Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

Hang THIS On Your Christmas Tree, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 5

"Grandpa Max said he'll take a break and drop by as soon as he can," Frit told them the next morning, as they all gathered again at the offices of Third planet Inquiries. "He's awfully busy."

There was something in the elf's tone, almost a sense of bafflement at his own words. As if he couldn't believe that his grandpa had not just paused time to come with them that morning. Yet Frit was not speculating, not supposing why this might be. He had accepted it, and all it meant to what they were doing.

They were four days from Christmas now, and this was the busiest time of the year at the shop. The culmination of everything the elves, Nicholaas, and Ronja had worked for all year long. Some of that surely was behind Max's failure to appear. Yet Charlie still had to wonder. Could Max and Nicholaas really feel that Robin Hood was not enough of a problem to warrant their immediate attention? What of Pacha's assessment that the man was extremely powerful? And their own eyewitness accounts that his ethics were demonstrably of doubtful character?

What was going on with that?

"What about Nicholaas?" Kippy asked uncertainly. "Is he going to get in on this?"

Frit and Pip looked at each other, and then Frit held up his hands. "He's started on his delivery equation. The one that says where all those presents will go."

"The ones not being delivered other ways," Pip added. "He can't be interrupted. But once he gets to a branch, he can pause. I think he'll be interested in this then."

Adrian gave a small shake of his head. "I guess no one is worried about this like we are."

"Maybe we rely on them too much," Uncle Bob suggested quietly. "They can't always just drop everything every time we have a problem."

"Maybe," Charlie agreed, thinking. His faith in both Max and Nicholaas was far too strong to think they were being abandoned in a time of need. Apparently...maybe...the others thought they were up to handling this without help?

"Great," Ricky said, holding up a hand. "I guess that means we're on our own for now."

"Should we wait?" Adrian asked.

"No," Charlie said then, looking around the circle of faces at the conference table. "We proceed."

Kippy turned to stare at him. "Really? What can we do alone?"

Charlie dropped a hand on his boyfriend's where it rested on the tabletop, and squeezed it comfortingly. "Relax, Kip. We'll be fine." He smiled. "And we're not alone. Just look around you."

Kippy watched him a moment, and then turned to gaze at their friends, seated all around the table. And then he slowly smiled. He turned his hand over and grasped Charlie's, and squeezed it back. "So what do we do next?"

Ricky was watching them, and now he smiled. "Okay, okay. All for one, and one for all, right?"

Adrian sighed. "I'm in."

It soon became apparent that everyone was for moving on rather than waiting.

"We just need to know what to do next," Mike pointed out.

Charlie nodded. "I've been thinking about that." He turned to Pacha'ka. "There's only one big store left in our town that hasn't been hit now. But I'm thinking that after last night, Robin Hood will skip it."

The little Kift watched him speculatively. "He feels impervious in his disguise, and rightly so. He's unafraid of your police. Why do you think he will operate any differently than he has thus far?"

"Because he met us last night." Charlie drummed his fingers on the tabletop, thinking out loud now. "One thing I could really sense from this man the entire time we talked was his curiosity about us. He was probing at my second presence, trying to figure out what it was, trying to see who was there - he was trying to learn as much about us as we were about him. Kip pointed out to me last night that Robin Hood must have been as surprised to meet us as we were to meet him. If the man has really been alive 800 years and has never run into any magic he couldn't figure out right away, then we were something of a puzzle to him wrapped together in my second presence. And rather than be upset about it, or worried about it, I really felt he was fascinated by us!"

Pacha raised a small hand and stroked the side of his muzzle. "Go on."

Charlie nodded. "I'm thinking one thing he will want to know right away is how we found him, and if we can do it again. So he will move his operation some distance away, and see if we can locate him." He smiled. "I'd kind of like to oblige him by doing just that!"

Pacha laughed. "Your reasoning is sound, I think."

Bobby looked at Mike, then Pacha. "Can we find him the same way we did before? With the ka detector?"

