Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

There's A Strange Partridge in My Pear Tree, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 3

Each softly-glowing lamp along the staircase lit just enough of the way forward to merge with the pool of illumination from the next lamp ahead. The faraway glow at the bottom of the stairs just seemed a white haze in the distance, lost now in the lights along the stairs. They descended the stairs carefully, though Max gave every indication of being unworried about their destination.

Charlie placed a hand over the dragon medallion on his chest, seeking any sense Castor might be able to offer on where this was going. But all he felt was a cheerful sense of warmth, and a total lack of concern about the route they were taking. Charlie smiled at that, and felt his shoulders relax.

"This is awesome," Rick breathed from behind him.

It really was. There was literally a magical experience to the route they were taking, a sense that the trip was anything but a mere walk between floors. It had the feel of a journey, and an important one.

"Something odd about this," Charlie said, really to himself, but aloud.

"I feel it, too," Kippy said softly. "Where is this going? Somewhere away."

Charlie reached forward to give Max a gentle poke, but the elf only smiled over his shoulder.

He knows, Charlie decided. But that Max wasn't telling was important!

Charlie counted the steps on the way down. Interestingly, there were exactly 365 of them. As they neared the bottom of the staircase, Charlie noted a small drop in the temperature, enough to cause him to wonder if they were going to emerge outdoors somewhere. But as they reached the last step, a doorway presented itself, beyond which they could see a larger open area, and the reflective glint of what could be light off a glass window. Max stopped there a moment, and then turned to smile at them. "Charlie? You and Kip, Rick, Adrian, and Browbeat should go first here."

Charlie knew better than to stand there and ply the elf with questions. Max was a part of this, somehow, and would have told them what was going on if he had been able to do so. That he was not free to do that suggested other things.

"Come on, Kip." Charlie tightened his grip on his boyfriend's hand and stepped forward through the doorway into light.

Into moonlight, to be exact. The front and side walls of the room were made of glass panels.The glow of the moonlight lit the room all around them, almost unnaturally bright. Beyond the clear wall-panels, a ragged dark edge on the horizon suggested mountains, and the night sky blazed above it, cloudless and filled with stars. Charlie walked forward to gaze out of the front window, and gasped at their height above the ground. The room was apparently perched upon a mountain flank, with a wide valley spread out below. Directly overhead, accompanying the light of the three-quarters full moon, were shimmering bands of emerald and rose, that waxed and waned as they played within the Earth's magnetic field.

But no part of the Earth we know, Charlie now was certain.

He let his gaze drop to the moonlit valley below. Standing there, surrounded by small spruce trees, was an amazing structure that he recognized instantly.

A pile of snowballs...

That was the first impression one would get. Just as the homes of elves they had visited before had seemed to have been made from one giant snowball, the structure below them was similarly constructed. Only on a gargantuan scale.

The base was made up of a circle of immense 'snowballs', and by the windows that glowed from the curved sides, each snowball was six stories tall. Charlie could see three of the huge snowballs from where he stood, and he knew that there were six in all in the circle of the base. Atop that circle, another circle of slightly smaller snowballs sat, this with four tiers of glowing windows. Atop that, a slightly smaller circle, each with three floors of windows, and then a smaller circle, each with two windows. At the very top of the pyramidal structure sat one great snowball, this one with tall, narrow windows that suggested there was but one floor inside, but one with a very high ceiling, perhaps. And, finally, atop this uppermost snowball, a slender white pylon arose, one that glowed at its uppermost end with a single, blue-white light so bright it could have been a small sun standing out in the night sky.

All about the building, the forms of spruce trees jutted up from the land, seeming quite happy there, even in the extreme climate. Each tree was laced with lights of all colors, some that twinkled, some that didn't. Each tree bore a radiant star at the top, each one a slightly different color than the next one, with no two exactly alike. Small forms moved about among the trees, some looking up at them now, and Charlie realized he was seeing reindeer - hundreds, perhaps - all contentedly grazing upon the low brush that seemed to sprout everywhere from a ground magically free of snow. Charlie laughed at that idea, knowing that magic was really involved, after all.

The building was easily several hundred feet tall, and the immense base certainly covered many acres of land. And for all that, the place looked as if it belonged right where it was, in the middle of a vast and frozen land nestled between mountains, one dotted with patches of forest, small mounds and hillocks of wind-blown snow, the occasional outcropping of frost-covered rock, and not much else to recommend it.

"Wow!" Browbeat breathed softly, from atop Charlie's shoulder. "What place is this?"

