards. And they didn't see anything, either."

Ricky grunted at that. "Then what can we really do about this? We don't know anything about solving crimes, except what we've read in books. I don't even know where to begin here."

"I agree," Charlie said, and then smiled. "Mostly. If this is just a normal crime with normal burglars, the police are far better equipped to deal with it than we are. I don't want to get in their way. In fact, I don't want to interact with them at all. They're a little too nosy for my tastes."

"We don't want them investigating us, you mean," Ricky returned.

"Well...not really that. We are as legal and above-board as Nicholaas and Max could make us, and that's saying a lot. I'm not worried about being investigated, so much, as I am in having the authorities suddenly decide that we are interesting." Charlie smiled. "That could lead to a long-term sort of nosiness that I'd just as soon not have to deal with."

"I can get that," Bobby said. "In my day, you didn't want to mess with the cops. If they decided you were up to something, they'd get you anyway they could."

Charlie nodded, figuring that protections for a citizen's rights in dealing with the police were even slimmer in the 1957 world that Bobby had come from than they were today. "We'll just stay away from them and not make it an issue."

"Then how do you plan to begin?" Pacha asked, watching Charlie speculatively. That the Kift found human affairs interesting was something the boys already knew. Pacha could be counted upon to be a fair and impartial observer, and to speak up if he detected them straying from the course.

Charlie smiled at that. "Well, I'm going with my gut here. I don't intend to go after this as a crime, so much as a series of magical events. That's why I say that if it just turns out to be regular thieves, we probably won't get anywhere. But if what I suspect now is true - that this may be the work of people with magic of some kind - we may actually be able to do something about it."

Kiernan suddenly sat forward in his seat. "Are you suggesting that witches may doing these burglaries?"

"No. The term witch is just one of several we use for people that have the sort of talents that we have. If people using skwish are involved in these crimes, they may think of themselves as just about anything."

Kontus waved a hand, obviously thinking. "A most unusual puzzle you have here. On Roorapynta, all buildings and public places are monitored by miniaturized, stealthed observers. No crime can be committed without observation, so no crimes are committed. The art of solving such incidents has therefore atrophied considerably."

"What about the privacy issues?" Adrian asked. "I sure don't want some nosy stealthed observer watching me and Rick in bed at night."

The big Trichani gave a very human shake of his head. "Not at all. Each building's observers run on an encrypted standard accessible only to the property owner, and only to law enforcement if the property owner or a court grants permission. There are no watchers like you are imagining."

Kippy frowned. "Something has to coordinate all that information."

"Yes. Every individual system has a small artificial intelligence that maintains it."

Adrian grinned and shot a finger towards the ceiling. "Aha! So there is someone watching!"

Kontus laughed his deep laugh. "Those tiny minds are not the least bit interested in your sexual activities, I assure you."

"You never know," Ricky put in, grinning at his boyfriend. "I can imagine a little voyeurism going on there."

"I cannot," Pacha inserted then, trying to hide a small, crooked smile. "But may I suggest we are getting far afield from the main issue?"

"Yeah, fellas," Charlie agreed. "Let's focus on the problem at hand." Adrian and Ricky continued to smile at each other, and Charlie couldn't quite contain one of his own. "There will be time for personal matters later."

Kippy clapped his hands together. "So, what do we do first?"

Charlie pointed at him. "You've got the laptop. See if you can get a street map of the city, and let's see if we can locate where these crimes have been committed."

"Looking for a pattern?" Ricky asked.

"You never know. Kip?"

"Um...okay, I have a street map. What I don't have are the addresses of the places that were burglarized. Let me look for those." He opened a second tab in the browser, and ran a search on stories about the burglaries. "Uh...okay. Someone grab a piece of paper and a pen.

Adrian reacted first, opening one of the side drawers in the coffee table and withdrawing those items. "Shoot."

Kippy read off the addresses, and Adrian wrote them down. After they had all five, he ripped the top sheet off the pad and passed it to Kip.

"Okay, let me get back to the map..."

Charlie leaned over against his boyfriend to watch the screen. Kip found each address and planted a little flag on it, and Charlie could see immediately that the places were spread all over the city. 'So there doesn't seem to be a pattern as far as location," he decided.

"What next?" Bobby asked.

