Children's/Middle Grade Fantasy
Published: September 2013
B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree: This tells a reader that this book is well worth their time and money!
Finalist "The Wishing Shelf Book Awards"
Only a short time after a strange nightmare about Bluerorcs (what the heck are they?) Will again feels like he is caught in a dream—but this time the best dream he has ever had. For Mr Chevalier visits him at his parents' house to invite him to join the White Christmas Organisation—the secret organisation that handles the production and delivery of the Christmas presents and that is headed by Father Christmas himself. Will had always been a firm believer in the magic of Christmas and now he is on his way to be part of it all as he begins his job training at Snowfields. And—while traveling with the amazing cloud-based delivery system—he has no idea what other wonders he is going to see or what he is getting himself into...
For just as he is having the time of his life with his new friends at his new school with amazing subjects as well as hard hands-on training, he is caught up in the biggest conspiracy Snowfields has seen in decades.
Praise for Fraud at Snowfields:
“The excitement and magic seem to just jump off the pages as you are reading. This is one book that will become a tradition at my home at Christmas!” (Reviewer on Amazon)
“Daniel Klock has created a holiday classic, sure to be passed down from one generation to another.” (Reviewer on Amazon)
They hurried on towards the lawn at the back of the school, their red Christmas robes flowing behind them. On the platform just outside, they stumbled to a sudden halt. And stared. The lawn was full of sleighs. All of them were brightly and festively decorated with red ribbons, ties, golden and silver bells, and fir garlands. Four proud reindeer were hitched in front of each sleigh. They were also outfitted most festively with shiny, brown tack with silver bells and red ribbons. Even their antlers were polished and almost gleaming with an inner light.
Students and teachers scurried across the lawn, loading sleighs and getting ready to leave. Will and Annabel watched, spellbound, as a sleigh took off just a few feet away from them.
‘Can you see Contractus anywhere?’ Annabel asked after the sleigh had gone.
‘Hmm.’ Will scanned the area. ‘No, there’s too much bustle out there.’
‘Well, Miss Dustfall said to wait by the sleigh. Contractus will find us there.’
‘Yes, he will indeed,’ said a deep voice right behind them, making them jump.
‘Hello, Annabel. Hi Will,’ said Contractus as they turned around. ‘Sorry I’m late, but I had to pick up our flight plan on the way here, and there were quite a few others there who wanted the same. However, I’m here now, and’—he rubbed his hands together—‘I’m happy that I have the pleasure of working with you two today.’ He grinned. ‘I have to admit that even I, even after all these years I’ve been here, get excited on Christmas Eve. After all, this is what we work for all year long! So let’s get started. We’ve been allocated one of the toughest areas. There’ll be loads of work waiting for us already. Follow me!’
And he led them onto the lawn, finding his way around the parked sleighs and through the chaos of students and teachers hurrying everywhere. Will and Annabel hurried after him, trying not to bump into other people. Contractus led them to one of the beautifully-decorated sleighs. He helped them up onto the rear seat and then jumped up onto the driver’s seat. He shook the reins, and the reindeer took a few quick steps forwards. Will and Annabel gripped the railings beside their seat tightly. Then the sleigh smoothly lifted off the ground. It quickly gained height, and Contractus flew a wide circle, passing over the school and then over the village of Snowfields. The sleigh glided through the air easily, so Will loosened his grip on the railing. But then he had expected that Contractus would be a good pilot.
He looked over the side of the sleigh and saw the school and the village getting tinier and tinier as they spiralled upwards. Suddenly Will felt a jolt, and an urgent-maintenance sleigh from Cloudy’s overtook them at high speed. It went by so closely their sleigh was hit by the slipstream.
‘Oi,’ Contractus shouted after it. ‘Watch it!’
But it was already far ahead of them, heading as fast as it could to wherever the problem was.
Rising higher and higher, he guided the sleigh in a helix so they were soon as high as the mountains surrounding the village. Above the mountains was a huge circle of clouds. Contractus flew the sleigh along the face of the clouds until they reached a wide tunnel that led through them. It did not take long to fly through, and they passed two other sleighs that were flying back towards Snowfields. The other drivers waved at them cheerfully. Soon they had cleared the tunnel, and Will could see the snow-covered countryside far below.
‘Where are we going?’ he asked.