Kippy let out a sound of wonder then. "It's the shop! It's where Nicholaas and Ronja live!"

Charlie turned to Max then. The elf was all smiles. "Merry Christmas!"

"You knew about this!" Charlie accused then.

Max held up a hand. "No, not until now. The boss did this, not me!"

"What an amazing structure," Ragal said, peering at the building below. "It really looks like it's made of snow!"

"But it just looks like it," the elf returned. "It's a form of stone, actually. Strong stuff."

Charlie became aware then of a dark strand that seemed to originate outside the glass room, above their heads somewhere, and which dropped in a graceful, shallow curve to a smaller example of the snowball architecture, which was set out among the trees next to the shop. This was new since their last visit. Charlie moved forward to the pane of glass and looked above them, determined that the strand was attached to their left, and turned to look that way. At the left side of their room was a glass door set into the clear wall, and beyond that, the unmistakable form of a cable car.

Kippy turned to look at the same time, and gasped. "Is that a way down?"

Max nodded. "I think the boss has provided you guys with a way to visit anytime you want."

Rick shook his head. "But...Lugh would have had to help with all this!"

The elf chuckled. "I guess they got on better than even I thought! The Big Guy has a way with skwish entities, you know!"

"Mah-jeek," Auggie agreed. "Good mah-jeek. Strong."

"This is permanent?" Charlie asked, amazed.

Max looked around the glass room, and then out at the cable car. "I'd say so." He held up a hand then. "Well, at least for as long as you guys have the house."

Charlie gave a little laugh then. "This is incredible!"

Kippy squeezed his arm. "Should we go down?"

"Let's go!" Browbeat urged. "This place is awesome!"

Max gave a little shrug. "I would say you're expected now." He turned to wave a hand at the cable car. "How about it?"

Charlie nodded, and smiled at Kip. "Ready?"

"Oh, Charlie, of course! Let's go!"

Kip led the way to the door in the side wall, which slid back as they approached to reveal the side entrance to a cable car, also made of glass, which also slid open. There was room enough for everyone, and the door closed softly behind Auggie as the last to board. The car gave a tiny shudder then, and moved smoothly forward from its niche and began the journey down the mountain. Charlie turned to look back, and saw that the room they had left was actually at the top of a small peak. Of the staircase they had descended to reach it there was no evidence, but Charlie didn't expect that there would be. The way that had traveled had been made of magic, not true stairs.

"The reindeer know we're coming," Kippy said, pointing. "See them looking up at us?"

"I'd say everyone knows you're here," Max said, smiling. "Probably got bells ringing inside, and everything."

Kippy let out a doubtful sigh at that. "Oh, be serious. Bells? We're not worth all that commotion!"

Max winked. "Well...maybe one or two. I'd say that everyone that's supposed to know you're here, does."

The car dropped slowly, giving them a good chance to look around. The moonlit landscape looked cold, but at the same time, welcoming. There was a cheer here that a similar location on the world they knew would be lacking. Christmas lived here, in the form of Nicholaas, the elves, the reindeer, and the positive feelings that just emanated from the place like a warm breeze.

Kippy sighed, and snuggled up against Charlie. "I love this place. It feels so much like home."

"I take all this as an invitation to come visit anytime," Charlie said. "We've always been dependent on Max or Nicholaas to get here until now."

"I don't mean to be listening," Max said. "But you guys have always been welcome at the shop. I think the boss just figured he'd make it easier for you to get here."

"This is almost like some of the realities I've visited in the lower layer," Browbeat said reverently. "It feels like a very special place!"

"Ih-mah-jin-ashun," Auggie said, his fiery mane waving as if in a breeze. "Important!"

"He's got that right," Rick put in. "Imagination is the go-juice that makes skwish the force that it is. Without a creative spark, skwish is just another tool in the tool chest." He pointed at the building and its grounds below. "It takes art to make it great like this."

Adrian sighed, and it was his turn to snuggle up against his boyfriend. "That was very nicely said, Rick."

Rick looked briefly embarrassed. "Well, Charlie and Kip can't have all the good lines!"

Everyone laughed.

"I must admit, Nicholaas is something of a genius with skwish," Ragal acknowledged. "Even in my day, some of the things he and his people do would be considered extraordinary."

"We'll take that as a great compliment," Max said, grinning. "I know that in your time there were some pretty great power users around."

"A few." The tall alien laughed. "It was much more common a thing than seems to be the rule in the galaxy today."

Casper shook his head at that. "A lot of people don't have any powers at all!"