"There you go," Uncle Bob said. "It worked before, right?"

"It will depend entirely on how far away he goes," Pacha said.

Kippy nodded. "Let's suppose he confines his activity to the United States. He seems to have a dislike for the way the economy runs here."

"Greedy, he said," Adrian reminded.

"Right. So let's suppose for the moment he stays here. The other burglaries I found online were all in the continental United States." Kippy turned to Pacha. "Can your gizmo cover the whole country?"

"If we place my ship at a height of 300 miles above the geographical center of the landmass, it is distinctly possible we can detect him again as far as each coast."

"Here's the big question," Kiernan put in. "How will we tell him from other witches? I mean, power users?"

Charlie sucked in his breath at the idea. "I didn't think of that!"

"There can't be that many of us!" Kippy cried. But then he turned to stare at Charlie. "Can there?"

Pacha gave a small grunt. "This is an experiment we should have performed much earlier - trying to ascertain the level of ka activity on your planet. It just never crossed my mind until now."

"There aren't a whole lot of you, or we'd know," Frit said then.

"We would," Pip agreed. "The number has to be fairly small. Thousands, if that many."

Charlie felt his eyes widen. "Thousands! And you don't think that's a lot?"

Frit shook his head. "Out of seven billion of you? No."

"A drop in the bucket," Pip added. "Skwish is not very active among humans."

"That becomes a good question then, Kiernan," Charlie decided. "Pacha, how will we be able to tell Robin Hood from anyone else?"

The Kift considered that, and then gave a little shrug. "We have the record of his usage last night. We'll let Illia compare anything we receive, and look for similarities to that."

"I thought you said every single skwish pulse-thing was unique?" Adrian asked.

"It is. Yet a single user is still likely to display similarities between usage, since all ka comes from the same center in the brain. And no two brains are identical. either."

"Like handwriting?" Bobby asked.

"Or fingerprints?" Mike added.

"A unique signature," Charlie said softly. "Wow!"

"So we just set ourselves up to watch, and wait," Horace outlined. "Easy!"

Ricky laughed at that, and beamed around the table. "Sounds like another stake out, y'all!"

"A big one" Charlie agreed. "Pacha, what if he goes to some other continent to try his luck?"

"It will be hit or miss then, Charlie. Robin Hood is quite a powerful user. But I have to admit to not knowing how far the ka detector might allow him to be picked up."

"If he stays operating in the middle of the night, that means we have to wait all day again," Adrian noted.

"Maybe he'll switch that up, too," Ricky suggested. "I mean, if he can't be seen, why even bother with a nighttime crime? Those warehouses aren't full of people. A few guys on forklifts moving stuff, maybe another few walking around. He could just wait until no one was looking, and bam! Gone!"

Kippy emitted a frustrated sound. "It's just too easy for him to do what he does. Maybe we should go to Pacha's ship now and start watching. Just in case."

Charlie nodded. "Might be a good idea, at that. I'd hate to miss him just because we had assumed he was still going to operate at night."

Ricky looked over his shoulder at the door into the hallway. "What about Amy? We can't just disappear from back here. She'll wonder."

"That's no problem. Frit teleported you, Adrian, me, and Kip into the stairwell this morning. Pip did the same for Horace, Bob, and Kiernan. So Amy only saw us come in. Pacha and his guys all teleported back here from the ship, so she doesn't know they're here. They can go back to the ship the same way, and the rest of us will leave together, tell Amy we probably won't be back today, and then teleport to the ship from the stairwell."

Uncle Bob rubbed his hands together, smiling. "This teleporting stuff is going to come in handy!"

"You have to be careful with it until you get the hang of it," Frit warned. "You start popping up in front of witnesses, and you'll be in trouble."

Uncle Bob nodded, some of the wind fading from his sails. "Yeah. I get that already. I'll be careful, believe me!"

"Simply teleport to the ship when you're ready," Pacha said, standing up on Mike's lap and raising a hand. "Ready, gentlemen?"