‘In front of you is a small screen, the grey rectangle. If you tap on it, you’ll see a map,’ replied Contractus.
Will looked in front of him, at the back of Contractus’s seat. There was a grey, smooth, and rectangular surface there. When he tapped a finger on it, it lit up, and he saw a map just like on a tablet computer. The map showed a part of the country. He could see lakes, rivers, hills, villages, and towns. Part of it was enclosed by a red line.
‘Can you see it?’ asked Contractus, looking back over his shoulder.
‘Yes, I can see it. The area inside the red border is ours?’
‘It looks rather small,’ said Will dubiously.
Contractus laughed. ‘Remember what I’ve told you before! That sector is the worst, for there are so many areas in there where Cloudy’s coverage is just terrible. We’ll have enough to do for sure. Well, hold on, it will take us a while to reach the sector!’
They flew high above the snow-covered countryside. Will enjoyed the flight greatly, taking in all the sights. He enjoyed the cool air on his face and, he realised with a start, also the company of Annabel sitting so close beside him. He sneaked a stealthy look at her from time to time, and—to his relief—she also seemed to enjoy being close to him, though he turned slightly red at this thought. He decided he’d better concentrate on the countryside again.
Finally Will felt that they were losing altitude. Suddenly there was a chime, and the screen in front of him lit up. In the corner of the map, a small, red square had appeared and was flashing.
‘Oh, great,’ said Contractus, who had heard the chime as well. ‘The first call, and we’re not even there yet. Will, if you’d please have a look at the message?’
‘Sure. Er, how do I look at it?’
‘Just press on the red square, and the message will pop up.’
Will pressed a finger onto the red square in the corner of the screen. Promptly a window opened on top of the map.
‘It says here: “Job 01, Area F8, Code blue-3. Please confirm.” That’s all,’ Will told Contractus. Annabel had been reading the message as well and nodded.
‘Okay,’ replied Contractus. ‘I assume you recall what a “blue-3” is?’
‘Sure,’ said Annabel. ‘A failed delivery, but quite near the target, in a perimeter of five to ten yards around it.’
Will nodded as he recalled the lectures that had so bored him in the autumn, but now he could see how important they had been.
‘Good!’ replied Contractus. ‘That’s correct. A blue-3 should mean little trouble for us, as it’s so close to the target. So let’s go there. If you’d please confirm the job, Will? Just press the confirmation button.’
Will pressed the button marked ‘confirmation’. The window closed, and a red, flashing dot appeared on the map. On the side of the screen, a small window opened in which Will could still see the job description.
‘You should now see a flashing dot on the screen. That’s our goal,’ said Contractus.
‘Yes, we can see it,’ replied Will.
‘Okay, then let’s go,’ said Contractus, and steered the sleigh into a tight turn to the left. ‘I guess it’ll take us ten minutes to get there,’ he told Will and Annabel after a glance at his own screen.
They flew on over the snow-covered landscape. Will could see them nearing their goal as the blue dot on the screen, representing their sleigh, was getting close to the red flashing dot. Contractus angled the sleigh gently downwards. He turned slightly round to Will and Annabel.
‘Okay, you two. I’ll activate full screens and security measures for now, as it’s still broad daylight and there’s no sense in letting Father Christmas appear at this time of the day. His domain is the night. So the two of you will also need full coverage.’
‘Sure,’ replied Annabel, and pulled out her wand. She turned to Will. ‘Do you want me to cover you?’
Will grinned. ‘Please. You’re much better at this than I am.’
Annabel grinned too. ‘Oooh, you finally recognise that, do you?’
She pointed her wand at Will and performed the complicated pattern of the cover spell. She looked at Will critically, then nodded to herself in satisfaction. She pointed the wand at herself and repeated the spell. Then she frowned.
‘You know, it always seems harder to spell yourself than to spell others. Somehow it’s easier to make the movements with the wand when you’re pointing it at somebody else. It’s rather different, like the wrong way round, or like doing it in front of a mirror, when you have to point it at yourself.’