Charlie turned to look at his little friend, wondering if Casper was thinking about his own people, and the rabid manner in which they had pursued and exterminated those of their kind with blossoming powers. "Some people don't deserve to have them, Casper," he said. He smiled. "And some people do."

Casper grinned at that, understanding that Charlie was referring to him.

The cable car was reaching the ground now. Charlie could see a niche in the side of the big snowball that was the terminus of the cable, obviously there for the car to slide into. That meant they would get off inside the building, rather than out in the cold.

"Nicholaas thinks of everything," Kippy said, sounding satisfied at the way things would work out. "I wonder if there are coats for us in the building?"

"There probably are," Max returned. "But there's probably a way to get inside the shop right from there."

"I didn't see a connection between the two buildings as we were descending," Charlie offered.

The elf grinned. "Don't have to be one you can see!"

"Mah-jeek!" Auggie said again, sounding satisfied at the idea.

The car reached the ground and slid forward into its niche in the snowball building. A brightly-lit interior welcomed them through the glass. They could see an area that reminded of a locker room, with a row of shelving above tall cabinet doors, and seats before them, save that everything was white with dark wood trim, and a lit Christmas tree stood in the center of it all. Charlie peered at the doors of the cabinets, and was certain he could make out his own name on one of them.

"That'd be your outdoor gear," Max said, watching him. "Parka, boots, face mask, fir pants, even." He laughed. "Should you fellas decide to go outside and see the reindeer, or go skiing, or sledding, or something."

"How do you know that, if you didn't know about this beforehand?" Adrian asked, wonderingly.

Max shrugged. "I know how The Big Guy thinks. He'd want you outfitted, first thing, just in case you wanted to go outside. No traipsing around cold tunnels lookin' for coats for you guys."

"Look over there!" Browbeat said, lifting from Charlie's shoulder and turning to the other side of the cable car. They turned as a group, to spy what looked like a tall mirror set within an arch, save for the fact that, instead of mirroring the inside of the snowball building they were in, they could see what looked like an assembly line beyond, with all sorts of belts moving this way and that, up and down, sideways, through the floor and through the ceiling, and carrying all manner of goods. Elves with pads in hand roamed the spaces between the lines, watching the movements of everything and tapping the touchscreens of their pads every now and then.

Kippy made an excited sound. "The shop!"

"One of 'em, anyway," Max agreed. "You go through that arch and turn left, and my office is right there. I recognize Lennie over there, in the red coat. He's my floor manager."

"Is that some kind of magic doorway?" Adrian asked. "Charlie's right - I didn't see any sort of hallway or anything connecting this building to the shop."

Max nodded. "It's something new the boss has come up with. It's like teleporting, but where you can see where you're going before you go. And it only works from the place where this arch is, and only goes to the arch in the place you can see."

"It's skwish?" Kippy asked.

Max smiled. "Isn't everything?"

That brought a round of smiles.

"Is that how we came here?" Rick asked, obviously fascinated by the doorway. "That stairway from the house? That's the same sort of skwish as this arch thing?"

"No." Max scratched his head. "I don't quite get these arch things yet, and this is the only one the boss has made so far. The stairs from your kitchen hallway work the same way as the door I made in your bedroom wall that time, Charlie, when you guys came through to visit here the first time. Except the boss has made those stairs more stable, so that they will stay in place even if he takes his attention away. "

Rick's eyes grew wide at that. "One would hope!"

"What a wonderful Christmas gift!" Kippy said. "Charlie, we can visit here now whenever we want!"

Max waved a hand. "Aw, you'll get used to it, and then we'll just be old hat to you guys."

Kippy grinned a moment at Charlie, and then stepped over to hug Max. "You'll never be old hat to us!"

"Aw, geez!" But Max looked delighted at the attention, and then sighed happily. "Merry Christmas, fellas."

Everyone joined in. "Merry Christmas, Max!"

"It's so wonderful to see you all again," Ronja said, looking around at the circle of faces. They were in one of the great rooms, where logs blazed behind a wire screen within a huge, walk-in hearth, and a twelve-foot-tall spruce stood to one side, tastefully adorned in ornaments, and wearing tiny candles that glowed different colors, and created no heat and no chance of fire. On the wall to one side of the hearth was a large window, which looked out onto the main street of Twombly, bustling with locals moving about on their business, stopping to talk to others, or smiling and waving in passing. The buildings were decorated in wish lights, and strands of them crisscrossed the busy main street, and the cheer there was palpable even from where Charlie stood. Which was no small accomplishment, for the window looked out into a small town in Vermont, a world away from where they were now.

