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The Dangling Thief
A Christmas tale from Cheeseburger Brown
CHAPTERS 1-6|7-12
The Dangling Thief, a science-fiction Christmas story by Cheeseburger Brown; illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 1

Once upon a time there was a lucky thief, in his case lucky because he seldom got what he deserved. Instead he got other people's stuff. I don't know for sure whether or not those people deserved what they had, but they certainly didn't deserve to be robbed. But they were robbed. Because the thief also did robbing on the side.

That's how he came to have their stuff.

Usually he sold the stuff (so he could use dirty dollars to buy groceries or new socks) but sometimes he kept bits of it for himself (like an especially fancy watch or a telephone with a television in it).

Sometimes other thieves who were stronger than he was beat him up and took his stuff away, but sometimes they didn't. For example, for years and years he'd been the only one at the secret robbers' camp to own a toaster. Nobody had ever tried to take his toaster.

"One day," the thief promised himself, "I'll steal some bread. And then when those bullies smell my toast cooking, they'll regret not robbing me!"

He wasn't very smart. To tell you the truth, our thief was a fool.

But he wasn't all bad. Not all the way through.

His name, if you're wondering, was Raoul.



CHAPTER 2

Raoul wore a white tuxedo, but it didn't fit quite right. He had to twist when he reached or risk ripping at the shoulder; he had to stoop when he hunkered for fear of splitting the seat.

If that happened, everyone on the cruise ship would see his shabby underwear.

The ship was full of rich people on vacation. A lot of them wanted to spend their vacation getting fat, so they were invited to feed at a sumptuous buffet: row after row of steaming trays full of every food imaginable from thousand dollar grilled cheese to diamond-studded hot dogs.

Raoul would crowd into the line while everyone was heaping food on their plates. Sometimes he would smoosh up against people and say, "Oh, sorry!" while he took something from them without their noticing. Sometimes he undid ladies' necklaces at the napes of their necks while they weren't paying attention, then scooped the necklaces up from the floor where they fell. He had other stealing tricks, too.

Pretty soon his pockets would be full of stolen loot.

That's when it was time for him to make his getaway. That's when it was time for Raoul to meet up with his fellow thieves, so they could all climb into their little boat again and motor back to the robbers' secret island, laughing all the way.

Except Raoul stopped to play a game of roulette. The ball rolled in his favour, and Raoul won. He felt like the luckiest thief in the whole world. He threw up his arms and cheered.

He threw up his arms and ripped his tuxedo.

Loot came tumbling out everywhere. Everyone looked at him and gasped. "My golden watch!" "My emerald bracelet!" "My priceless brooch!" "My antique cat!"

Somebody cried, "Thief! Thief!"

And then the ship hit an iceberg.



CHAPTER 3

All hands abandoned ship.

The passengers and crew piled into lifeboats. Raoul's fellow thieves motored away. Only Raoul was left behind, because the people he'd stolen things from had all worked together to tie him to the roulette wheel. They were awfully sore about having been robbed, and nothing Raoul could say could change their minds.

He lost every bit of his loot, except for a single glittering red ruby ring that he had hidden it in a place polite people never look. The money the ring could bring was cold comfort now, though. Raoul shifted and winced.

The ship creaked and groaned. The floor was tilted, and all the chairs had crashed into a bundle of broken parts on one side of the games parlour. Raoul stared at the port holes, waiting to see icy Antarctic water washing up against the glass.

Raoul was sure he was going to die. But he became less sure when hours went by and it didn't happen.

Using his bum, he was able to find a sharpish edge on the table beneath him. He used advanced squirming techniques to position some of the rope over the edge, and then he sawed the rope back and forth until the rope broke. Next, he rolled side to side until he fell off the roulette wheel. He got to his feet and hopped with his legs tied together until he got to the nearest port hole.

The sky was pink. The sun was skimming the horizon. Down below he could see the ocean's waves, and through the waves he could see a bright white ledge of ice sticking out from the iceberg.

