‘Twas the night before Christmas
The house was at rest
All happily ignorant
Of the snake in their nest.
The Girl cleared her throat loudly, freezing Nick in his tracks. The words of his suppression spell died unspoken on his lips; flames continued their gentle dance across the glowing fireplace embers.
“Hello, Santa,” said The Girl, as Nick turned slowly. “What do you call this?”
She held up a gift-wrapped box, sliced and peeled open to reveal its contents. Black lumps and a rain of midnight dust spilled into a pile on the plush carpet, glinting with rainbow colours reflected from the blinking lights on the fir tree in the corner.
“Hello Gwendoline,” said Nick, keeping the sigh from his voice. Every year, there were one or two such encounters, slipping through the web of invisibility incantations Nick’s team wove about him. The important thing was not to hurry through it. Every child deserved their due, and a mistake could be costly. “You’re up very late for a Christmas Eve.”
The Girl shook her dark pigtails crossly. “I asked you for a puppy, or a telescope, or a book about butterflies,” she declared, dropping the box to count off on her fingers. “Not this!”
“That is coal,” said Nick evenly. He brushed the crumbs of a delicious cranberry-chocolate chip cookie from his whiskers, deciding he should lean into the wise old uncle routine. That usually played well with the precocious kids with a dash of attitude. “That’s what I leave for the children on my Naughty list.”
“Naughty list! I don’t think so! I’ve been on my best behaviour all year!” Again, The Girl brought out her listing-fingers. “I gave my bike to Stacey next door. I helped Raymond from my class with his maths all year. I even walked all the dogs in the neighbourhood for free!”
Nick considered this. No child he’d ever met could put a lie past him, and Gwendoline Cordoba, of 1440 Gennaro Drive, Caine Heights, was not lying to him now.
“You seem very sure of yourself. All right, let me check my list.” He pulled out his tablet and ran a search on her name. Sure enough, her claimed accomplishments were listed, and more besides. She was helpful to her parents, conscientious with teachers and classmates, and scored in the top quintile on the Kindness Index.
The Girl tapped her foot. “Well?”
“This is very impressive, Gwendoline. You’ve been very Nice indeed. My research elves must have made a mistake.”
Nick’s sack contained a number of contingency presents for just such an occasion; he was about to set the tablet down and rummage for a substitute gift when he noticed the blinking alert at the bottom of Gwendoline’s file. The snarling goat-faced Krampus icon, reserved for the Naughtiest of children.
He clicked on the link, and gasped.
He said, “Oh,” and “Hmmm,” and made various other noises to cover his shock. He looked over his unnecessary spectacles at the little girl waiting expectantly for his verdict. She was short for eight years, with lightly tanned skin and swept-up ears pinning back her dark braids. She looked angelic and perfectly normal.
“What does it say?” she demanded.
“It says,” said Nick, a little shakily, “that you are an accessory to kidnapping.”
The Girl folded her arms. “I am not!”
“It says you’ve impersonated a human child.”
The Girl scoffed. “I’m a kid!”
“It says you ate seven neighbourhood cats in the last month alone.”
“Wait, how is that a bad thing?” The Girl screwed her face up in confusion. “It’s not like they were dogs.”
Nick dropped into a dining chair and poured himself a generous measure from the brandy bottle set out for him. He usually didn’t imbibe, but the occasion called for it. “Gwendoline, are you aware that you are a Changeling?”
“An imitation child left behind by the Alfkin to replace the human children they steal.”
The Girl heaved a big sigh of relief. “Oh, I thought you were calling me something bad. Of course I knew!”
Nick tapped out a quick message to Penelope, his security chief, a pixie with fourteen years of SEAL training and covert ops experience. The recovery team would be mobile within the hour, hunting for whichever sparkling candyland, endless masquerade or pirate-riddled magic island to which the original Gwendoline Cordoba had been dragged away. With any luck she could be restored to her own bed before her unsuspecting parents awoke to an unpleasant Christmas morning surprise.
“I’m afraid you can’t stay here, child,” said Nick.
“Why not?” The Girl crossed her arms again and looked very prepared to pout as well.
“Because very soon, you will begin to experience the strong desire to eat your parents and dance on their bones. I really can’t allow it.”
“Eat Mummy and Daddy? Don’t be silly. They’re not cats at all.”
Nick stood up. “I’m not sure how it works with Changelings,” he said. “Perhaps you’ll mistake them for cats, just once, and that will be that. Nevertheless, I think you should come with me.”
The Girl, who was not at all Gwendoline but was also not yet convinced about it, said, “Where? I’m not allowed to go with strangers.”
“Very sensible,” said Nick, “though I would point out you know perfectly well who I am. More to the point, you are also not a human child of eight but rather an Alfkin of at least two hundred years of age, whether or not you happen to remember the fact at the moment. So you can either come and work with me at the North Pole or –“
“Or something bad will happen to me?”
Nick shrugged. “I won’t sugar coat it.”
The Girl said, “But I don’t want to make toys for other kids!”
Nick took her by the hand. “Who said anything about toymaking? It’s Krampus-hunting season. What do you say to learning some knife fighting and Krav Maga?”