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The Flight Before Christmas

A cache by Gwen Cheri Send Message to Owner Message this owner
Hidden : 12/09/2018
Difficulty:
4 out of 5
Terrain:
1.5 out of 5

Size: Size: small (small)

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Annetuista koordinaateista ette löydä apuja tätä kätköä varten. Sen sijaan tästä tarinasta löydätte! Näin ensi alkuun vain englanniksi, suomenkielinen versio on työn alla. FTF-palkintona kätkössä on mikäs muu kuin aktivoimaton travel bug tag.

Lukuiloa!

----

THE FLIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS

========
Part One
========

It is the early morning of the 22nd of December 2018, when associate elf Gwen Cheri wakes up in her South London apartment to the insistent beeping and vibrating of her phone. She takes a look at the glooming display: it is a call from her boss!

Gwen is in charge of coordinating the Christmas presents for geocachers. She had especially requested to be transfered to that division, always having felt that cachers were actually not all that different from elves: operating in the dark while having to hide from disturbing outsiders, and placing things to be found by others, with the faint hope to give them some joy.

A bit confused, she takes the call.

"It's Elwin." Her boss, the London branch manager, sounded way too active for what others deem to be still the middle of the night. "I'm sorry to wake you up."

"That's okay...", she replies, still half-asleep.

"Listen, Gwen. Your geocaching department has ordered a big charge of 'travel bugs', right?"

"Yes", she yawns. "That was me."

"Well, the thing is, we have just received our final collective delivery before Christmas, and they were not there. In fact, nobody has heard anything from the distributor at all since the goblins wired the payment. They aren't responding to our inquiries either. Now Christmas Eve is already in two days and this item is still missing. I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to fly to the purchasing center at once to personally make sure that the shipment still gets delivered in time", Elwin gushes.

Gwen feels a bit of anger coming on, remembering how she wanted to run the order through the much more reliable Korvatunturi sorting and distribution center, but the accounting fairy insisted that they have to cut costs. Ever since Swedish engineers determined that Kyrgyzstan was the ideal spot for Santa’s global delivery hub, most orders are processed there, even though communication and quality are often lacking.

"You want me to fly to Kerben, Elwin?", she complains. "There's no direct plane connection. I'll never make it in time!"

"Don't worry", Elwin trumpets. "Santa has a soft spot for geocachers and I was able to convince him to dispatch some of his fastest reindeer to help you carry out this task. You get to use the company sleigh! Exciting, isn't it? You'll get there and back in a jiffy. See you at lunch?"

"Err, sure", the associate elf answers, feeling a little shorttaken.

"Brilliant!", Elwin rejoices and ends the call.

Suddenly wide awake, Gwen quickly slips into her green business dress and grabs her hat. Walking out the entry door of her block of flats, she already spots the reindeer grazing on the park lawn - luckily it is still pitch-black and there is a deer park closeby, so hopefully they have not roused any suspicions.

As Gwen nervously takes a seat in the sleigh, she tries to calm herself down.

"Okay. This probably turns out to be a small thing in the end. Just a quick flight before Christmas!"

She finds the coordinates to Kerben set in the autopilot and turns the key. Taking off instantly, she looks down upon the dark landscape below. Her apartment, the park, the university, the River Thames - when suddenly everything vanishes in a swoof of acceleration and just minutes later she finds herself in broad daylight amidst the snowy peaks of the Kyrgyz Range!

----

"Miss, I rrreally do not know what is problem", a grim gnome having introduced himself as Nurbek Gnomanov retorts.

"What you need zis konfirmation for? Ve are professionals here! You do not trrrust us? Of kourse ve have sent prrroduct! Is fantastic qvality. So ve do not vant to arrive too earrrly, arranged transport just for time, strrraight delivery for Krrristmas, da? My courier has perrrsonally gone to travel to Eurohub to brrring shipment. But now you are here! Arrrrghh!"

The grumpy little man looks at Gwen with angry eyes. She is not very pleased about dealing with him either, but at least he has given her some useful information. If she manages to retrieve the travel bugs at Eurohub, she could simply put them straight into the Noël Network right there - perfect!