"Yep," Mike said, patting the Kift fondly.

Bobby raised a hand and waved, and Kontus grunted and crossed his arms over his broad chest. "Now maybe we can get some action on this matter!"

They disappeared.

Kippy grinned at Charlie. "Ol' Kontus sure is stirred up, isn't he?"

Charlie nodded. "The Trichani hold honor in very high esteem. Despite the fact that their business dealings often resemble brawls waiting to happen, they're a very honest folk." He patted his boyfriend's shoulder. "I think Kontus actually witnessing Robin Hood's thievery has sort of set him off. He wants justice done, and now!"

Ricky feigned a shiver. "I sure wouldn't want Kontus out to get me!"

"I rather think we should keep an eye on our otherworldly friend," Horace said then. "Much as Kontus wants justice done, I fear he is no match for Robin Hood's talents."

"I think he knows that," Charlie offered. "He's just itching to get at it. Kontus is certainly no fool. I trust him to use caution where caution is needed."

"Then shall we get going?" Kiernan asked, rising. He looked uncertainly at the others then. "Or am I out of place to suggest that?"

Charlie and Kippy grinned at that. Kippy circled around to the witch boy and patted his upper arm. "We believe in equal shares here, okay? Just say whatever you think, honey. We all do!"

Kiernan smiled at that. "I'm not going to say everything I think!"

"Well, don't be shy," Adrian insisted. "We're all in this together."

The nine of them left the room and headed down the hallway. Amy, seated at her desk sipping tea, heard them coming and set the cup aside and smiled. "Going out?"

"We may not be back today, either," Charlie told her. "Lock up when you leave, okay?"

"Yes, Mr. Boone."

"Call me Charlie."

For a moment the woman looked up at him, and Charlie wondered what she was thinking.

"It's really only fair," Horace said then. "We call you Amy, after all."

Her eyes moved to Horace and she smiled. "That's true."

"And you've been with us a year now," Kippy said brightly. "Happy anniversary!"

Amy sighed. "You know there is nothing on the schedule for the rest of this week?"

Charlie nodded. "Sure. It's the holiday. I expect business to be slow now."

Amy squinted briefly, and then shook her head. "It's not my place to say, but--" She seemed immediately to have second thoughts, and stopped.

"But what?" Charlie asked patiently.

Amy's eyes circled the group, and then came back to Charlie. "I'm sorry. It was inappropriate for me to say anything while you have guests."

Charlie gave a sigh, and turned to the others. "At ease a moment, guys." Then he turned back to Amy and smiled at her. "You can speak here. We're all friends."

Her eyebrows went up at that. "I work for you, Mr. Boone."

Charlie nodded. "And you are wonderful at what you do, too. We appreciate all your efforts." He sighed. "We just wish you would loosen up a little. Not be so formal, you know?"

"We haven't bitten anyone in ages," Kippy said, grinning toothily.

That elicited a smile from the woman. She gave a little sigh of her own, and nodded at them. "I like working here, too."

"Then what is it that's bothering you?" Horace asked.

"Well--" Once again Amy's eyes circled the group. "I've been here a year, like you say. I've worked several places in my adult life, and enjoyed them all. And I think I can say that this has been my favorite job of all of them, too."

Charlie nodded. "But?"

Amy looked around the office. "But...we have had eight clients in the last year, Mr. Boone. Eight. Business is not exactly booming. I've just been waiting...I've been waiting for it all to end."

Kippy's jaw dropped, and he turned to Charlie. "Aw!"

Charlie smiled. "End? Why would it end?"

Amy blinked at that. "Well...businesses have to make money, Mr. Boone. With just eight clients in the past year...I mean...this office suite alone costs...I just..."

"Ah." Charlie nodded. "You think we don't have enough business to stay open, huh?"

Amy licked her lips and nodded. "I just hate to see it all end."

Charlie shook his head. "It's not going to. End, I mean."