"Background?" Mike suggested. "See if the places they hit have anything in common, like corporate ownership?"

Charlie grinned at the Aussie boy. "Say, you're good at this."

"Used to watch some crime shows on the cable, is all."

"Well, don't be afraid to speak up, any of you."

They examined the companies that had been hit, and could find no links at the corporate level, or even in the sort of merchandise they sold. They were all nationally-prominent merchandisers, with a broad selection of goods.

"Nothing there," kip decided.

"Actually, there may be," Horace spoke up. He had been watching and listening, as he so often did, but was now sitting forward to look at Charlie. "These are all big outfits, lots of money, lots of insurance, lots of insulation against hard times."

Charlie frowned. "I'm not sure I get where you're going."

Horace nodded. "Charlie, I've come to know your city pretty well in the last year. There's a lot here, a lot going on. There are small, local merchandisers here that probably have warehouses just as full as these big box stores. But they haven't been hit."

Ricky tugged at one ear, looking curious. "You mean like, if a small place was hit it would be catastrophic for them, while these big places just restock and let the insurance companies worry about the rest?"

The ghost hunter smiled at that. "That's exactly what I mean."

Bobby shook his head. "Maybe these places are getting robbed because they're big stores. The thieves know it will be worth their time."

Charlie considered that, and nodded. "Could be." He smiled at Horace then. "But I trust your ability to notice these things." He turned to Kippy. "Do a search and see if you can find anything like these crimes in other parts of the state. Or, even in other parts of the country. It occurs to me that what's going on here may be just more in a chain of similar events."

It quickly proved that Charlie was right. Kippy soon found that these very same large retailers, and several others not represented in their own town, had been hit by mysterious burglaries in other parts of the country. The crimes had begun on December first of that year, and so far a total of thirty six stores in three states had been hit. The police in each jurisdiction were at a loss on the methods of entry, the methods the thieves had used to remove the merchandise, and why alarms and cameras had failed in every instance. And why security personnel in nineteen of the burglaries hadn't seen or heard a thing!

"A pattern!" Charlie said then. He shook his head. "I'm surprised this hasn't become bigger news. A three-state crime wave of this sort would certainly be something worth talking about."

"Well, look," Kippy countered, pointing at the laptop screen. "These three states are in totally different parts of the country. Maybe no one has noticed the similarities yet?"

"Maybe not the local media," Adrian said. "But I'll bet the cops know about it!"

"The authorities are sometimes reluctant to discuss their failures," Horace observed. "It may explain why that police lieutenant was so terse with that reporter."

"Something else," Kippy put in then. "Some of the burglaries occurred at close to the same time, or at least on the same day, but in states separated by over a thousand miles."

"So maybe a gang is doing this?" Adrian wondered aloud.

Kippy looked up from his computer then, his face excited. "Charlie, Horace is right! All these robberies have been limited to big chain stores. Not a single mom n' pop among them!"

Charlie considered that, and then pointed at the computer on his boyfriend's lap. "Any big retailers in our town that haven't been hit?"

Kippy squinted at the screen, and his fingers moved over the keys again. In a moment he smiled. "Two."

Ricky let out a laugh. "Stake out, y'all!"

Kippy turned to look at Charlie. "Are we?"

"Well..." Charlie rubbed his chin in thought. "The cops will surely be watching these two places, too. I'm sure they've reached the same conclusions we have."

"Seems weird," Mike said, "that these hoons would keep after these stores, knowing the law was around. It's like they're thumbin' their noses at the blue heelers."

"Unless they just know that no one can stop them," Charlie said quietly.

Kippy blinked, and stared at Mike then. "What the heck are blue heelers? You mean the police?"

The Aussie boy laughed. "Blue heelers are a breed of cattle dog. The name comes from the colors in their coats, and the way they move cattle by nippin' at their heels. There was a police drama a few years back named after the dog, 'cause the police uniforms are similar colors to the blue coats of the dogs, and some people said their personalities are the same."

Kippy grinned. "Interesting country you come from."

"I always liked it!"

Ricky reached across Kip to tap Charlie's arm. "Are we going to stake out these two places, or what?"

But Charlie turned instead to Frit and Pip, who had been listening to the discussion with uncharacteristic silence. "Guys, is there such a thing as a skwish detector?"