----

As the reindeer sleigh abruptly slows down, Gwen already spots the Eiffel tower sparkling in the night sky. "Wow, this almost instant travel sure is something!", she thinks as her vehicle continues on towards Charles-de-Trolle, one of the biggest European sorting hubs and a familiar sight for her. A few years ago, her French relatives had helped her get an elfternship position in the facility. Luckily, Gwen still has some friends here, which secure her a quick landing permission and straight escort into the storage hall.

Her old colleage Licorne, a tall white unicorn, is searching through the database. "Non, Madame Chéri, I'm afraid ai réllai can't find le trakeng numbair een zé system. Are you sure eet eez supposed to 'ave comé haire?"

Gwen wonders. "Yes, it must have been registered at the goods entrance already, the dispatcher assured me that his courier has delivered it here."

"Quoi? C'est éstrange! Uh... attendez! Lá! Travelleng bugs, eez zat eet? Wéll, oui, zat 'as eendeed been scannéd as good entrance. But not haire. Een Senta Kurôsu!"

Gwen can't believe what she has just heard. "Santa Kurôsu?!", she stammers. "The stupid courier has dropped it off at the Asian hub - not the European one! I have to get there straight away!"

Licorne holds her up. "If you are goeng zeré now, could you pléase tak zis and drop eet off on ze wai? Eet eez zum urjent papairwairk from Sénta's legal departmont and needs a witnéz fair a pairsonal delivairy."

----

Taking the fast northern connection to Asia, it really isn't a detour for Gwen to make a quick stop, but she still feels a little uneasy about the task ahead. But the more she looks around in the place the sleigh has landed in, her mood changes. No snow? Cheesy decorations? A roadside shopping mall selling cheap human-made souvenirs at inflated prices? This is indeed nothing but a tacky tourist trap! The fact that the sun doesn't seem to rise here although it should be morning by now strenghtens the bleak atmosphere.

Gwen musters up her courage as she steps towards an overweight man in a tight red costume, lighting a cigarette at the back door of one of the buildings. Unkempt thin long hair is revealed to her when he proceeds to take off his hat, which seems to be glued to a white wig.

"Err, excuse me, are you in charge here?", Gwen asks him carefully.

"Sure I am, my dear. Don't you recognise me? I'm Santa!", he replies, noticeably suppressing a belch.

"Well, I'm afraid you no longer are. I'm serving you a subpoena. From Santa! He is revoking your license and wants this place shut down by the end of today."

The man silently stares at her with blank eyes as she hands him the letter. "No niin", he murmurs to himself under his fake beard. "I guess I'll have to get back into ski jumping then."

----

Gwen has never talked to a dragon before, but to her surprise she finds the one floating in front of her at the Santa Kurôsu office delightfully friendly, especially considering that it had to stay at work after business hours for her inquiry.

"The honolable Misses Gwen from Santaplices", it was greeting her in a hissing voice. "My name is Ryū. It is my humble pleasule to be assisting you. Filst though, may we offel you a cup of tea?"

"Thank you for your hospitality, Ryū-san, but I am here about an urgent matter", Gwen explains.

"Of coulse. I have been made awale of youl situation. Shamefully, I can melely apologise fol oul inapplopliate behaviol. When we leceived the clate today and checked the label we undelstood that it had come hele in ellol. Telefole, in compliciance to standald legulation 56a, section 28, it has alleady been sent back."

"Sent back to where now?", Gwen finds it difficult to contain her despair.

"Well, its olliginal sendel", states the dragon.

Gwen sighs. "Back to Kerben hub in Kyrgyzstan? Oh, no..."

"Indeed, Kelben hub, honolable Misses Gwen", the dragon confirms. "But you will have to fly to the letuln centel. The hub is a big undelglound facility, and intellestingly the letuln center is technically not in..."

"Ryū-san, I'm sure this is all very intriguing, and I thank you for your assistence and your time, but I really must hurry there now before they shoot my goods into space or something - I don't trust them", Gwen cuts the dragon off impatiently.

----

Having landed the sleigh directly at the return center, Gwen finds herself discussing with the same annoying person as before nevertheless.

"Da da, shipment was shorrrtly dropped off here. But then ve have alrrready moved it on to your office. So why you are herrre again?" The unpleasant Mr. Gnomanov grouches at Gwen. "I said to you, ve are prrrofessionals. Ve take business verrry serious. But you? How zis prrroduct can be still good for Kristmas if it travels whole vorld before alrrready, huh?"