The woman stared up at him. "Businesses have to make a profit in order to survive. This one seems to have no money coming in at all!"

Ricky laughed, and Adrian sighed. "Oh, is that it?" Adrian said.

Amy squinted at them, unable to apply their reactions to what she had just said. "Am I missing something?"

Charlie nodded, and sat on the edge of her desk. "You are. Third Planet Inquiries is an outgrowth of several other of our enterprises. We formed this corporation so that we could have fun with it, and do the things we wanted to do with our time. Take on the projects we wanted to investigate, help the people we wanted to help, explore the subjects we wanted to explore."

Ricky laughed. "This isn't a job so much as it's a hobby!"

Amy looked amazed at that. "A hobby!" She looked at Charlie, as if she expected him to deny it.

"It is, in a way," he confirmed. "What we do here is fun for us, Amy. And this company does make some money, too."

"Yes, but not enough to pay for an operation like this one!"

"We own a shipping company, too," Kippy said. "It's extremely profitable."

Amy looked askance at them. "A shipping company! But you boys are so young...I mean, well, I didn't mean that the way it sounded..."

Charlie smiled and held up a hand. "It's all right. But listen to me, okay? This job is not going to evaporate on you. This company is doing fine. It is not highly profitable on its own, but we never meant it to be. But what we expend here is small compared to what our other enterprises bring in. This job is yours for as long as you want to have it."

Amy's eyebrows went up, and she stared at them. "You're serious."

"Sure I am."

"He is," Horace added, smiling. He raised a hand and silently crossed a finger from one side of his chest to the other. "Cross my heart and hope to die."

Amy let out a little breath of air, and smiled at that. "Oh, please don't die on me!" She blushed then, and looked slightly flustered. "I mean...I'd hate to see that happen!"

"Horace is in good health," Ricky said. He gently elbowed the older man, whose cheeks took on a slightly rose tint of their own.

Charlie pushed himself off the desk and stood up. "So relax, okay?"

Amy managed a nod. "Yes, Mr. Boone."

Charlie rolled his eyes. "Please, call me Charlie. And that's Kip, Rick, Adrian, Bob, Horace, Kiernan, Frit and Pip."

Amy was smiling at each of them in turn, but one eyebrow went up slightly at Frit and Pip.

"They're German," Kippy said, in a confidential voice. "But you didn't hear it from me."

"They're our friends," Charlie stated, casting a weary look at his boyfriend. "People may drop in on us here at any time. Our friends enjoy our projects as much as we do."

No one said anything for a moment, and then Amy nodded. "Thank you for telling me all this." She nodded. "I do feel a lot better, Mr. Boone."


Amy smiled. "Thank you...Charlie."

Ricky and Adrian both clapped, and Horace looked extremely happy. Uncle Bob and Kiernan bowed to each other and shook hands, and Frit and Pip hugged. Amy looked sightly shocked by these reactions, but her smile now was broader than Charlie had ever seen it before.

"Great!" Charlie said. "So if we're not back by the end of the business day, just lock up on your way out."

"I'll do that."

"See you tomorrow, Amy," Kippy said brightly.

Amy was making an effort not to smile too much now. "Would you like any calls forwarded to your phone, Charlie?"

"If it's family, yes. Just about anyone else, take a message and we'll get back to them."


Charlie nodded. "And relax."

"I will. Thanks."

They left then, exiting into the hallway, and walking around to the stairwell, which was empty as usual.

"She likes you, I can tell," Kip said to Horace, patting his arm.

"Stop, Kip," Charlie warned, though his words were blunted by the smile he wore.

"She does," Adrian agreed.

"Got her eye on you," Ricky added, nodding knowingly.

Horace looked around helplessly, and his eyes landed on Uncle Bob, who smiled. "I think they're right."

Frit and Pip moved up to either side and pushed up against Horace. "I love romance!" Frit said.

"Me, too!" Pip agreed.