Charlie sighed happily at the scene, before letting his gaze return to their host. "It was a wonderful surprise to find ourselves here," he agreed. "I doubt we'll have a nicer gift this Christmas than the new ability to come here whenever we want."

"It's amazing!" Browbeat pitched in. "You guys make this magic stuff look easy!"

Ronja smiled at them. "Nicholaas did the hard part in creating the way here, but I am taking credit for the idea. I have been telling him for some time now that I wished there was an easy way for you boys to visit."

Max laughed. "Sometimes, you have to keep after the boss, just a little."

The woman smiled at that, and held up her hand, with her thumb and forefinger spaced about an inch a apart. "Just a little. He's a busy man."

Charlie looked around the great room with a sense of satisfaction. "Just as welcoming as I remembered it."

"With some nice new feminine touches," Kippy added, smiling at Ronja. "It's hard to believe that a wonderful place like this could be made better, but you've managed to do that."

"Thank you." Ronja looked pleased. "Being the wife of Santa is not always easy!"

"Is Nicholaas going to join us?" Ragal asked. "I know he's busy just now with getting ready for the day."

"I hope he will. He knows you're here, of course."

"Is Robin here, too?" Kippy asked.

"He is. The delivery equation is completed, but they've been working on something else just now."

A look of intense curiosity crossed Kippy's features, and Charlie suppressed a smile as he watched his boyfriend conquer the urge to ask.

Ronja saw it anyway, and smiled. "They've been looking into some pilfering on the lines."

Max's jaw tightened at the remark. "I don't think any of the boys are stealing stuff."

"Oh, we know that." Ronja nodded. "Relax, Max. This isn't about the elves."

"And it's not the sort of stuff you'd expect a thief to really want to steal," Max went on, a little stubbornly. "Clothing. Blankets. Cookware. Tools. Even food items." He managed to smile then. "Sounds like a bunch of wayward Girl Scouts, to me!"

Ronja reached out to lay a hand on Max's shoulder. "Nicholaas knows it's not anyone here. Max. So, put your mind at rest right now."

The elf nodded, but still looked unhappy. "I can't help but to be worried about it."

"Someone is stealing things off the lines?" Charlie asked, amazed. The very idea that someone could put something over on Nicholaas was hard to believe.

Ronja winced. "Well...perhaps pilfering is the wrong word. Nicholaas and Robin are looking into items disappearing off the lines."

"A lot of stuff?" Rick asked.

"I can't imagine that!" Casper said. "Nicholaas is so good with skwish!"

Ronja held up a hand. "They don't know what is happening. But every year, for the past two years, something like a tenth of one percent of all the items go missing."

Adrian smiled. "That sounds like a very little bit to me."

Max groaned at that. "That's because you got no idea how much stuff we make here every year!" He frowned, and closed one eye as he did the math. "That's like...over four million things gettin' lost!"

Charlie was astonished to hear that. Four million! "That's not pilfering! That's wholesale thievery!"

There were a pair of popping sounds in the room then, and Nicholaas and Robin appeared. Robin smiled at them, and came over to stand beside Charlie. "Someone mention my name?"

Charlie laughed and gave the man a hug, and then stepped back to give everyone else a turn. Nicholaas came over next, and the process was repeated. "Now, what's this about thievery?"

"I was just telling the guys about items missing from the line each year," Ronja told him. "I'm afraid it's my human perspective that leads me to believe they're being stolen."

"They are," Robin said, nodding. "And by some very sophisticated thieves, too!"

"Really?" Charlie asked. "I can't believe someone would steal" -- he smiled at NIcholaas then --"from Santa!"

"I don't think it's a someone, like you think," Nicholaas replied, his eyes smiling.

"Spookies," Auggie rumbled, following up with a laugh.

"Exactly." Nicholaas smiled. "I do believe we are dealing with a skwish entity, or entities, of some sort. Someone with a bent for skwish at a level very much above the norm."

All eyes turned to Auggie, whose own eyes widened. "Not I!"

Kippy leaned forward to pat the bearcat's head as everyone smiled. "No one was thinking it was you, sweetheart. We were just remembering how you came to be among us."

Auggie grunted happily. "Mah-jeek!"

"Very much so," Kippy agreed. "Of the best kind!"

"You really think it could be another instance like Auggie?" Charlie asked. "Where a piece of the Allmagic broke off, and became alive?"