"You blame this on me now?", she shouts back at him. "Then how come your all-so professional courier dropped the merchandise off in Santa Kurôsu instead of Charles-de-Trolle?"

"Okay, zat I do not know. I zink he vas sub-hirrred kourrrier of kourrrier from me. How you zink ve kan offer serrrvices prrrofessionally vith only our own staff, of kourrrse ve must outsourrrce. Normal. Exkuse me, I now on lunch brrreak." He just leaves Gwen standing there and walks off.

She protests. "It's already afternoon!"

"Bah, not in rrreturrrn center. Herrre Uzbekistan! Lunch brrreak", the gnome snorts without even turning around.

----

As she sits back in the sleigh and watches the world shoot by once again, Gwen wonders how much can go wrong with a simple shipment, when she suddenly realises that something isn't right about her own route either, noticing the sun on her front, instead of the left, where it should be when heading towards London.

Just as she tries to take a look at the navigation system, the reindeer already slow down and descend to what looks like a sandy beach on a tropical island.

A couple of minutes later she finds herself looking upon the bizarre sight of the rebellious animals lying in the shades of palm trees and bathing in the turqouise waters. Luckily her phone has reception, although it takes a while until she gets connected to breakdown services.

"Waaat 'av yer been doin' ter dees poor creatures?", an accusing Irish voice on the other side of the line asks.

"Well, I don't know!", Gwen defends herself. "I was tracking down a misdirected order and I had to go back and forth around the whole Eastern Hemisphere until..."

"'owl on", the voice interrupts her rudely. "Back an' fourth, yer say? Den naw wonder de dare are jaded beyond belief, 'avin' ter cope wi' de jet lag an' everythin'."

"Jet lag?"

"Yeah! 'av yer ever 'eard av Santa 'eadin' crisscross while he does de Christmas shift? T'be sure not! Santa alwus travels west so dat he arrives everywhere between Christmas Eve and Christmas Morning", the engineer lectures Gwen. "Waaat yer tink de reindare run on?"

"Err, hay, oats and carrots?"

"Naw, Christmas spirit! An' yisser fierce quare an' confusin' route 'eadin' from noight ter day ter noight an' back again made dem run oyt av it. Yer are in luk though. Me trackin' system tells me dat yer 'av landed on Diego Garcia atoll. Our regional fillin' stashun 'appens ter be still within reach, I'll send someone ter tow yer over there".

----

Gwen can only take it with humour at this time. "Now I know why they are called travel bugs", she tells her boss Elwin over the phone, relieved to hear that the long-lost shipment has finally been delivered to her office.

"And now that the trackables have arrived where they were supposed to go in the first place, would you please make sure that they stay where they are until I come and get them?"

"Easy, I'll just put a note with that box!", Elwin replies. "Where did you say you are now? 'Flying Fish Cove'? Is that even a real place? Sounds like the name of a bar!"

"Yes, Elwin, apparently it is. And one of the most appropriate places ever for filling up on 'Christmas spirits'. Go figure", Gwen laughs easedly while nipping on a cocktail. She is stranded here for the rest of the day, but at least no longer needs to hunt after the shipment now.

========
Part Two
========

"Gwen!", her colleages cheer and clap as she enters the branch centre the next morning.

"Yes, people, back at last from her oddyssee, the prodigal daughter returns", Elwin teases as he walks towards her. "Seriously, welcome back. Your shipment may have arrived on its own in the end after all, but, Santa was actually quite impressed with your commitment. Don't get vain just yet though, there's still some more earthly work waiting for you in your office."

"Okay, thanks", Gwen replies tiredly. "I'm just happy to be back in London now, looking forward to having a few days off soon."

She walks into her office and sees her assistant Elbert sitting readily at his desk.

"Good morning, Elbert. Sorry for my absence yesterday. Were you able to process and assign the other presents while I was trying to get a hold of the travel bug order? I was thinking that this year we should still distribute a few more fishing rods for those Biltema caches, UV flashlights should be around the same amount as previously, camouflaged containers..."

Gwen pauses as she notices Elbert looking at her with a penitent expression.

"Gwen", he explains. "The box with the travel bugs..."

"Yeah, yeah, I know, it was delivered after all", she continues. "Elwin told me he signed for it and put it somewhere, didn't he?"

"Yes, he did. Well, actually he thought it would be best to put it here with me..."

"Good idea", Gwen comments. "So where is it?"