Frit turned to Charlie. "Ready to go to Pacha's ship now?"

Charlie gave out a heartfelt sigh, and nodded enthusiastically at the two elves. "Please!"

"We are in monitoring position," Illia announced.

Pacha's ship had reached a position 300 miles above Lebanon, Kansas, which had placed the geographic limitations of the lower 48 states in line-of-sight for the ka detector. Hopefully, any further use of magic by Robin Hood would now be detected.

Not to mention others with skwish abilities!

Tiny lights winked here and there in the three-dimensional holographic image of the country floating before them, like fireflies in the backyard just after sunset. The humans watched them in silence, unable to accept what they were seeing.

"So many!" Kippy breathed, shaking his head.

"Not really," Frit countered, shaking his head at the image. "If we were looking at the elf world, the whole thing would be glowing."

"It's enough," Charlie said quietly, watching the tiny lights come and go. "Enough to be inspiring."

"And a little alarming," Kiernan added. "I had no idea there were so many witch places in the country!"

There was something to what he said. While many of the skwish lights came and went entirely on their own, many seemed to be concentrated in certain spots, suggesting a community of like souls, all using magic, all more than likely aware of each other. All of a kind.

"It's unbelievable," Uncle Bob said softly, staring raptly at the huge map. "To think such a secret is being maintained in our country...and probably all over the world."

"It's necessary," Kiernan stated, shaking his head. "Witches have always been misunderstood. Normal humans would not tolerate such a second society in their midst, if they knew."

Sadly, Charlie agreed with that. The country had never been very tolerant, and was even now displaying a resurgence of animosity towards groups and people that were different. "Sucks, doesn't it?"

"These are usages of low power," Pacha explained, indicating the map. "None are at the power levels you yourselves have demonstrated, let alone on a par with Robin Hood."

"How do you tell?" Uncle Bob asked. "By the brightness? They all look the same."

"No. The indicators you see are simply markers of ka usage. Illia calculates the power based on other factors."

Kippy frowned. "What other factors?"

Pacha gave out a tiny sigh. "If it were easy to explain, you would already understand."

Charlie smiled. "So you don't know, either, huh?"

Tchk-tchk-tchk. "You have found me out, Charlie. Even I only marginally understand the math that goes into power prediction. Even among my own people the ka detector is considered an exotic device."

"Oh. But it works? It is dependable?"

"Yes. You saw how it led us to Robin Hood the first time."

That was true. Whatever the device did - and how it did what it did - it had pinpointed Robin Hood previously. At close range. Like, almost from directly overhead.

But from this distance? Charlie sighed. Either the tech would work, or it wouldn't.

It was still early in the day, only just arriving at the lunch hour. They got something to eat, and then arranged themselves comfortably on the circular sofa, the sections drawn together again so that they could form the necessary skwish circuit to allow them all to participate in Charlie's second presence.

"Waiting sucks!" Ricky decided, as early afternoon arrived without anything happening.

"Your kind are not noted for their patience," Pacha said, not unkindly. He winked at Rick and then waved a small hand at Mike. "This one has taught me much!"

Mike had apparently learned a little about things, himself. He grinned, "I'm not nearly as impulsive as I was when you met me. Having an Arpathant stand on my back sort of cured me of not waiting for the right moment!"

They all laughed at that, and then had to relate the story to Kiernan of how Pacha and Mike had met Charlie and his friends the first time. The witch boy listened to the tale raptly, and then gave a little whistle at the end. "Wow! You sent them to an alternate universe where they'd be all by themselves?"

"It was considered a humane solution," Pacha agreed. "Their personalities did not lend to a more noble resolution." The little Kift made regretful sounds then. "But I have often wondered if it was the correct choice to make."

Kippy reached across Rick to tap Charlie then. "I just thought of something!"


Kippy hitched himself around, looking excited. "Well, Keerby has a friendly hernacki helping him now, and they know how to get to every alternate universe there is!"