The cruise ship was sitting on an ice-shelf. It wasn't sinking at all. Instead, it was teetering (which, given the choice, was preferable).

There was no sign of the lifeboats, or of his fellow thieves.

"Holy smokes!" yelped Raoul. "I've got my very own cruise ship! Wait til the boys back home get a load of this!"

Then he fell over.

He spent the next whole day wriggling out of the rest of the ropes the passengers had tied him with, and after that the only thing he was concerned about was finding some water to drink. That's when the lights went out.

When Raoul finally made his way out of the dark to the deck and into the sunshine he realized what a serious pickle he was in: he was stuck on a ship with no power and no lifeboats, drifting wherever the iceberg drifted, lost somewhere off the coast of Antarctica...

Raoul shivered. He hugged his ripped tuxedo around his shoulders.

He didn't feel so lucky anymore.

But, as usual, Raoul was wrong. Luckily wrong.



CHAPTER 4

It was summer in Antarctica. The days were blazing and blue. There were no nights at all.

The iceberg with the cruise ship lodged on it continued to drift south. In the warm afternoons chunks of the iceberg would break away, sometimes causing the ship to suddenly slide lower. Deck by deck she was filling with salt water.

The air became a soup of fog. From the foredeck Raoul could not see the aft, and from the aftdeck he couldn't make out the fore. Except for a glow of blue up above, the whole world was milky and grey. Sometimes he couldn't even see the water.

Raoul ate cold ravioli. He sat all alone in the tilted dining hall, up to his ankles in water. As he chewed he watched a serving tray float by. He sighed, because he was very lonely and didn't know if there was any hope of help.

That's when he heard the sound of a bell being struck -- far away, but unmistakable: cling.

Raoul dropped his fork and slogged his way out to the deck. The bell was still sounding, and beneath it he could now detect a low buzzing, like a swarm of bees. He looked all around but all he could see was fog. He cupped his hands and yelled, "Helloo-oo-oo-oo!"

Cling, clang. Buzzzzzz. Clang!

The noises were getting louder. Something was coming closer. The bell was ringing like an alarm. Motors were roaring. At last Raoul saw that a particular patch of fog was darkening: a hazy shadow was taking shape, cast from something huge, looming ever closer over the ice-wedged cruise ship.

Raoul squinted, and cocked his head. He called, "Is somebody out there?"

The bank of darkening fog was suddenly whisked away, twisting aside like curtains, revealing a massive airship the size of an island. Dozens of propellers growled as the giant dirigible leaned first one way and then the other, snapped ropes from a tattered, broken section dangling down into the water. Alarm bells were ringing, and men were yelling.

Raoul turned to watch as the amazing craft flew right overhead, dipping him into shadow and then out again.

The frayed end of the one of the loose ropes snaked along the deck of the cruise ship. It knocked over parasols and lounge chairs, hissing as it went. Just as the rope was about to slip over the side and back into the water Raoul jumped up and caught it. And off he went, holding on for dear life.

The deck of the cruise ship dropped away. His feet were hanging over the ocean, the surface of which was dotted with bits of bright white ice.

Raoul was quite nervous. He fought the urge to barf.

"Cripes!" he cried. "I'm hanging from the biggest blimp in the world!"

Nobody had ever given Raoul advice on the subject of what's best to do when one finds oneself hanging from blimps, but since he was more afraid of the open ocean below than the strange airship above he chose to climb up the rope. This turned out to be much harder than Raoul had thought it would be. He wished he had put in a better effort in gym class, before he ran away from school.

Raoul's rope was attached to a net girdling the underside of the airship, so when he got to the top he crawled into the net and just lay there for a while. He was happy to give his poor arms a break after all that hanging and climbing. His muscles felt like they were made of apple sauce -- apple sauce with hot peppers!

Swinging in a cradle of netting, the thief fell asleep.



CHAPTER 5

Raoul awoke to the sound of the airship's growling engines and an icy coldness deep inside his bones. His eyes snapped open and he shivered. The world around him was still a smear of grey fog.