"It doesn't even have to be that complex," Nicholaas said, waving a hand. "We may not even be talking about an entity that is consciously taking things. It could be as simple as periodic interruptions in the magic of the transport lines, to where items simply become lost. If you will recall, our Auggie here had the ability to disrupt the lines, just by visiting us."

"Sorry," the bearcat said, looking contrite. "Was all new to me!"

"He didn't mean it!" Browbeat added, looking anxious. He lifted off Charlie's shoulder and landed on the bearcat's back. "I'm with you, buddy!"

Ronja ran a hand across the bearcat's shoulders, and smiled at Browbeat. "No one is casting blame. These are all magical processes that are carefully balanced. It takes less to interrupt them than you think."

"I still think it's deliberate theft," Robin stated, nodding. "Too many of the very same items have gone missing. If this were an unconscious or accidental event, the items missing would follow a more random pattern."

Nicholaas sighed. "Yet I hate to think someone is deliberately stealing from here. This place is designed to provide things for others. We give. No one needs to steal from us."

Robin gave the man a sympathetic look. "You never considered the possibility of thievery, so you never really protected against it."

"That's true," Nicholaas admitted. "This place exists in a uniform skwish environment. There are safeguards in place to keep it safe from natural forces that might interfere with the processes we use here, but I have to admit that I never planned for deliberate, or even accidental interference caused by outsiders. I may have to revamp the security here, when I have the time."

"I can help you with that," Robin offered. "I have some ideas, already."

"So this is probably intentional?" Adrian asked, looking stunned. "These things just disappear, and you don't know where they go?"

"Not yet," Nicholaas acknowledged. "I don't know where they are going yet. But my sense is that the missing items wind up in the same place. I can see a natural skwish entity interfering with the transport lines unintentionally, but I cannot then account for the fact that the missing items seem to be selected, and my feeling that they are all being taken to the same place. Wherever that may be."

"Is it really possible for that many things to just vanish off the lines?" Rick asked.

"Oh, easily," Max said. "You have to remember that we move billions of items each year. A loss of a tenth of one percent is actually pretty small."

"In the grand scheme of things, I would agree," Nicholaas said. "But we are not in the grand scheme of things here, we are in my scheme of things, and I find the problem annoying. It has been going on for two years now, and this is really the first year I have had to pursue the problem." He smiled at Robin, and that man grinned.

"I actually am intrigued by things going missing," the former bandit said. "It smacks of my way of doing things, if you know what I mean."

Kippy sniffed. "You mean the light-fingered method?"

Robin laughed. "I mean, that if you are going to steal from the kennel, go for the biggest dog you can find!"

Nicholaas held up his hands. "I still hate to think someone is just stealing from us, as in plain old robbery. I'd like to think there is a reason for it, other than just a motive for profit." He almost smiled then. "I'm thinking of it as a diversion of assets, for now."

Kippy sighed. "Because you're a sweetheart, and you see the best in everyone."

"You seem very relaxed about this," Charlie commented, smiling at Nicholaas. "I would be fairly annoyed if someone was taking four million items from me!"

Nicholaas briefly scratched at the back of his neck, and gave them a look that could best be described as astonished. "Well...the other thing that's bothering me is that this whole thing has a strangely familiar feel to it. I just can't figure out why it seems that way."

No one said anything for a moment, each trying to get a handle on that idea. Familiar?

"You mean, you feel like you know who or what is doing this?" Kippy asked.

"No. No. Just that, whatever is happening. I have a sense of deja vu about it that will not go away."

"This has been going on for two years?" Charlie asked. "Why the delay in addressing this problem?"

"I didn't have Robin helping me with the delivery equation until recently," Nicholaas explained. "And, this year seems to have set a new record for the number of missing items."

"I saw how much the tally was going off," Max agreed. He nodded at Charlie. "All that stuff has to be replaced, so a reorder comes in when something doesn't make it to the end of the line."

"There is no such thing as a perfect process," Nicholaas said, "not even with skwish. There are always elements involved in every operation which I have come to call frictional losses. It's an engineering term, mostly, but one that can refer to the subtle loss of results obtained due to the need to overcome the inertia and friction of the moving parts of the system as a whole."

Charlie nodded. "It's why there can never be a perpetual motion device."

"Exactly. Skwish operates within the laws that govern the universe." Nicholaas gave a little smile then. "Mostly. But when it comes to processes like we use here, some loss is built in. It's only when those losses exceed that which can be predicted mathematically, that we know something else is going on."

"Pilfering," Ronja said, winking at them.

"What a fascinating problem," Ragal said. "You'll have to track each process by, until you find the one awry, and then set out to find out why."