Charlie blinked at that. "Are you suggesting that we check up on the Arpathant sometime, to see if they're okay?"

Kippy shrugged, and smiled at Pacha. "It might serve to relieve any doubts about what was done to them. We might find them happily taking over every planet in sight, and chortling merrily at their good fortune!"

"Chortling?" Rick repeated, grinning.

"Sure." Kippy nodded, and produced a happy cross between a snort and a chuckle that caused even Kontus to laugh. "Like that!"

"Another word coined by our friend, Lewis Carrol, I believe," Charlie said. "And a very good one, too!"

Ricky laughed. "Britannica Brain!"

Charlie rolled his eyes. "Don't make me come over there!"

"Hah! I'm right next to you!"

"I am detecting something of note," Illia said then, causing everyone to jump, and then crash into a startled silence.

Except for Pacha, that is, who was normally about as unflappable as a living organism could get. He turned to look up at the projected map. "Highlight, please."

The map of the US rolled left, and then north, and actually zoomed in across the border into Canada. Alberta, to be exact. It paused above Calgary, and then a tiny light winked on slightly north and west of the city.

"This marker of ka usage holds a 95% probability of being a sign of activity by the suspect Robin Hood. The origin was here, about thirty miles southwest of Red Deer."

"A teleport?" Pacha wondered aloud, just a trace of excitement now noticeable in his voice.

"That's the way I'm interpreting it. The echo has two parts, signifying movement of the origin source."

"And the endpoint? The destination?"

Again the map rolled, going almost directly south back into the US, and zoomed in on the city of Phoenix, Arizona. A new light came on there, and blinked slowly.


"Take us there, immediately," Pacha instructed. He closed his eyes. "Assist me, Illia."

They felt no movement of the ship, but Charlie knew it was now hurtling westward at incredible speed, its scat field absorbing and dispersing the impact energy of the almost non-existent atmosphere at that height. No trace of their swift passage could be seen or detected from the ground. In mere moments, it seemed, Pacha opened his eyes and nodded at them. "We're there. Illia has implanted an exact locator in my mind, based on where the teleport ended below us. I can now guide your second presence to the correct destination."

Charlie nodded, grasped Rick's hand to one side, and Pacha's to the other, and closed his eyes. He knew that Mike would be placing a hand on Pacha, and taking Bobby's hand beside him, while Rick would be clasping hands with Kippy, who would take Adrian's hand, and so on, to complete the circuit in that direction. Charlie turned inward, and found the tiny, fluttery thing that was the origin of his second presence, and took hold of it with his mind.

"Right here," Ricky said calmly, from beside him.

"I, too," Pacha informed, from the other side.

Again there was an internal shift within Charlie's mind, and then a gray room formed around him, and then they were all once again standing together before a short stairway. Charlie took a step towards it, felt the sluggishness of the action as the others all flowed into him...and then he was moving freely once more. There were five steps this time, but he descended them quickly, and once again found himself standing inside a large warehouse. Less than four minutes had passed from the detection of Robin Hood's teleport to their own arrival in the same location.

"I don't see anything," Kippy whispered, and this time Charlie didn't find his boyfriend's caution unusual. No one could hear them wrapped in his non-material second presence, but then, no one was supposed to be able to see them - or even to detect their presence - and Robin Hood had been able to do just that.

"Let's walk around," Rick said, also in the softest of voices.

Charlie took a step, listened a moment, and then took another. He could hear several odd whining sounds within the warehouse, which he took to be forklifts moving about on their business. None were right near them at that moment.

They reached the end of the aisle, and Charlie peeked around the corner.

Coming towards them was the very same dark figure of Robin Hood, looking trim and fit in his anti-energy 'body suit'. He was examining the racks to either side, and calmly waving a hand as he moved. Each movement caused the contents of entire rack sections to disappear, only the slightest of slurping sounds reaching their ears as air rushed into the vacuums left behind. Sounds lost immediately against the whines of the distant forklifts.