Elbert hesitates. "Err, uh, well, that's what I was trying to say - it's gone."

"What?! How could that happen?", Gwen squeaks. "Didn't Elwin put a note with it, explicitly asking to leave it here?"

"Yeah, he did that. And at first everything was okay. Actually, after everyone here in the office had heard about your problems, they got curious about this shipment. So they just came in here and looked at it", Elbert tells her.

Gwen grunts. "Looked at it?"

"Yes, and they read Elwin's note, and it was all fine. And then some of them started to write their own notes, confirming that they had seen it right here in the office. I thought it was funny." Elbert looks like he is about to collapse out of shame now. "But then I didn't pay attention for a minute, and someone just grabbed it."

"Grabbed it?", Gwen repeats in a faltered tone. "What do you mean? Who took it? Where are the travel bugs now?"

"Well, that's the thing. I don't know... I tried to follow the tracking code on the box, but there are no new entries on it", her assistant stutters before Gwen storms out of the room.

----

After an effectless emergency meeting and a painful time without any trace of the box whatsoever, Gwen grudgingly decides to get the Kyrgyzstan workshop on the line and ask for a new shipment.

"Ve are prrrofessionals here, not mirrracle vorrrkers." Gnomanov's voice blurts through the phone. "How should ve arrange such quality prrroduct again in one day, I kannot understand, zis is not possible.", Gwen hears before the line disconnects with a click.

"Kenya - it's in Kenya!" Elwin's sudden words shouted into the conference room come as a blessing. "It has just been scanned in Nairobi! No idea how it got there, or who brought it, but it's there, currently being investigated by customs! I'll get the big man in on this right away."

"Wait, Elwin!", Gwen stops him. "Did you say it is being investigated by customs? As in, HUMAN customs?"

Her boss just nods.

"I have a bad feeling about this...", Gwen sighs.

A few minutes later she is standing on the roof of the office and in front of the familiar reindeer sleigh again.

"Mind, Santa rarely provides dis equipment so shortly before Christmas as 'tis usually needed for sum preparotory tasks - so yer better be ready for dat!", says a leprechaun engineer Gwen recognises as the voice from the breakdown services yesterday. "An' if yer must travel back an' forth again, make sure ter fill up on fuel dis time!"

----

The sleigh silently glides across the skies and Gwen finds it hard to keep her eyes open. Suddenly her phone starts ringing. Reception in full flight mode, how is that possible? She almost can't believe her eyes, it's the big boss himself, Santa!

Gwen nervously answers the call. "H-Hello?"

"Gwen, my not-so-little helper. T-o-ho-ho-ugh days you are having?"

"Well, sir, honestly it has been easier for me indeed", she admits.

"I understand. Listen, I am afraid I still have to ask you for some fav-ho-urs. I haven't been able to finish dec-ho-ho-rating, so I need you to quickly stop in Egypt."

Soon after the call Gwen finds herself in Cairo, manouvering the sleigh between the pyramids, tieing banderoles of tinsel, lights and other decorations around them. The sphinx gets a beard and an elf hat. Gwen feels honored to carry out this task, but is still relieved that it is the special kind of decoration that only people that won't be culturally offended about it can see.

----

Having to leave the sleigh and reindeer behind, carefully hidden out of the city, Gwen finally makes her way into the centre of Nairobi. Navigating her way through the customs office, stopping in several departments, until she has finally asked herself through to the officer in charge seems like a never-ending multi cache for Gwen.

"You are here about THAT box?" The woman behind the counter musters Gwen critically.

"Yes."

The officer retains a face that is hard to read. "Uh-huh. And what company are you working for?"

"Santaprices OY. We're a branch based in London and I'm a coordinator in the logisti..."

"Okay", she interrupts Gwen sharply. "Do you have any credentials on you?"

Gwen flips out her company ID and hands it to the woman. "Hmm. I thought this whole box business was some kind of supposedly funny joke. So, you are telling me you are not pulling my leg. That you are Gwen Cheri, that this company with the fake sounding name is legit and that box is yours."

"Yes, that's true", Gwen answers.

The officer suddenly blurts out in an accusing tone. "If this is no joke, then tell me, Lady, why on earth are you dressed in a Christmas Elf costume?!"