Will saw Contractus nod absently to himself as Annabel said this, as he was concentrating on lowering the sleigh and reducing the speed. Then Will saw Contractus take out his own wand, point it at the sleigh and the reindeer, and perform the necessary spells to hide them all from visibility or other forms of detection. Even any sounds they might have made would be covered from ordinary people—ordinary like Will had been not even a year earlier, he reflected wistfully. But only for a moment. Then he looked back at the screen and saw that they had nearly reached their destination, for the red and blue dots were almost overlapping. Contractus flew lower and lower until they were just above the houses. Finally he circled above a certain house, and Will saw on the display that they had reached their goal.
‘Can you see—’ began Contractus, but just then Annabel called: ‘There! Over there, next to the tree.’ And she pointed to a jumbled heap lying in the snow beside a large beech tree.
Contractus looked where Annabel was pointing, then he nodded and grinned.
‘Right you are. That mess looks like the misplaced items.’
He turned the sleigh round and headed straight towards the untidy mound. As they got closer, Will could see it was indeed a pile of presents wrapped in bright and colourful wrapping paper. Contractus stopped the sleigh right beside them.
‘Now, I know you’ve trained for this thoroughly, but this is your first time in the field, so I’ll do this the first time and you can watch once more how the situation is handled.’ He grinned. ‘Don’t worry, the next job will be yours. Just stay on the sleigh for now.’
He jumped off and went to the pile of presents. He looked at them critically. Will could see that some snow had already settled onto them. Contractus took out his wand and pointed it at the packages. When he performed the spell, the snow vanished, revealing undisturbed parcels that looked as if they had just left the stores at Snowfields. Contractus looked pleased. Then he began to walk around them while holding his wand close to the ground, pointing straight downwards, drawing a fine line of Bluerin in the snow and completing the circle when he reached the starting point. He looked over to Annabel and Will, to make sure they were watching him. Then he turned back to the presents, raised his wand and pointed it straight at them. He swung his wand in the complicated pattern of the final transfer spell—the spell which Will remembered all too well from the summer, as it had taken him ages to learn it. The pile started to glow, then it shimmered and seemed to shrink, and then it was gone. Contractus swung his wand a last time at the impression left in the snow. And where just a moment earlier a huge pile of presents had been lying, there now was just an unbroken and untouched layer of snow that looked exactly like the snow around it—just as if there had never been anything lying there at all.
Annabel nudged Will, grinned mischievously, and started to clap her hands. Will suppressed a laugh and joined her. Contractus looked at them in surprise, but only for a second; then he recovered and ripped off a gracious, majestic bow, twirling his wand through the air like a cowboy would do with his colt. Annabel and Will laughed. Contractus grinned, walked back to the sleigh, and climbed onto his seat again.
‘Okay then, that was one of the easy ones! You’ll do the next one. Are there any new assignments yet, Will?’
Will looked quickly at the display, feeling slightly guilty that he had not checked already, but then he thought that Contractus had told them to watch him closely—and not the screen. But there was no new red square waiting.
‘No, Mr Contractus, there isn’t one yet.’
‘Okay. We still have to confirm the completion of the first job. You can still see it in the window at the side of the screen, right?’
‘Just tap on that window.’
‘I’ve done that.’
‘Now the window is larger again, and in the centre of the screen.’
‘Good. To confirm that the job is done, just tap on the button “job done”.’
Will pressed the button. The window with the job description turned from red to blue, and a ‘done’ mark appeared in front of the description, together with the current time.
‘Now you can close that window. Press on the small red circle in the top right corner.’
Will did just that. The blue window vanished.
‘Okay,’ Contractus said, and shook the reins. The reindeer started into a trot, and soon the sleigh lifted from the ground. Contractus guided them upwards again.
‘We’ll go back a way, more into the centre of our area, so we can respond more quickly to the next call,’ he said back over his shoulder to Will and Annabel.
They had only been in the air for a minute or two when Will heard the chime again. He immediately looked back at the screen. Once again a small, flashing red square had appeared in the corner of the map. Will pressed his finger onto it, and the description window opened up.
‘What does it say, Will?’ asked Contractus from his front seat.
‘It says “Job 02, Area A3, Code green-1. Please confirm”,’ Will replied.
‘Ah, it would have been too easy if it were nearby, now wouldn’t it,’ Contractus mumbled, more to himself than to Will and Annabel. ‘Go ahead then and confirm it, Will.’
Contractus shook the reins once more, and the reindeer made a wide curve towards the north-west. Will followed their course on the screen, where the blue dot represented their current position and the red one showed their goal.