The two elves looked at each other briefly, before Frit shook his head. "Elves can sense the use of skwish over some distance, Charlie. You guys are starting to get that now. In time you'll know when skwish is being used all around you."

"But it doesn't work for us very well now," Charlie countered. "I was hoping there was something that could detect the use of skwish some miles away."

"There is," Pacha spoke up then. "I have such a device aboard my ship."

All eyes turned to stare at the little Kift.

"Really?" Frit asked.

"Truly?" Pip added.

Pacha laughed. "A ka detector, but as ka is the same force as skwish, it should do the job nicely."

"What's it's range?" Charlie asked.

The Kift placed his small hands together. "That depends strictly on the force of the ka being detected. But I have personally seen it work across a continent in extreme instances."

"Wow," Pip said, his eyes large.

"You need to tell Grandpa Max!" Frit decided. "That might be useful!"

Charlie felt excitement now. "That would work. Suppose we took your ship to a point midway above both of these last retailers, and waited behind the scat field for something to happen. We'd be undetectable, but we'd be right there if the ka device indicated someone was using magic nearby."

The Kift held up his hands. "It wouldn't do any good. I have never been inside either of these two places before. I could not teleport us there."

"We haven't, either," Frit said. "But we could go now and check them out!"

Uncle Bob held up his hand then. "Uh...I've been in every store in town." He gave a weak smile. "I mean, I might be able to teleport inside them, huh? What do you think?"

Pacha's small eyes widened. "Not being practiced at all with your new talent, I would not expect it to support you moving others with you. For you to go alone would be fraught with danger."

Charlie held up a hand then. "Wait. I don't want to teleport inside."

Ricky grunted in surprise. "Then how do we catch the bad guys in the act?"

Charlie shook his head. "Even if we could all teleport inside one of these stores at once, I wouldn't want to do it. We don't know what sort of people we'd be facing. Or even if they are people."

Bobby's jaw dropped. "Not people? You mean aliens?"

"I find that difficult to believe," Kontus added.

Charlie waved his hand for silence. "No. Hold on a second." He let his gaze move around the circle of faces. "I have no intention in engaging a possibly hostile and dangerous enemy without knowing a hell of lot more than we do now. What I am proposing now is a reconnaissance, not a raid to snare the robbers."

Kippy's frown suddenly turned into a smile. "Oh. I get it. If the detector goes off and pinpoints a store, you want to go in with your second presence to have a look!"

Charlie smiled. "I knew there was a reason I loved you so much."

Kippy looked pleased at that. "Well...yeah." He laughed. "That's actually a pretty good idea. Since Rick can ride along with you, and we can sort of attach to him, we'll all be able to see what's going on."

Mike sighed. "Some of you will. Us unmagical blokes can just sit and twiddle our thumbs."

"I can take you along," Pacha said then. "We can all participate."

Mike and Bobby grinned at each other, and Kontus sat forward then, his expression fascinated. "Then we should get started, shouldn't we?"

Charlie laughed. "Well, all of these robberies have taken place in the middle of the night. We don't want to go now and hang in the sky all day. Even behind the scat field, that makes me nervous."

"The ship would not be seen, nor detected by your military," Pacha reassured. "Your technology has some ways to go yet before scat fields are even theorized here."

"Well, that's okay," Charlie returned. "We have some things to do yet today, and if we're going to be up all night, we probably need a nap." He laughed. "And if we just teleported up to your ship now, poor Amy would wonder what had happened to us at the end of the day!"

Pacha turned to look in the direction the front office. "An interesting one you have there, Charlie."

"Really?" Kip said, immediately looking interested. "What do you know that we don't?"

Pacha laughed, his little eyes bright. "It is not for me to tell. Patience, Kip."

Charlie stood up and smiled. "Tell you what. Frit, you and Pip have time to go do what you have to do. Kip, Rick, and I will stay here for the rest of the business day and get done the things we need to get done. Pacha, you and your guys can either hang out, or go back to the ship and take a nap."

Mike raised his hand. "I'll go for the nap, but Pach has already slept this month. He goes to sleep again now, and we won't be seeing him for a few days."

The Kift let out an animated tchk-tchk-tchk. "I do not feel the need for a nap, so rest your fears. But it may be a good idea for you and the others to take one."