"Well... that's a company requirement! Uhm, err, I mean, at this time of the year anyway, my boss really loves Christmas. Hehe. Who doesn't?" Gwen shily smiles at the officer, who now looks at her with a mix of amusement and pity. "Stupid muggles!", she thinks to herself.

"You really should find yourself another job, Mrs Cheri. And as for that package of yours... Seriously... I mean, who ships something like that? Bugs?"

"No ma'am, I understand why the product name on the box may sound confusing to you, but these are no bugs, they're little metal tags, part of a game called geocaching", Gwen explains.

"Metal tags, huh?", the woman responds drily. "Well, this may sound confusing to you now, but I have a box full of smelly little critters under quarantine here!"

----

Back in the sleigh with a box of real bugs, a furious Gwen is on the phone with the supplier in Kyrgyzstan yet again.

"I finally have your shipment - would you kindly explain to me why you were sending me these bugs instead of travel bugs?", she demands.

"Niet, Miss, I tell you zis is rrright bug exactly. Finest Indonesian Tiger beetle. Did you know it kan rrrun up to 9 kilometerrrs in hourrr? No bug in vorrrld kan trrravel faster zan zat bug! So how long you zink it took my nephew to katch zem all? No rrrefunds forrr special orrrders! Arrrrghh! Ve are prrrofess..."

This time it is Gwen who ends the call. Bugs endemic to Indonesia? Now she doesn't particularly care much for bugs, but she can't possibly just set them free anywhere either, they should be returned to their home.

After reporting the wrong shipment and her plans to the office, she sets a course to Jakarta. A few minutes into the flight, she gets another call from Santa.

"Gwen, I heard what happened. You are such a good elf, returning the beetles to their ho-home. But the gn--ho-ho-me is now on the naughty list! He angers me!", Santa barks. "Where are you now? Can you slo-ho-ho-w down the sleigh?"

Gwen does as he asks and looks at her surroundings. "Well, I see mostly desert here, there's the ocean, oh, and coming up now, there's a huge, dense city with giant buildings reflecting the sunset, and islands that look like palm trees", she reports.

"Oh-ho-ho-ho, I know that place. This is perfect. I really have to let off some steam now..."

Gwen tries to caution Santa. "Errm, with all due respect, sir, but you really shouldn't be punishing others for..."

"Oh no-ho-ho, don't worry, my dear. I'm not punishing anyone", Santa laughs heartily, sounding more like himself again. "Just trust me and push that little button on your left now...", he continues.

Gwen discovers and pushes the button, really curious what it does.

"I'm sure the locals will love it", Santa adds as the sleigh suddenly bursts out tonnes of snow. "But the people who thought it to be a lucrative idea to have indoor skiing in the desert are so gonna hate it!", he giggles.

----

It is night when Gwen finally touches down in Jakarta. Releasing the beetles is no problem, she is glad to see them doing well after the stresses and strains they have gone though, and it is fun to watch them run off into all the different directions. Then she remembers her own dilemma. It is the day before Christmas Eve and it looks like the geocachers will have to do without trackables under the tree this year. Is there still a way to save Christmas for them? Unlikely, and running out of options for now, Gwen has to return to the headquarters.

----

Gwen arrives to an almost empty office. Most of the staff is at the company Christmas party, celebrating the end of crunch time. Only Elbert is still at his place, busily going through the journals.

"Elbert, please, call it a day and join the others", Gwen insists. "It's really not your fault that everything has gone wrong with that stupid order."

"You're right, it isn't. But that doesn't mean that I neglect my work as your assistant...", he states as he looks concentratedly at the computer screen. "I have been going through the orders from the other branches and it turns out that there was a whole shipment of geocaching trackables that is unaccounted for."

"Unaccounted for, what do you mean?", Gwen wonders. "Are you sure it wasn't my box of travelling beetles again?"

"Positive. Somebody with access to the Santa network had ordered a shipment of proper travel bugs but marked them to be returned as a false order - but before that happened they were taken out of the distribution...", Elbert asserts.

"And do you know who did that and were they are now?", Gwen probes.

Elbert seems confident. "I've got somebody looking into that right now!"

A few minutes later, Gwen's office phone rings.

"'allo 'allo, Gwén?", an exited voice quakes.

"Licorne?", she answers surprisedly.