‘What kind of job is this?’ asked Contractus. ‘I’m sure you can tell me, Annabel.’
While Will was trying to remember, Annabel answered seemingly without having to think about it at all. ‘A green-1 is a minor misplacement in the correct room, for example the presents might be in the corner opposite the tree.’
‘Right you are, well done!’
They passed over the snow-covered houses, dazzling in the bright sunlight. Will traced their path on the screen, trying to get a feel for the distances. He thought the area to which they had been assigned was in fact rather large, especially as Contractus had said this was one of the areas with the most work. But then he did not really mind, for this was what he had worked for all year long. He grinned.
‘What are you grinning about?’ asked Annabel, looking sideways at him.
‘Oh, I’m just enjoying this—the fact that we’re finally helping with the delivery of the presents. Aren’t you?’ he asked back.
‘Sure. But remember,’ she added, ‘we’ll have to deal with this one on our own.’
‘Well,’ replied Will, ‘that’s what we have been training for, isn’t it? And’—he grinned mischievously—‘I’m sure you’ll manage it perfectly!’
‘Oh now, none of that! We’ll do this together!’ Annabel replied firmly.
‘Sure.’ Will grinned. ‘You’ll do, and I’ll make sure you’re doing it right.’
Annabel poked him in the ribs—hard.
‘Ooof! That was a joke,’ Will said.
‘It better have been!’ snapped Annabel, but she grinned all the same.
Contractus finally guided the sleigh towards the ground. He took out his wand and spelled the sleigh, the reindeer and himself again, making them invisible. Annabel followed his lead and pointed her wand at Will and then at herself, hiding them both. Contractus took the sleigh farther down and constantly corrected its course as directed by the map on the screen in front of him. Finally he reached the front of the house that was their goal. The sleigh touched down on the snow-covered lawn with hardly a bump, and came to a halt.
Contractus turned around to Annabel and Will. ‘Now it’s your turn! It should really be no problem for you. As you said before, you’ve been preparing for this moment during the last months. I’ll accompany you for now. But I’ll stay in the background—you’ll do the job! Of course, if you should run into problems you can’t cope with or other difficulties, I’ll help you. Don’t worry, you’ll just do fine.’ He smiled at them encouragingly. ‘Let’s go for it!’
‘Yes!’ Annabel exclaimed, and punched the air. Will looked at her in surprise.
‘Well, let’s go,’ she said to him pertly. ‘What are you waiting for?’ She grinned at him brightly.
‘But…you…’ Will did not know what to say.
Annabel grinned at him even more brightly. ‘Yes? Was there something?’ she asked him sweetly.
Will sighed. ‘Nothing.’ Girls, he thought, and refrained from shaking his head as this would certainly do him no good. He slid down from the bench and stood beside the sleigh. ‘Let’s go.’
‘Of course. I was only waiting for you,’ Annabel replied loftily and stepped down from the sleigh gracefully. They walked towards the house with Contractus following closely. Annabel stopped after a few yards.
‘Door? Window? Chimney? How do we get in? What do you think?’ she asked Will, not pertly or teasingly anymore, but all business.
‘Hmm,’ Will said. ‘I think we should just use the door. It’s the easiest way, and we are covered anyway. And as it’s broad daylight, we’re not supposed to be seen or to act like Father Christmas at the moment, so there’s no need to use the chimney.’
‘Yes,’ said Annabel, ‘I’m thinking the same.’
Behind them Contractus nodded.
‘Okay then,’ said Will. ‘You want to do the spells? You’re better at them than I am.’
Annabel smiled, this time just pleased. ‘Of course. Are you ready? Let’s go on in then.’
She walked towards the front door of the house, stopped in front of it and raised her wand. Will stood at her side and waited. Just at that moment, a cat came round the far corner of the house and froze as it saw them.
Saw? Will thought. But they were covered by the spell! He looked closely at the cat and had the feeling that it looked right back at him. Alarmed, Will looked back at Contractus and said, ‘I don’t think the spells are working. It looks as if the cat can see us!’
Contractus replied, ‘Yes, as a matter of fact, cats can see straight through our hiding spells. Nobody knows why, that’s just how it is. But it really is nothing to worry about. Normally they just leave us alone. And if not, well, we have spells to deal with them. You’ll learn them in time.’