Kontus stood then, and stretched heroically. "Our ship day is different from the one here. It is past time for our usual sleep hour."

"All the better," Charlie said. "You guys go and get some rest. After we finish our day, we'll go home and get a few hours of sleep ourselves. He turned then and looked over at the clock on the wall. "These stores are all open fairly late during the Christmas rush, so I don't expect anything to happen early. Suppose we all meet back here about ten o'clock tonight?"

"What about me?" Kiernan asked.

"And us," Horace put in, indicating himself and Uncle Bob.

Charlie smiled. "Kiernan, I have no idea what your hours are or what you have to do. But if you'd like to stay here and participate, you're welcome to do so."

The witch boy patted the sofa next to him. "This looks like a comfortable place to take a nap."

Charlie turned to the two older men. "You both are welcome to come along, too."

"Try to stop us!" Uncle Bob returned, smiling. Horace also looked like he had made up his mind.

"Good," Charlie continued. "I didn't know your hours or obligations, either, so I hadn't gotten to you yet. But if you'd like to take a nap here and go with us later, that would be fine."

Uncle Bob frowned. "I need to call Susan and tell her something if I'm going to be out all night. She'll think I'm running around on her!"

"Yeah, right!" Ricky said. "Aunt Susan wouldn't think that!"

Bob Travers sighed. "I was kidding, Rick, But it's nice to know that everyone thinks I'm so dull that I could ever have an affair on the side!"

Ricky immediately looked contrite. "I didn't mean it that way."

"That's okay. You're off the hook. I guess you're more right than you know!"

Charlie nodded. "Then it's settled. Everyone that's leaving, be back by ten o'clock. Everyone else, get some rest."

Mike held up his wrist, made a show of examining it, even though it was barren. "Should we synchronize our watches, mate?"

"Just be back at ten," Charlie said, laughing.

Kippy smiled at the Aussie boy. "If you'd like to get synchronized, I can help you!"

Bobby blinked at that, and then leaned forward. "Hey!"

"He's kiddin'," Mike said, throwing his arm around Bobby's shoulders. "But thanks for rushin' in like that to defend me!"

"We'll go now," Pacha said, rolling his eyes. With that, he and Mike and Bobby and Kontus vanished, with only a faint slurp of air moving into the vacuum to mark their passing.

"We'll go, too," Frit said then, taking Pip's hand. "But we'll be back!" They, too vanished.

Horace sighed. "It would be nice to be able to do that."

Uncle Bob turned to him and grinned. "Be careful what you wish for!"

Those that remained started bantering back and forth, and Charlie took the moment to turn to Kip. "What do you think?"

"It's a plan," his boyfriend decided. "I only have one concern."

"What's that?"

"We don't know anything about these Christmas Bandits. My worry is, if they really are a bunch of power users...will they be able to detect you in your second presence if you drop in among them?"

Charlie thought that over, and then shrugged. "We won't know until we try."

Kippy sighed. "That's what I was afraid you'd say!"

The Kifta starship hung in the night, the checkerboard squares of the lighted city far below. According to Illia, the little artificial mind that ran Pacha's vessel, they were poised in a spot equidistant between the two large retailers that had not been hit by the Christmas Bandits. Their altitude was well above the local air lanes, and the possibility of detection was zero. The ship could move to a spot above either of the stores in seconds of time should the need arise, but Charlie knew his second presence could make the leap to either building even faster than that. Pacha would act as a kind of compass, interfacing with the skwish detector on his ship and then somehow guiding Charlie's presence to the correct destination. He knew he could find it on his own given time, but Pacha's way would be just short of instantaneous, and they couldn't risk being delayed while Charlie searched out the location on his own.

Max had yet to return, but Frit and Pip had been waiting at the office when Charlie and the others had arrived just before eleven o'clock. Keirnan, Uncle Bob, and Horace had gone out to eat earlier, and made themselves comfortable on the sofas, but no one had really had much of a nap, and Charlie new they'd all be tired by the time the night was over. It was pretty hard to just decide to take a nap when you weren't really tired.