"Oui. Leestén, Eelbairt 'as askd me to spy a lit-tell een la Noël Netwairk eend trace an ordair. Now nairmal-lee I'm not allowed to do zis, but undair la circumstancé... Allors, you didn't 'air anytheng from mé, right? Ai was abuhl to get een touch wiv ze purchasair of ze shipmont. He eez weehleng to meet wiv you tonigh, een ze Ded Moroz Baiz. Can you mak eet?"

"Ded Moroz Base? Sure, I'm on my way", Gwen shouts excitedly and with a sparkle in her eyes. "Thank you so much, Licorne!"

Elbert stares at Gwen with a very concerned look on his face. "Ded Moroz?! Gwen, that's a competitor company and we're not exactly on best terms with Old Man Frost!", he warns her urgently. "It could be a trap... Please be careful!"

----

Gwen steps onto the roof platform of the office yet again and lets out a sigh of relief when she sees that the reindeer sleigh is still parked there. Just as she is about to step into the vehicle, she hears a dark voice behind her.

"Waaat are ye at?!" She recognises the voice instantly. It is that leprechaun engineer again, looking at her with a frown.

"Oh, please, I really need the sleigh just one more time, I promise we're not going too far east again", she begs.

The leprechaun's face softens. "Oi sympathise witcha, Gwen, but... de reindare 'av ter kip an' de sleigh is already bein' prepared for the-morra. Even if oi wanted, oi really canny let yer go", he apologises.

"He's right, you know." Another familiar voice suddenly comes out of the stables.

"Mr Claus?", Gwen asks surprisedly.

"Pleased to finally meet you in person, Mrs Cheri", he smiles warmly as he extends his hand as a greeting.

"I didn't expect to see you here! What are you doing in London?", Gwen wonders curiously.

"Oh, I'm always a little nervous before the big rush that is tomorr-ho-ho-w and like to unwind before", Santa confesses. "There are a few virtual caches in the City that I've wanted to do for a long time", he declares. "And, you kno-ho-how, there's simply no point of doing these at any other time of the year. My photo logs always get deleted, the owners apparently think I'm some sort of practical joker in a costume. Christmas is the only time I can go out somewhat incognit-ho."

"Wow." Gwen is startled. "I had no idea you are a geocacher yourself, sir!"

Santa chuckles. "Why else do you think I let you use my sleigh? You are running one of the mo-ho-ho-st important departments after all! I love everything about geocaching!", he raves. "Finding the tradis in their hiding places, visiting the stages of the multis, and the riddles are great for dark winter evenings. Oh, that reminds me, there's still the final of this obnoxious mystery cache that required me to read walls of texts of some badly-written and silly Christmas story in order to simply..."

"Err, sir, I don't mean to be rude to interrupt you", Gwen interrupts him. "But - if I could have the sleigh one more time please, I might be able to save Christmas for the geocachers after all!"

"I really can't give away the sleigh again. In fact, it is supposed to be at the International Date Line already", Santa apologises. "But... there is still a very good friend of mine in the stable here who could use a little warm up for tomorrow. I suppose he doesn't mind if you take him out for a spin", he whispers.

Gwen slowly steps into the dimly lit stable, and sees the leprechaun polishing what appears to be a red ball. A red ball? Wait, no, that is Rudolph!

----

Santa entrusting Gwen to ride Rudolph is a real privilege for the associate elf. Finding the way without the autopilot from the sleigh is more than a challenge though. Luckily, the place where she is supposed to meet with the mysterious contact is not very far away from Korvatunturi, just a little bit northeast across the border, close to the Barents Sea.

Rudolph's shiny nose helps her navigate through the snowstorms of the dark polar night until they finally touch down at Ded Moroz base. It is a huge hub, swarming with activity. Hundreds of snow maidens hustle around busily, preparing everything for the new years celebrations. Before Gwen can take in the whole image, she is already met by a Krasnoludek.

"Misses Cheri? Follow me", he commands in a highly pitched voice.

He and the other helpers who lead Gwen into a back room are very tight-lipped and make her not exactly feel welcome, ignoring all of her questions. Apparently this meeting is strictly off the records.

"Mrs Cheri, I wasn't sure you could still make it here. My compliments. Santa really has a dedicated associate elf. And I believe I have something that is of interest to you", a silhouette at the other end of the room greets her.

"Yes, you might", Gwen tries to keep vague. "But I prefer to know who I am dealing with, Mr..."

"Gnomanov", the figure answers while stepping out of the shadows.