‘Is it just cats, or can other animals see us as well?’ asked Will.
‘No,’ replied Contractus. ‘Somehow it’s only cats. And snow leopards—but it’s not too likely you’ll run into one in this area,’ he added dryly.
Meanwhile the cat had taken a good look at them, decided they were not interesting at all, and gone on its way. They turned their attention back to the door. Annabel gestured with her wand and spelled the door with the secrecy spell they had learned for this. It effectively hid them from sight when entering the house by projecting the image of a closed door while they opened it and went through. The only thing that could happen was if anybody was standing close to the door, they might feel a draft from the air that passed through. But that should not have been a serious problem.
Annabel finished the spell, and to their eyes the door began to glow faintly blue around the frame. Contractus looked at it for a moment, then nodded with satisfaction and smiled at Annabel.
‘Well done! Let’s go inside.’
So Will stepped forwards and opened the door gingerly. There was nobody to be seen. The others followed him, and then they were standing in a dimly lit hallway with traditional Christmas decorations.
‘And where do we go now?’ asked Annabel. ‘Should we just try every door and hope one is the living-room?’
Contractus chuckled and reached into his pocket. ‘No, no. That would be rather tedious, and would also rather increase the risk of discovery or mistakes. We’ve got these mobile screens on which our position and the goal are marked. They’re just like the screens on the sleigh. See?’
He held up the device he had taken out of his pocket, and showed it to them. And indeed it was a mobile version of the screen they had used on the sleigh. It showed a floor plan of the building they were standing in—not with many details, but Will could make out the walls, the doors, and a staircase, though no furniture or windows. Again there were the blue and red dots for their orientation on the screen.
From the visible contours Will drew the conclusion that the blue dot, which represented their position, indeed showed them standing in the hallway, for the outline on the screen had the same oblong proportions. The flashing red dot seemed to be in the room on their left. And right enough, as Will looked up he could see a door to his left. He pointed at it and looked at Mr Contractus.
‘So we have to go in there,’ Will whispered.
Beside him Annabel nodded, for she had also been studying the image on the screen.
‘Yes, but you don’t have to whisper. With the spells we can’t be heard,’ replied Contractus. ‘If you perform the spell, then we can go in there.’
Annabel did not need to be told twice. She quickly drew her wand, pointed it at the door, and again performed the spell that would cover the opening of the door. When the frame began to glow faintly blue, Mr Contractus nodded approvingly, opened the door cautiously, and went into the room that lay behind it. Luckily there was nobody in there. It would not have mattered anyway, for they were covered by the hiding spell, but Will was still relieved that they did not encounter anyone, because he was nervous enough as it was, being on his first field deployment. And doing the job unseen while other people were moving around in their own home was something he was not looking forward to.
The living room was neat and orderly. Nothing was lying around, and it was nicely prepared with Christmas decorations. And, of course, there was a large Christmas tree standing in one corner, colourfully but not gaudily decorated. Will liked it. But he was there to do a job and not to enjoy himself. He looked around the room and saw the pile of presents that were scattered in one corner. Contractus and Annabel were already standing in front of them, surveying the mess. Will joined them and saw roughly a dozen presents all jumbled together.
Mr Contractus cleared his throat. ‘Well, you’ve got two options now. You can either just carry the presents over to the tree, or you could use the spells you’ve learned for this.’
‘I think we should just carry the presents over there. That will be much easier and quicker than using the spells,’ replied Will. He saw that Annabel was nodding her agreement beside him.
‘Good. That’s what I’d do. Just remember that when you pick the presents up, they will disappear behind your covering spell. But there’s nobody here who’d see them disappear and then reappear again, so you can do it this way. There’s no need to waste time and energy with the spells. You’ll need them soon enough anyway.’
And he just bent down, picked up two presents, carried them over to the Christmas tree, and placed them underneath. Will and Annabel quickly followed his example, and after a few passes to and fro, all the presents were lying underneath the tree. Mr Contractus rearranged the presents with a few quick and precise movements that told of years of practise. Then he nodded, satisfied.
‘Okay, well done. We’ve finished here. Let’s get back to the sleigh.’ And he led them out of the living room, carefully checking that the spell was still covering the door before he opened it. They passed through the hallway and reached the sleigh without incident. They climbed up and settled into their seats.