Mike, Bobby, and Kontus, on the other hand, seemed well-rested. Their schedule was different than the day-night hours Charlie and the others were currently living, and they had all been tired enough to sleep. Pacha only slept occasionally, but when he did it could be for days at a time. Mike had made this habit of the Kift a little bit of a joke, and had stories to tell about Pacha sleeping through times when the universe was in imminent peril. Pacha, for his part, seemed to enjoy the telling of these tales as much as Mike did, and would smile his crooked smile and remind Mike of the parts of the stories he had omitted, and chuckle through the parts that Mike made most visual in the retelling.

Charlie and Kippy had first met the Aussie boy exactly because Pacha had been asleep when the ship in which he and Mike had been fleeing the Arpathant had arrived in earth orbit. While maps of the earth made it look deceptively easy to find the earth's continents, from orbit you didn't have that sort of planetary view. Unless you had purposely arrived in an orbit with the north pole being 'up and the south pole being 'down', the continental outlines could look entirely unfamiliar. The landmasses tended to wander away over the horizon, not revealing the continents in their entirety, and storms and other cloud cover could make figuring out what you were looking at impossible. Mike had been aiming for Australia and home, but nothing he looked down at had helped him.

He had circled the planet countless times, unable to wake Pacha and unable to figure out how to find his way home, and in desperation had dropped from orbit and simply looked around on the ground until he happened over some people in a secluded place where he thought he might land and ask directions. That had proved to be Myer's Hill, where Charlie, Kip, Ricky, and Adrian had been hanging out. To this day the chance involved in the encounter still mesmerized Charlie, who had more than once thought he detected a purposeful pattern in the gathering of new friends around him. Their group had grown, become diverse and powerful, and they had been able to take on problems that Charlie - even with the help of Kip and Rick and Adrian - would have never been able to handle on his own.

They had become a force, and one that seemed destined to do good things. Charlie smiled at the idea that they might one day save the universe, and he had thus far been more than happy to have righted a few wrongs in even small parts of it. But that they kept right on falling over new and intriguing problems to solve seemed certain to make their lives interesting.

But at the moment he was not thinking of those things. Frit had taken a page from his grandfather's playbook and created a nice, comfortable circular sofa, exactly the right size, in the large open space that was the control center of the ship. The actual guidance of Kifta starships was performed by the onboard artificial intelligence, with the 'crew' normally sprawled comfortably on small cushions between a pair of central pylons that could provide them with every imaginable form of data needed to complete whatever mission they happened to be on at the time. Three dimensional video, sound, and communications were just the basic functions of this array.

But humans - and Trichani - really weren't all that comfortable sprawled on cushions on the floor, and Pacha had had Illia produce more agreeable seating for the ship's expanded crew. Frit had taken that one step farther, creating a circle of seating so that everyone could touch, and thus be a part of any possible skwish encounters to come. They had assumed positions of readiness, and now were waiting on the possibility that Pacha's ka detector - which would inform them of the use of skwish nearby - might send them a warning.

"How does that gizmo work, anyway?" Ricky asked Pacha, who was comfortably cradled on Mike's lap. Mike sat to one side of Charlie, with Bobby next to him, and Kontus beyond. Ricky sat on Charlie's other side, and then Kip, Adrian, Uncle Bob, Horace, Kiernan, Frit, and Pip, who was also seated next to Kontus, forming a full circle. The seating formed a completed circuit, with everyone able to participate in Charlie's second presence experience, at least within their own minds. Pacha would act as the guide to the destination, and Ricky, who could follow along the path of Charlie's second presence journey, acted as the link to all the others in the circle. It was skwish at its best, Charlie thought!

Pacha turned to smile crookedly at Ricky. "It's very simple, really. The use of ka, or skwish as the elves call it, produces a variable pulse of energy, with the power of the pulse in direct proportion to the amount of skwish being used. You and some of the others have recently become sensitive to this pulse, and to the side-effects of some uses of skwish, as in the act of teleportation. Interestingly, what the detector receives is not the manipulation of power being used in performing the magical act, but rather the initial impulse generated within the brain of whomever is performing the magic. The stronger the usage, the more powerful the magic, the more powerful the initial pulse generated by the brain. Yet even so, we are talking about microscopic current flows within the talent centers of these brains, so small in measurement that they might ordinarily go unnoticed by standard electromagnetic surveillance equipment. What makes detection possible is that each one of these tiny pulses is absolutely unique in the universe. No two are the same, and none of these pulses are like anything natural or generated by technology. The ka detector is extremely sensitive, with the scouting antenna being a micro-mesh of special design within the hull of the vessel. The entire ship is in effect a receiving antenna for such impulses, allowing for the required sensitivity to detect them at a range that is useful."