What?! In front of her, Gwen recognises that horrible person from Kyrgyzstan who messed up the order and then rudely refused to help.

"Is this some kind of joke to you, Mr Gnomanov? What makes you think I would ever consider doing business with you again?", she shouts out angrily as something else dawns on her. "Now it finally makes sense! Nobody in purchasing could ever be that incompetent - you are an agent working for Ded Moroz and wanted to sabotage me all along!", Gwen screeches, not behaving elf-like at all. "And how did you suddenly learn to speak properly?"

"Mrs Cheri. Please, let me explain", the creepy gnome answers calmly. "First of all, not all of us Kyrgyz are idiots and speak with fake soviet accents - even the worst amateur writers will have to aknowledge that at some point. Secondly, yes, indeed I have recently accepted a high level position here at Ded Moroz, but things are not like they might appear to you. You have not been dealing with me before at all. It was my identical twin brother Nurbek, who runs operations in the workshop in Kerben. My name however is Beknur Gnomanov. I was involved in the workshop as well, until a few weeks ago - when your purchase request came in. I have to admit, we didn't know what to do with it. But with a little research it wasn't all that hard to find out what you meant by a 'travel bug'. In fact, it was the only thing that made any sense! So I processed your request and ordered geocaching trackables."

Now he clearly has Gwen's attention as he goes on. "My brother didn't want to believe me that they were what you had ordered. I suggested we simply contact you for clarification. But he insisted that asking you would be 'unprofessional'. We had a big falling out over it, and when I understood he had sent my son to Indonesia to catch some beetles, it was enough, I left the company on the spot! Well, I left, after smuggling this out of the return box...", he says, pointing at a big crate bearing the original travel bug and Groundspeak logos.

"Oh", Gwen is still out of words and needs to collect herself for a moment. "I'm really sorry to hear that my order has caused you so much trouble. And I really appreciate that you accepted to meet with me on such short notice. Just... Time is really running out for me and I suppose everybody understands the weak negotiation position I am in. Your boss must sense the opportunity for big business here. Well, we're all businesspeople, so I'll cut this short: How much are you asking for the box?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing?" Gwen can't believe his words.

"Yes, nothing!", he insists, almost angered. "Why does everything always have to be about money and business?! It's Christmas, after all! In fact, I feel like I owe you, because without your order my son and I would have never been introduced to geocaching. That's the perfect activity for us little forest people!", Mr. Gnomanov smiled. "We have already found dozens of great and tricky caches, and it cost us not a thing. Eventually we realised how much time, money and effort some cache owners put into their hobby, and it's just fair to give something back in return every now and then. Please, take the box, Mrs Cheri. Merry Christmas."

----

Now elves aren't known to be very emotional, but even associate elf Gwen Cheri is moved to tears because of her own personal and slightly kitschy Christmas miracle. And as she is flying Rudolph back towards London, the crate of trackables safely attached to his back, she suddenly spots bright lights below.

It is a city, idyllically located between forests, two big bodies of water, with a fast river flowing through. Gwen sees a tall structure that looks like a saucer on a stick, a couple of chimneys, one emitting white smoke, and a black tower with colourful moving lights on its top.

Suddenly, she gets an idea, having learnt a moral lesson from Mr. Gnomanov. Earlier she has found a small plastic box with some carrot pieces on Rudolph's gear and already fed all of them to him, so they will not really need it now anymore. Then her eyes settle on the box with trackables.

"Well, it's such a big box, I'm sure there must be a few extra in there...", she reasons to herself.

She takes a travel bug tag out, quickly tears a few pages from her journal and places both in the box. In an unseen moment, she quickly lands Rudolph and puts the container into a hiding place.

"I wonder if anyone will actually ever find this...", Gwen ponders as she continues her journey home. "I suppose I'll have to make some kind of listing for it. Oh - wouldn't it be fun to have the cachers somehow follow my journey?!" She chuckles at the memories of the last two days. After all, this whole adventure was supposed to be just a quick flight before Christmas!

----

THE END

Additional Hints (Decrypt)

Gnxr gur gvzr gb ernq gur fgbel pnershyyl.

Decryption Key

A|B|C|D|E|F|G|H|I|J|K|L|M
-------------------------
N|O|P|Q|R|S|T|U|V|W|X|Y|Z

(letter above equals below, and vice versa)



 

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