Casper giggled at that, and Charlie smiled. "Writing rhyming verse now, are we?"

Ragal smiled. "I'm in a whimsical mood, for some reason. Looking for the sorts of frictional losses Nichlaas refers to will require boosting the total amount of energy involved in the entire process to look for the faults, which will further tend to decrease the overall results."

"Exactly," Nicholaas agreed. "Until now the losses did not reach the level where a profit could be obtained by exercising the further energy needed to seek out the causes. But this year we have approached the break-even point on this problem, and an honest projection of where it might go next if not dealt with suggests we will be entering an era where an actual loss of production efficiency will occur."

"And we can't be falling behind," Max said. "Everything is set up now to be finished in time to make deliveries for Christmas."

"And, something interesting is happening," Nicholaas added, his air of surprise clear now. "I have tried attaching a tiny mote of skwish to each and every item so as to track it through the system, and have found that when an item gets lost, that bit of skwish gets lost, too. That shouldn't happen."

Kippy frowned at that. "I wouldn't think so. Skwish is usually the motivator, not the motivated."

Nicholaas smiled at that. "A nice way of putting it, and wholly correct. I expect skwish to be on top of a process, not a victim to it. That's what leads me to believe we are dealing with a skwish entity, able to absorb my little tracking tags. It's the only way I can account for them going missing."

Charlie turned to Auggie. "Could you do that? Absorb a tiny mote of skwish placed on something to follow it?"

The bearcat didn't even seem to think about it. "Yes."

Charlie nodded. "Could you think of a way to protect such a mote from being absorbed?"

The bearcat did look to examine that question thoroughly before answering. "Yes."

Nicholaas gave an astonished laugh. "I should have thought to come to the source of such knowledge first!"

Auggie sat back and looked into the air before his nose, where a tiny pinpoint of light immediately formed. Despite its tiny size, it seemed to spin and dance with furious activity, indicating a great amount of energy packed into a very small space. The bearcat turned, and the mote moved to land upon a cushion in one of the unoccupied chairs.

"Can see, can detect," Auggie said then.

Nicholaas nodded. "I can detect it readily."

Auggie's golden eyes narrowed, and the dot of light seemed to sink inside the cushion and disappear. The bearcat grunted again. "No can see, no can detect."

Nicholaas frowned at the cushion, before giving a little shake to his head. "Amazing."

Kippy shrugged incredulously at that. "Just hiding it inside is enough?"

Nicholaas continued to frown at the cushion a moment before answering. "It's not like you think, Kip. Auggie didn't just push that bit of skwish into the interior of the cushion. He has somehow tucked it in among the atomic structure of the...oh. I see now. I can see it, if I distinctly look for it!" Nicholaas turned to smile at the bearcat. "How clever!"

"Easy," Auggie said, looking slightly embarrassed. "No can see, but only if not look."

Robin snapped his fingers. "And someone grabbing things off a high-speed line will not have the time to look deeply. They may detect the deception after the fact, but not before the item has landed...wherever. The place we can follow it to!"

Nicholaas smiled at Auggie. "I can replicate what you just did, with my skwish tags. I already see the instruction needed. Then, we simply watch for something detected outside this realm, and we can follow it."

"To somewhere you've never been before?" Adrian asked, looking surprised.

"Certainly. That rule for teleportation does not apply to places you can see with your own eyes, as you well know. Wherever my little skwish tags go, I will be able to see, and follow."

Kippy smiled at Charlie. "I'd sure like to learn that trick. It would be great to be able to teleport to a place you have never been."

"I'll say," Adrian agreed. "Well, once I can teleport, anyway."

Nicholaas chuckled. "It's not as simple as it sounds. I can see where my skwish tags go, but it is our little thief that must take them there, first. Otherwise, we'd probably be stumped."

"Are you going to do this now?" Charlie asked. "I mean...we wouldn't mind seeing how this turns out."

Nicholaas sighed approvingly. "Curiosity has always been your strongest trait, my young friend." He nodded. "I am already seeding the production lines with my tags. The odds are, something will go missing very quickly."

He turned to his wife. "Do you want to come along?"

She made a face. "To confront robbers? Perhaps not."

"It's perfectly safe," Nicholaas returned, looking surprised.

"You think," Robin added, grinning.

Nicholaas frowned at that, and then nodded at Ronja. "Well...perhaps it would be better if you waited. Maybe later would be, um safer."

Ronja laughed. "I'm sure you'll figure this out. I have so much here to do to prepare for the Christmas Ball for the staff."