Mr Contractus turned back to Will and Annabel. ‘Well done, you two. I’m quite pleased. It was just as I would have done it. Now all that’s left to do is close the job in the distribution system.’ He turned back round and looked at his screen. ‘Oh, I see we’ve got two new jobs waiting already.’
This time Annabel leaned forwards and operated the screen. She closed the current job and opened the next one.
‘“Job 03, Area B3, Code yellow-2”,’ she read aloud.
‘Good. That’s not far from here. Off we go.’
And they took off again.
Contractus turned partly round to them again and said, ‘As you know a yellow-2 is a bit more challenging, so I’ll handle it, especially since we already have another job waiting and have to hurry. But you can help, of course.’
‘Okay,’ replied Will and Annabel in unison, and Will certainly did not mind. He was happy just to watch and learn how to handle the different jobs. Because, he realised, even if they had trained and practised at school, being out there and doing the job for real was quite a bit different.
Soon they had reached their destination and Will could see the problem. Just as the code implied, the presents were all scattered around at the far back of the garden of the house. One was even up a tree; another one was stuck in the branches of a bush. Contractus hurriedly performed the cover spell on the sleigh and on himself, then jumped down from the sleigh as soon as it had slid to a stop. He hurried over to the scattered parcels, closely followed by Will and Annabel, covered once more by Annabel’s spell.
When they reached the presents, Contractus took out his wand, swept it around in a wide circle to include all the packages, and performed the rather complicated spell that would relocate them to the inside of the house, directly underneath the Christmas tree. Will was impressed by the ease and grace with which Contractus performed the spell. Annabel—and Sabrina of course—could probably have matched it, but Will could still well remember his first tries with the spells in the training area at school. He certainly had not managed to relocate the presents, but had ended up with them scattered even more about the place than when he had started.
Meanwhile the presents had disappeared, and there was no trace of them left in the snow. Contractus looked pleased, and led Will and Annabel over to the house. There he waved his wand again in the pattern of a complicated spell that Will did not know, and part of the wall in front of them turned transparent, so they were looking directly at the Christmas tree inside the living room and could see that the presents were arranged neatly underneath it.
‘Wow,’ Annabel said. ‘That’s a fabulous spell. I’d like to learn that one!’
Contractus smiled. ‘Yes, it can be very helpful indeed. But it’s quite complicated, and unfortunately has much potential for misuse, so I’m afraid it will be some time before you’ll learn it.’
‘Oh.’ Annabel looked rather disappointed.
‘Let’s go back. We’re done here, and we already have the next job waiting.’
Will was the first to climb back onto the sleigh. He quickly closed the current job and opened the next one.
‘The next job is in Area F7, and again a blue-3,’ he told the others.
‘Okay, let’s go,’ said Contractus, and shook the reins. They took off and rose into the air again. Soon they had reached their next destination. This job was similar to their first one, and they encountered no problems. After they had finished, there was no new job waiting for them.
‘Good. A break is most welcome,’ said Contractus. He flew them back into the centre of their area. He landed the sleigh on a small, remote hill where they could rest without the risk of being seen. They rested for perhaps fifteen minutes, and Will and Annabel used part of the time for an impromptu snowball fight that left them both panting and slightly wet. Then Contractus called them back to the sleigh.
‘Hurry up. We’ve got an urgent red-5! We’ve got to leave immediately.’
Will and Annabel ran back to the sleigh and quickly climbed up onto their seat. Contractus took off as soon as they were settled.
Will looked at Annabel. ‘Red means someone has discovered the presents that have been delivered to the wrong location. But what does five mean?’
‘The same as with the other codes: the wrong location is another building within five hundred to a thousand yards of the intended destination.’
‘Oh, I know that, but I thought it had a different meaning with a code red.’
‘No, it hasn’t. You thought wrong there,’ Annabel replied snootily.
Will let it pass. They were flying over the countryside at high speed, and Contractus still urged the reindeer to go faster. Then he took the sleigh downwards so rapidly Will could feel his stomach protesting. Soon they had landed on the lawn in front of the house that was marked with the red dot on the screen. Contractus hastily performed the covering spells on himself, the sleigh, and the reindeer, and covered Will and Annabel far faster than they would have been able to.