Adrian chuckled, and leaned up against his boyfriend. "Did you get all that?"

"Sure. This is a pretty big ship, so that means the antenna is pretty sensitive. But the limits of what it can receive are also made clear. While we might pick up someone using ka in Albuquerque from here, we won't be sensing power users on another planet or anything."

"That's actually right," Pacha said, emitting a tchk-tchk-tchk. "The emitted brain pulses are quite small. There are limits to the technology we have to reveal them."

"We're only a few miles from both of these stores, though," Charlie observed. "So no problem there, right?"

"No. At this range, the pulses will be quite clear."

Kippy rubbed his hands together. "So it's just a matter of waiting, I guess."

"I have something of note to report," Illia said then, her voice sounding serene within the control room. One thing these alien AI's seldom ever did was get excited, Charlie had learned.

Pacha nodded. "Please do so, Illia."

"I am detecting a distinct network of encrypted communications surrounding each of the target locations. In listening in to the broadcasts, I have determined each node to be a unit of law enforcement, apparently placed to watch the two businesses. They have orders not to move in unless specifically told to do so, and those orders would seem to emanate from one specific unit at each location. Those two units are themselves part of a wider network, all of which have been ordered to watch for anything out of the ordinary and report it."

"You can listen in?" Charlie asked, surprised. "I thought you said the communications were encrypted?"

"The encryption standard is very basic," Illia said, matter-of-factly. "I was able to break it virtually instantaneously."

Charlie winced at that, once again reminded of the level of earth's technology in comparison to that in use out in the galaxy. Illia was a quantum-based mind, far faster and more powerful than any computer yet in use on their own world.

"I have also determined that each of the locations is broadcasting multiple images of the interiors of the structures. As these images are referenced in the web communications of the law enforcement personnel, I would suggest that the ability to monitor both locations has been greatly enhanced."

"They've set a trap for the Christmas Bandits," Ricky said, shaking his head. "They're not taking a chance on the installed security cameras in these places failing. They've put their own in, too."

"Anybody inside these two stores?" Charlie asked.

"I am detecting a single human in one location, and no one in the other."

Kippy nodded. "Probably, the one store always has a security guard, and they didn't want to pull them out lest they tip off the bandits that something is up."

Charlie looked at his watch, and nodded. "It's only half past midnight. I have a feeling we have a wait here."

Another hour passed. Illia reported that vehicle traffic around the two target stores had diminished, and that foot traffic was now virtually non-existent. Charlie was starting to feel the length of the day himself, and one look at Kip and Rick and Adrian confirmed that they also were tired. He was worried now that they would not be up to snuff if trouble started.

He turned to Pacha. "You guys got anything aboard the ship to fight sleep?"

Mike smiled at him. "You blokes tired? You look it."

"I can help with that," Frit said then. He smiled at them, pointed a finger at Charlie...and the lethargy Charlie was starting to feel simply evaporated. Frit next pointed at each of them in turn, from Charlie around to Kiernan, and soon everyone was smiling.

"What did you do?" Charlie asked, amazed now at how alert he felt.

Frit grinned at him. "It's a simple trick that does complicated things to the brain. Sets your circadian clock back a little bit, modifies the amounts of certain chemicals, including..."

"It convinces the brain it's not time to go to sleep yet, he means," Pip interrupted, smiling at his boyfriend and squeezing his arm. "Always go for the quick explanation, sweetie."

Frit laughed. "It sets back your feeling of tired a few hours. But it will catch up with you again, so you don't want to do it too much. About three hours from now, you're going to feel the same as you did before I set you back. But once you go to sleep, your body will set itself back to normal."

"One would hope, "Uncle Bob added, chuckling. "I can see myself walking around at noon tomorrow looking like a zombie."

"Nah." Frit waved a hand. "You'll be fine!"

"Better than fine!" Pip added, laughing. "Once you do go to sleep, you'll sleep great!"

"Can you bottle that?" Horace asked, beaming. "I guarantee you could sell it and make a bundle!"

Frit shrugged. "Every elf knows the trick. Who would buy it?"