Max smiled at that. "My missus said she'd be by to help you with that."

"I've already spoken with her," Ronja replied. She smiled happily. "It's going to be a lovely affair!" She turned to Charlie. "Remember, you're all invited."

Nicholaas immediately raised a hand. "I'll see to it that there is time to do everything, okay?"

A promise from Nicholaas to take care of the time element was all they needed. "We'll be there," Charlie said.

"But in the meantime," Rick began, rubbing his hands together in anticipation, "can we help track down these thieves?"

"It sounds like it would be a fascinating hunt," Ragal agreed.

"I see no reason why everyone that wants to participate, should not. Anyone not interested can stay here with Ronja."

Robin laughed at that. "You're kidding! Any of this bunch, refuse to go adventuring? I think not!"

"I'm going!" Browbeat called. "Please!"

Robin was right. They all wanted to go along.

"It has already started," Nicholaas said, nodding. " I can sense items going missing."

They were all standing out on the production floor, watching the amazing system of belts carry things in all directions, apparently in defiance of both gravity and inertia. Elves moved about, watching the movement of thousands of items every second, and following their progress on their pads. There was an air of expectancy here, as if everyone knew what was happening.

"Can you see where they are going?" Charlie asked.

Nicholaas closed his eyes, and everyone was silent as they awaited. For a moment nothing more happened as the man concentrated; and then Nicholaas compressed his lips together and his eyes popped open, again displaying astonishment. "I'll be damned."

"That could be good," Robin said, smiling.

"Or, it could be bad," Kippy followed with, frowning.

"You have discovered something of import," Ragal concluded, nodding.

Nicholaas turned to look at them. "How simple. I just didn't consider this."

Robin's smile broadened. "And then, the suspense mounted."

Nicholaas gave a little shake to his head, and then smiled. "Sorry." He looked around the vast production hall. "As far as I can tell, the items that go missing stay in exactly the same place, relative to the surface of the earth." He turned to look at them. "They are simply going elsewhere in reference to this reality."

"What?" Charlie was stunned at the notion, immediately thinking of their just completed case involving Mildred's house, and their friend from an alternate reality, Akeeri. "There seems to be a lot of that stuff going on lately!"

Nicholaas grunted. "The boundaries that separate realities are less concrete than you might imagine. Probability is the link between cause and effect that most determines how close one reality is to another. The ones that are the very closest to ours are the easiest to cross to. In either direction."

Ragal nodded. "Do you sense this is a deliberate incursion into our reality from this other one? As in, expressly for the purpose of rerouting items in your production line?"

"That would seem to be the case. The familiarity of feel I get in all this may be due to the fact that these items are staying in the same place with reference to geographical locale, with all the possible associations that go along with that."

Adrian shook his head. "What does all that mean?"

Nicholaas looked thoughtful. "It means we'll have to go and look."

"All of us?" Rick asked, his tone hopeful.

The man who was Santa smiled. "I don't see why not."

Rick looked delighted, and put an arm around Adrian. "You want to go?"

"Certainly. I always go where you go." He grinned. "Just as I expect you to go where I go."

"Is there anyone that wishes to stay?" Nicholaas asked.

There were no takers.

Nicholaas nodded, and turned to Max. "Is your Hernacki present? This would go easier if she did the honors."

The elf smiled. "Esmerelda? She can be way off yonder, and still be close by. Want me to call her?'

"Yes. While I believe I can take myself to this other reality, I am less certain that I can comfortably take all of us."

Charlie smiled at that. "Are you saying, at this late date, that you have limitations?"

Nicholaas laughed at that. "Everyone has limitations, Charlie. The mathematics of probability are complex between realities. There are natural portals between many alternate worlds, and in cases such as that, it's a simple matter to move from one reality to another. And, as we have seen in some of your other adventures, technologies exist for creating portals that make this sort of travel simpler." He frowned, and looked around the production hall again. "But there are neither of these advantages here. Poking a hole between realities where one does not already exist is quite a bit harder. It's not a matter of creating one portal that we can all move through. There must be an individual transfer for each of us, along with a balance provided for our exit from this reality, and a balance to the possibility that there will then be two of us in the next one. Hernacki are masters of moving between realities. If we can get Esmerelda to assist, it will make things much easier."

"She's here," Max said then, nodding. "She says she can sense the map in your mind of where we need to go."

"Excellent." Nicholaas nodded. "Everyone ready?"

They were all set. Max had them move more closely together, and passed to Esmerelda what he needed done. "She's ready."