Contractus jumped down from the sleigh as soon as it touched the ground, with Will and Annabel right at his heels, and jogged over to the house, pulling his wand out while running. He stopped right in front of the main entrance and quickly spelled it. He glanced at his hand-held screen, then quickly opened the door and walked inside with Will and Annabel close behind. Contractus passed through the hall and went up the stairs. At the top he glanced at his screen again, then backed up against a wall as a door opened and a boy about the age of twelve came out. The boy went past Contractus and then Will and Annabel, who had pressed themselves against another door, without taking any notice of them, and skipped down the stairs. When he was gone, Will took a deep breath, realising he had been holding it while the boy had walked past them.
But the spell had worked! There was no indication that the boy had noticed anything unusual at all. Will felt quite relieved now that he had experienced this for the first time. There was quite a difference between being told that the spell worked and actually seeing it work so well.
Contractus directed a short spell at his hand-held screen, glanced at it again, then waved his wand at the door of the room from which the boy had come and performed the secrecy spell on it. Then he opened it, motioned for Annabel and Will to follow him, and went in. When Will entered he could see it was the typical room of a teenager, with lots of posters stuck on the walls, clothes lying around everywhere, magazines scattered around—all in all the usual mess of a growing boy. He had to think briefly about his own bedroom at home; he felt slightly guilty, but quickly decided his had not been too bad—and he certainly had never made such a mess, had he?
But then Annabel quietly said, ‘There.’ And she pointed towards a corner in which several presents had been discarded.
Contractus checked his screen again and said, ‘There should be seven presents there.’ He stepped over to the heap, picked up a parcel, and handed it to Annabel. Then he picked up the next one and also passed it back. ‘One, two, three…seven. Good, they’re all here. The boy must have found them outside and brought them home.’ He turned back to Annabel and Will. ‘Okay, we’re finished here. Let’s take them to the house next door, where they belong.’
‘Er, Mr Contractus?’ asked Will. ‘Wouldn’t it be faster and easier to move them there with a spell?’
‘Hmm,’ replied Contractus. ‘You might be right. It definitely would be faster. Okay then, put the parcels down here on the floor.’ Annabel and Will placed the presents where he had pointed. Contractus pulled out his wand again, waved it at the parcels, and performed the transfer spell. They shimmered blue for a brief moment, then they were gone. Contractus aimed his wand at his screen again, performed a brief spell, and nodded in satisfaction.
‘All good, all done. They are exactly where they belong. Let’s get out of here,’ he told Annabel and Will, and led them from the room. ‘On our way out, we still have to spell the boy and modify his memory so he doesn’t remember the presents. Otherwise it would be very awkward, and he would be wondering what happened here.’
‘Sure,’ Will replied.
They walked down the stairs. Then Contractus checked his screen and pointed at another door, performing the hiding spell once again. He went inside the room. Annabel and Will followed, and Will saw they were in the kitchen of the house. There was the boy they had seen upstairs, standing by the open fridge and rummaging through its contents. Mr Contractus looked at Annabel and Will, then raised his wand, pointed it at the boy, and waved it in the complicated pattern that Will recognised as the mind-modifying spell. The spell had been demonstrated to them, but they had not been taught how to perform it yet.
The boy froze for a second, looked around in disorientation, then shook his head and started rummaging in the fridge again. Contractus nodded, winked at Will and Annabel, and led them out of the kitchen, through the hall, out through the main entrance, and back to the sleigh.
When they were climbing up into the sleigh, Will finally asked the question he had wanted to ask for some time: ‘Mr Contractus? Inside the house you spelled your hand-held screen several times. What did you do to it?’
‘Oh, nothing special. I checked what people were in the house and where they were located. The other time I ascertained that the presents were in the right place. And then I used a spell to find the boy. You know, this hand-held is really a great tool if you know how to use it.’ He grinned at them. ‘And you can look forward to it. You two will receive your personal screens next year at school, and then you’ll start learning all the tricks and spells.’
Will was stunned. ‘Oh, that’s fantastic!’
Even Annabel looked amazed.
Contractus laughed. ‘Yes, it'll be great, you’ll see. I can’t even imagine anymore how we were able to manage without them. Well, I see we don’t have a new job waiting at the moment, so we’d best go back to a more central position,’ said Contractus, and gathered the reins in his hands.
Then suddenly a loud and piercing whistling noise made Will and Annabel jump.