Kippy waved a hand."Okay, okay. Thanks, Frit." He looked at Charlie. "I wish something would happen before we all go a little bit loopy."

Charlie laughed at that, and the others smiled. "Waiting is never easy. Just relax, Kip."

"Yeah, Kipper." Mike smiled toothily at him. "No use going off like a frog in a sock!"

Kippy huffed. "I asked you not to call me that. It sounds like you're calling me a small, greasy fish!"

Mike nodded. "Sorry. If you knew how fondly I meant it, you'd like it."

Bobby laughed then, and leaned up against his boyfriend's shoulder, and Kippy couldn't help smiling. "Well, when you say it like that--"

"I have detected a ka moment in one of the locations," Illia said then.

There was a startled, group intake of breath, and the conversations died immediately. Charlie looked instinctively at his watch. It was just two AM.

Pacha closed his eyes, and Mike dropped a hand on Charlie's. The entire group quickly joined hands, and Charlie let his breath sigh out, closed his own eyes, and found the tiny, fluttery knot within his mind that initiated his second presence. He pushed it, turned it, set it into motion.

"I'm here," he heard Pacha say inside his head.

"Me, too," Ricky added, and Charlie could feel his friend's reassuring presence beside him.

And then, one by one, Charlie became aware of the others in the circle as they all joined in, and in a moment a gray room seemed to appear around all of them, with a light to one side, one which illuminated a staircase dropping down into the floor. Misty, almost eerie representations of each one of them formed, solidified in Charlie's mind...and then they were all standing together in a group at the stairway.

"Quickly," Pacha said, pointing. He was still cradled in Mike's arms. "Down the steps!"

Charlie needed no further urging. But as he took a step to the stairway he felt a momentary hesitation...and then gasped as each of the misty representations of his friends took a single step forward and flowed into his own body! He understood then that they had to act as one hereafter, and took another step...and suddenly was free of the hesitation.

The staircase was almost ridiculously short, just three steps. Charlie arrived at the bottom, and looked around in amazement.

He was standing in what looked like a large warehouse.Tiered racks towered all around him, each one holding pallets three-high, each pallet laden with boxes and packages and bundles of every kind. Other pallets stood on the floor around him, displaying colorful packaging that portrayed just about every sort of consumer electronics or appliance imaginable. Boxed washers and driers stood near pallets laden with flat-panel TVs, next to vacuum cleaners, microwave ovens, computers, game consoles, and more. Charlie knew which store they were in now, just by the merchandise he could see all around them.

"Is this the store with or without the guard?" he whispered to Pacha.

Tchk-tchk-tchk. "There is no need to speak softly, Charlie. No one in this building can hear what goes on within your mind. Nor can they see us, unless you will it. I suggest you not do that, however." The Kift sighed. "This is the building with the guard. I sense her on the other side of this expanse at the moment, however."

Charlie froze."What about the police cameras? Can they see me?"

"Never, even if you willed it. Allowing yourself to be seen only reveals you to the minds of others, but while they think they are seeing you with their eyes, it is their minds that form your likeness. The watching devices here cannot interpret what they cannot sense. So relax."

Charlie did just that. "Phew. This is a little more nerve-wracking than I thought it would be."

He felt a warm sensation then, and then the closeness of Kippy, and something that felt very much like a kiss to his cheek. "I'm here with you," his boyfriend said then.

Charlie smiled, touched the warmth, pulled it closer to him.

"I suggest we look around," Pacha said. "That way. Charlie turned to look, without having initiated the conscious impulse to do so, and realized that Pacha pointing within his mind was the same as if the little Kift had physically turned him the right direction.

"You feel the skwish user is that way?"


Charlie nodded, and moved off down the row of racks.

"This is amazing!" Uncle Bob said then. "I can hardly believe I'm here like this."

"I feel the same!" Kiernan responded, in a hushed voice. "This is beyond witchery!"

"That you are here at all speaks volumes about your abilities," Pacha countered. "All of you are still developing. Only time will reveal what you are to become."

"I have no such powers," Kontus objected.

"Me, either," Bobby agreed.

"I'm not saying a word!" Mike added quickly.

Pacha made a cheerful sound. "There is a difference between having an ability that is latent, and not having one at all. Each of you has promise. Each of you will bloom in your own time."