Charlie pulled back. "Just watch for a moment, or confront him now?" he asked Pacha.

"I would confront him now. He may end his business here and vanish, otherwise."

Charlie gathered his nerve and stepped around the corner.

The dark figure of Robin Hood froze in midstep; and then the man leapt forward, and in an astonishingly powerful three steps arrived before them, and stood watching them, his hands upon his hips.

"Well, well! Hello, Charlie! So nice to almost see you again!"

Despite his inner turmoil, Charlie had to smile at the man's words. Robin Hood had a way about him that was quite disarming, and Charlie could see how the man might charm his adversaries into making a fateful wrong move. He firmed his resolve then, to not let that happen to them. This fellow was far too unpredictable for Charlie to relax his guard even a single skwish inch!

"I see you're still being a charity," Charlie managed. "Still helping out those less fortunate?"

"Indeed I am." Again came the pleasant chuckle. "And now you've come along to help, right?"

"Actually, we came to study you some more," Charlie said boldly. "To see what makes you tick."

"Ah. And I sense you have brought all your companions with you, too. So many minds, in so small a space! I am still intrigued, young Charlie."

"We don't mean you any harm," Kippy said then. "We'd just rather you didn't take what doesn't belong to you."

"I see. And you know, I actually believe you? Yet such grace has no effect upon the ills of the world, I'm afraid. Sadly, I must act against the wrongs I see, and so I will continue to do what I do best."

"Theft is a crime," Kontus stated flatly. "Stealing, even to donate the theft to others, is against the rules we have in place to protect society."

Robin Hood was silent a moment, and then leaned slightly towards them. "A society that preys upon its own members deserves no such protection."

"We have laws," Adrian argued. "Most people follow them."

Robin Hood laughed at that. "That's what they would have you believe, my young friend. But there is more illusion there than reality! There has always been a segment of the human race that not only aspires to be in the top position above all others, but even believes it has some right to be there. This has been true since the dawn of time, since the emergence of the race. The selfish and greedy always rise to the top. They amass great wealth and power, so much that they can even bend reality to suit their needs. The present state of the world is as clear a statement of that goal as has ever existed in my lifetime."

"You've been around a while?" Charlie asked then. "Like about 800 years?"

Robin drew back at that statement, and the dark and featureless face gave every indication of astonishment.

"I'll take that as a yes." Charlie finished.

Robin Hood chuckled, and Charlie was coming to find he liked the sound of it. There was a charm there that almost covered the world-weary shadows hiding beneath. Yet it was an honest laugh, no matter the subtexts it conveyed.

"You do impress, young Charlie!"

Adrian couldn't contain himself, sensing that his own theory about the dark man's origins might be true. "You're the real Robin Hood, aren't you?"

The dark head canted to one side, and then the dark body bowed briefly at the waist. "At your service."

"I saw your movie!" Bobby blurted. "Well, the one with Errol Flynn!"

"They didn't get it quite right, though I was enchanted with the tale," Robin confessed. "The story was more fiction than fact." He chuckled once again. "But then, legends always are."

"You are a legend," Bobby confirmed. "You can be so much better than this!"

For a moment the dark man continued to watch them in silence. And then he stepped closer. "Yes, I was intrigued by you at yesterday's meeting, my new friends." The man moved even closer, and held out a hand towards them. "So intrigued, in fact, that I spent much of the night mulling you over...and came up with this!"

Robin Hood's fingers flexed, and Charlie was stunned to feel the fluttery sense that was his second presence pull away from him! He grasped at it, held onto it tightly, wrestled with it as it attempted to leave and go to the dark man!

Suddenly, Robin Hood's arms snapped down to his sides with an audible clap, and he sank to his knees, and fell onto his back and lay still.

"I have pinned him under ten times the force of local gravity," Pacha said then.

Charlie took the brief respite to examine the sense of his second presence, trying to understand what the dark man had done to draw it away from him. Had he succeeded in snatching it away, would they have been trapped forever in the region of his mind in this location, far from home?