Nicholaas nodded. "Let's go."

Kippy reached for Charlie's hand, and had just grasped it tightly when the interior of the production hall around them wavered, and was suddenly replaced with another view. Charlie craned his neck to look around, amazed at what he now saw.

They were standing inside what looked to be an immense warehouse, with aisle after aisle of shelving running away into the distance. Many of the shelves Charlie could see were filled with items in packages, but others were totally empty...or, they were. Even as he watched, new packages appeared on them, and quickly began to fill rack after rack. There was a haunting quality to it all, eerie to watch, as all of this was happening in total silence. The vast warehouse was as quiet as the grave.

"The missing items!" Kip hissed, clenching Charlie's hand.

"Caught in the act!" Browbeat said softly, from his perch atop Auggie's back. "Now the fun will start!"

Somewhere in the distance, they heard a loud bang, as if a door had been opened and closed again. After a moment, Charlie was certain he could hear footfalls approaching down one of the aisles. They were rapid, as if someone was hurrying. He turned in the direction of the sounds, and everyone mimicked his action. Soon, a figure appeared in the distance, hastening towards them.

Charlie squinted at the distant one, certain it was a human being, and...amazingly, there was something utterly familiar about the way this person moved!

"I thought so," Nicholaas said softly then. He took a step forward, so that he would the first person that the new arrival reached.

The approaching figure slowed then as he obviously spied them, resolved into a man dressed in a red suit with white trim. He had a long, flowing white beard, and a thick head of white hair. He reached Nicholaas and stopped, took a deep breath, and raised his hands in greeting. "There you are, there you are!" The man sounded delighted. "I hoped you'd come!"

Nicholaas stepped forward, his hand extended. "I'm Nicholaas. We would have come sooner, had we known what was happening."

The bearded man stepped forward to shake hands. "And my name is Nicklus. I hope I didn't alarm you. This was the only way I had to get your attention. I am not able to move myself between the realities as you apparently are able to do. I can just move objects from others to here. I hoped...I hoped dearly...that what I was doing would get the attention of one of us, and that you would be able to come here."

Nicholaas nodded, and glanced around the warehouse. "You've raised the amount of items you were taking from my production lines. That finally compelled me to investigate."

The bearded man sighed. "Yes. I figured out how to multiply the equation, to increase the flow of items from your reality to mine. I did that with the others, too. But what I wanted most was to find one of you able to move between realities."

Charlie squinted at the old gentleman, the sense of shock he was feeling deepening as he understood who this fellow was!

Nicholaas frowned. "You've been doing this with our operations in other realities?"

"Two others," Nicklus agreed. "But the iterations of us that inhabit those realities were apparently unable to cross. You are the first."

Nicholaas nodded, and looked around at the shelving. "You have a lot of things coming in."

Nicklus waved a hand at the shelves. "These things will be dispersed as quickly as I can manage to do it. I am feeding them into my delivery equation even now. And even then, they won't be enough."

Nicholaas seemed to remember then that he had not arrived alone. "Um, these are my friends." He introduced everyone, and the man in red nodded to each of them.

"It is wonderful to make your acquaintances. I only wish I had similar friends here."

Kippy took a step forward then. "Where do we know you from? I'm sure we've met before."

Nicholaas and the man in red both laughed, and it was such an identical reaction that Charlie had to smile. "It's Nicholaas," he said softly.

Kippy gasped, and looked closer. Behind the white beard, the familiar blue eyes surveyed them over a smile they knew well. "Nicholaas!"

The man in red bowed his head. "Nicklus, actually. At your service."

"You have a story to tell," Nicholaas surmised.

"Yes." Nicklus turned, and used a hand to indicate the way he had come. "Will you join me in more comfortable surroundings? A warm fire, and something to drink?"

Nicholaas nodded. "Lead the way."

His bearded counterpart turned and started off, and Nicholaas fell in behind him. Charlie and the others formed a group, and followed.

"This may prove to be instructive," Robin said, looking intrigued. "Always something interesting happening around here!"

"This is exciting!" Browbeat agreed, his small face exhibiting a smile. "You guys are so much fun!"

But Kippy seemed to feel differently about it. He squeezed Charlie's hand, conveying a sense of worry. "This is really strange!"

Charlie had to agree, even as some part of his mind considered what might be happening here in this alternate version of their own world. What events might have transpired that had required Nicklus to reach between worlds to take millions of items from his alternate self?

Somehow, Charlie felt, the reasons for this could not be good ones.

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