That elicited a round of interjections, which only died away as Charlie waved a mental hand. "Just relax, everyone," he counseled. "We'll get back to this later. For now, let's pay attention to the task at hand."

He continued to walk up the aisle. The warehouse, probably very brightly-lit by day, was less so at night. Only every third one of the long fluorescent lighting fixtures hung from the metal-braced ceiling far above was lit. There were shadows in some places, and only the front of what was stored in the racks was really visible. The building was silent, and the sense of emptiness extreme. If there was a security guard nearby, Charlie could not sense their presence, even though Pacha could.

"Stop," Pacha said then. "Remain motionless."

Charlie did that, and could sense everyone within him holding their breaths.

A flicker of motion at the end of the aisle attracted Charlie's eye, and someone came around the corner.

"What's that?" Kippy breathed softly.

Charlie stared. It was a human shape, but not a human being. Or...

The figure was of a man, one who seemed trim and fit, his body outlined in a way that suggested a black body suit, one that covered every inch of him from head to toe.

The apparition moved closer to them, and became clearer to the eye. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and muscled in a way that suggested power. His feet made no sound against the floor.

The figure stopped, obviously examining the contents of a rack. One arm came up, a finger pointed, and Charlie felt a by now familiar sense of tension in the air...and an entire pallet loaded with computers vanished into thin air.

"Teleporter," Pacha said softly, as if forgetting his own advice that they could not be overheard.

"Why can't we see this guy?" Adrian asked. "He looks like his own shadow!"

Pacha was silent a moment, and then made a small noise of surprise. " not clothing that hides him, but rather a camouflage of some sort. A screen of anti-light. I cannot sense beyond it. I have never encountered its like before!"

The figure moved onward, paused to examine more racks of items, and again whole pallet loads disappeared in the blink of an eye, each vanishing accompanied by that strange sense of tension that Charlie now knew heralded a teleportation. The figure continued to come their way, and more items disappeared in wholesale quantities. The warehouse was being silently looted right before their eyes!

Charlie saw a flicker of light then, the beam of a flashlight on the floor in the cross aisle from which the figure had come. The dark one paused, and turned to look back. Someone else came around the corner into their aisle then. It was a small women dressed in a security uniform, pointing a flashlight at the floor. She let the beam sweep slowly up the aisle, moved it to touch upon the racks on either side, and then she grunted to herself and moved on, heading for the next aisle.

Charlie couldn't believe it! The beam had passed right over the dark figure, but the guard had not seen him. "He's invisible to people!" he said then.

It all made sense now. Why the security cameras never saw anything. Why no method of entry or exit could be determined. How so much could be stolen with no one seeing a thing.

The thief teleported inside, outfitted in some sort of a covering that made him invisible, teleported the loot out, and then teleported himself out right behind it. A nearly perfect crime!

The figure resumed walking towards them, and continued to cause huge quantities of merchandise to disappear. Since some of the racks were already empty, no one not knowing the contents of the warehouse intimately would know that things had been taken. The guard had looked right at places where things had been looted, and not even realized it!

"Can we do anything?" Kippy asked then. "He's going to get away again!"

"We need to get the cops in here!" Ricky hissed.

Charlie looked around quickly, but could see nothing that might help them. In their bodiless state, they were very much limited in what they could do.

But then his eyes landed upon a familiar red box, smallish, mounted on the side of one of the girders supporting the roof. Charlie knew immediately what it was: Pull in case of fire.

"Pacha!" he hissed. "Or Kip...or...anybody! See that red fire alarm? Can one of you pull it?"

Charlie sensed all eyes move to the box in question. But it was Kip that reached out to it with his mind, and yanked down on the handle.

All around them, mounted up high on the roof supports, emergency lighting flared into brightness. The sounds of multiple klaxons warbled and beeped throughout the structure, and the dark figure, now only a dozen feet from them, actually flinched noticeably.

But that was not all that happened. The dark figure suddenly turned their way, and Charlie was certain that it was looking at them. In three long leaps the figure moved closer, and stood in an attitude of watching, plainly aware that they were there.

And then a chuckle came to them, and one hand raised to point a finger squarely at them, and a deep, almost jovial voice rang out, heard even above the sound of the fire alarms.

"Well, now! And just who do we have here?"

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