In a moment he saw what had happened. Despite the fact that his second presence was a part of Charlie's new nature as a skwish user, it was by its very function something that was not chained to any one spot. Charlie could direct it, go along with it, but it seemed a somewhat mercurial extension of himself sometimes, not always doing exactly as he wished. He had refined his control over it in the past year and more, but still it sometimes surprised him.

With a start he suddenly understood why: the tiny, fluttery presence seemed aware that it was part of him, but...but not that it belonged to him!

You are me, he told it then. I am you. No other may take you away. Not ever!

There was an almost imperceptible flash of awareness then, followed by a sort of strange feeling that Charlie interpreted as agreement. He loosened his mental grip on the tiny whirling ball, and it moved closer to him, seemed to merge with him and be part of him like never before. He could still feel it, still direct it, still follow it...but it was now not just in his mind, but a part of it.

"Amazing," Frit said then. "I could feel some of that, Charlie! To think that skwish in any of its many forms could be aware...!"

"Now is not the time," Pacha said then. "Observe our friend."

Something was happening to the dark man on the floor. His image wavered, faded, became more distinct again. And then it seemed to firm even more, becoming almost impossibly sharp in outline...and then the man slowly climbed to his feet.

"He's free!" Charlie said within.

"No, he is not!" Pacha countered. "I have increased the gravitational load to twenty gravities, and still he rises. He has learned to deflect it somehow!"

They heard a sigh then, followed by the companionable chuckle, somewhat weaker this time. "Well, live and learn. I won't try that again, young Charlie!"

"It wouldn't work a second time, anyway," Charlie said. "I figured out what you tried, and it can't happen again."

The dark figure nodded. "I see. Just full of surprises, aren't you?"

Charlie couldn't help it. "I wanted you to know the gravity of the situation."

Robin Hood threw his head back and barked out a laugh. "Well said! You are quite a young rogue, aren't you!"

Charlie sighed. "Must you continue to steal these things?"

"It's my nature, I'm afraid. Those that have much and refuse to share it with those that have nothing receive either my wrath, or a visit when their heads are turned. I am not quite the firebrand I was in my youth, young Charlie. I much prefer to pilfer from the castles of the rich than to level them to the ground, these days."

"Why must you do either?" Kippy asked.

Robin turned, and waved his hands at more racks of loaded pallets. A dozen loads vanished at once, and Robin spun about and did the same to much of the other side of the aisle.

He then turned back to them, and Charlie could sense the man's smile. "Because I can!"

There was a soft popping sound, and this time the lit Christmas tree appeared at the same time as the Santa figure. As with the last crime, Santa wore a sign proclaiming to all and sundry a Merry Christmas in large red letters, while a tiny line of black printing beneath reminded that Your donation is much appreciated.

Robin turned to them and offered another polite bow. "Until we meet again?"

The dark man vanished.

"Illia will pinpoint his move," Pacha said then. "He likely returned to the same point of origin."

"Back to the ship?" Mike asked, holding the little Kift to his chest.

"Yes. Charlie? Any reason to stay?"

"None that I know of. Let's head back."

Charlie felt the tension in the air rise as Pacha initiated the teleport...

Just as they vanished, Charlie's eyes landed again on the figure of Santa that Robin Hood had left behind...just as the mannequin turned to stare at them!

They materialized aboard Pacha's ship, the image of the mannequin's gaze still burned into Charlie's mind.

In the next second, a shudder ran through the vessel's floor, and the dark figure of Robin Hood appeared in the control center with them! Virtually in the same instant, the muzzles of a dozen business-like devices extruded from the walls around them, and fired silvery beams at the dark man...which died as lightning against an invisible sphere surrounding him.

"Not just yet, I think!" Robin called, waving a hand.

A wave of darkness hit Charlie then, and he turned and managed to grasp Kippy's hand as they sank to the deck with the others, unconscious.

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