‘Oh no,’ groaned Contractus, ‘what now?’ He let go of the reins and touched his screen. Thankfully the piercing noise ended. Will and Annabel also looked at their screen. A large, red-bordered rectangle had appeared and flashed quickly. Inside of the rectangle, Will could read in large, red letters: ‘2-black-black—All Units Respond Immediately!’
‘Oh dear!’ said Contractus. ‘That one’s really bad.’
He pressed the confirmation button, swiftly picked up the reins, and jerked them abruptly. He barked a quick ‘hold tight!’ back at Will and Annabel, who did not really know what was happening, and took off at high speed. Only when they were high up in the air, moving fast, did he turn around to Will and Annabel, who were hanging on to their seats, rather bewildered by this sudden take-off.
‘Sorry to frighten you. I don’t suppose you know what a double black is, do you?’ he asked. They both shook their heads, and Will was a bit surprised that even Annabel did not know. ‘A double black is the worst that can happen on this particular day,’ explained Contractus. ‘It’s a complete failure of Cloudy’s Transportation network with a total disruption of the present distribution! I’ve never experienced that before, although there have been simulations and plans for this case. We’ve got to leave here immediately and head for the nearest distribution hub of Cloudy’s.’ He urged the reindeer on even faster.
Annabel clung to the railing of the sleigh. ‘But wouldn’t it be faster if we used the transfer system—you know, like via street lanterns?’
‘Yes, normally it would,’ replied Contractus, ‘but with a double black, that system is also down.’
‘Yes, that sums it up pretty well,’ replied Contractus dryly.
‘But what about our work? What about the wrongly delivered presents? Are we going to leave them just lying about?’ asked Will.
‘They are not so important right now. The double black comes first. We’ll have to take care of the presents after this is sorted out,’ answered Contractus.
‘And the code-red jobs?’ pressed Will. ‘I thought they must be dealt with at once, before anyone messes about with the presents.’
‘Yes,’ answered Contractus, ‘they do need to be taken care of immediately. And for this reason not everybody gets called back, so one of the teams located in the adjacent areas is going to cover our area for the code red jobs.’
‘Ah, I see,’ replied Will.
By then they were high above the ground and nearing the clouds. Will looked at the screen in front of him. He saw that Contractus had entered their destination, and that they were getting closer fast. That was fine, for he had looked down a moment earlier, which had not been a terribly good idea, as his stomach was telling him quite pointedly. An enormous cloud loomed right in front of them.
Contractus turned slightly back to Will and Annabel. ‘We’re getting near to Cloudy’s regional hub, but we have to pass through some clouds to get there. I’m afraid it might get a bit wet. Sorry.’
And he flew the sleigh right into the huge white cloud. Will held his breath and closed his eyes, as he did not quite know what to expect. But all he could feel was a slight cold mist on his face, so he opened his eyes carefully and saw—nothing. Only white fog that was wet on his face. It was so thick he could not even see Contractus on the seat before him, or Annabel at his side. He could only make out vague shapes.
‘We’ll soon be there, no need to worry,’ Contractus called back to them, his voice slightly muffled by the fog.
Suddenly the mist parted, and they were flying into a large, open area that looked like a hangar. And in fact that was what it was: a hangar for sleighs, with a roof and walls made out of cloud. As Contractus flew their sleigh in, Will could make out about a dozen sleighs already standing there. Students and teachers hurried from them over to the main entrance on the far side of the hangar.
Contractus landed the sleigh quickly but smoothly in a free space near one of the walls. He grabbed his hand-held screen and turned around to Will and Annabel. ‘Let’s get inside quickly and see what’s going on here!’
He jumped down from the sleigh and hurried over to the entrance where the others had already disappeared. Will and Annabel followed right behind him. While they were running across the hangar, Will could see a few other students and teachers he knew from the school, but none of his immediate friends or classmates. They passed through the entrance and hurried down a corridor. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all made out of cloud. To Will it looked exactly like the facility he had passed through on his way to Snowfields less than a year earlier.
Contractus called to another teacher: ‘Inventus! Do you know what’s happening?’
‘Not any more than you. We just received the double black and left immediately. Now we’re here.’
Written by a young trauma surgeon during his time outside of the emergency room. And - against all odds - it is not bloody in the least, but full of the magic of Christmas.
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