Or was it? His eyes strained against the cloudiness. Was it really more fog beneath him or...? No, it was not fog: instead, down below, he saw hills and plains of perfectly white snow. The airship had taken Raoul inland, away from the sea, into the frozen interior of Antarctica.

Even as he realized this the sound of the engines changed. The airship was descending. Raoul grabbed the netting around him and clung to it, his eyed wide with fear.

Try as he might to guess where the airship might be landing, Raoul could not pick out any features on the snowscape ahead -- no buildings, no roads, no people. As far as he could tell the airship was speeding straight toward a crash!

Just as the airship seemed about to plow into its own shadow on the glittering white plains it turned sharply and dove into a narrow valley with steep walls of ice. The propellors seemed to roar even louder as their own voices were echoed back at them off the diamond-hard sides of the trench.

Ahead Raoul spotted a spot of darkness. As it grew in his vision he recognized it for what it was: the yawning entrance of a massive ice cave!

The engines whined as the airship slowed. The mouth of the cave loomed. In a blink the airship slipped into shadow, still slowing down, rudders turning as the giant ship was manoeuvred carefully inside the cave. The cave was in fact a long tunnel, running down deep beneath the glaciers, its sides twisted and bumpy like melted blue glass. The roof and the floor of the cave flashed with little red and green lights to help guide the airship safely along.

Raoul was really starting to wonder what sort of a crazy mess he had gotten himself into.

He was startled by the shouts of nearby people. People bundled up in warm jumpsuits were clambering over the outside of the airship with bundles of rope in their arms. None of them noticed Raoul because they were all keeping their goggled eyes ahead, waiting for something, ropes clutched ready in their gloves...

The engines changed their song again as the airship nosed into a giant ice hangar filled by a dozen other ships. The great flat frozen floor was painted with coloured lines, like in a hockey game, and the airship Raoul was riding moved into position over a set of circles with a cross in the middle. The men and women onboard tossed their ropes with cries of, "Ho!" The ropes were caught by crews on the floor. "Ho, ho!"

They hauled the airship down, hand over hand.

A party of monks in simple grey robes and cleated sandals walked out to meet the ship as a ramp descended from its belly. Raoul squished closer into his nook, trying to hide as he craned his neck around to see. A pair of big black boots stomped down the ramp as it touched down on the ice floor with a thump.

The first monk bowed, the shaved bald top of his head shining. "Captain Rudolphus," he said with a smile as he straightened up again. "You're early!"

The man in the big black boots bowed to him in turn, his great red coat swishing aside, its golden buttons sparkling. "Brother Julius," he said in a deep, heavy voice. "Our work is not yet done."

The monk's smile disappeared. "You've taken damage?" He looked up at the ship, his expression worried.

The captain nodded. "We need emergency repairs." He gestured behind him without turning around. "We snapped a mainstay on the starboard wing, and the load bent some braces on the upper fins."

The monk squinted, then cocked his head, then frowned. "...Plus you've got a little man in a tuxedo stuck in the netting."

The captain turned around, eyes widening as he spotted Raoul still clinging to the airship's underside.

"Hi," said Raoul. He twisted awkwardly in the ropes, then fell off the ship. "Oof."



CHAPTER 6

Raoul sat on a hard chair at a bare table beneath one lonely lightbulb. He held an empty mug in his hands. His head hung low.

Brother Julius paced back and forth across the tiny room, his cleated sandals ringing on the packed-ice floor. Captain Rudolphus leaned against the wall, arms crossed, frowning behind his ginger beard.

Raoul had just told them the story of the cruise ship and the iceberg and losing his loot and catching the airship's dangling rope and riding all the way to their secret ice cave, and they didn't know what to make of it all. "I don't know what to make of all this!" cried Julius.

"Calm down," advised Rudolphus. "Let's focus on getting me airborne again. I have a crew member in the infirmary, a broken ship and a mission to complete. We can't throw away time on some stowaway."

"But what's to be done with him?" sighed Julius.

"That's not my worry," growled Rudolphus. "My concern is Christmas."

Julius paced back and forth across the room a few more times, then looked up sharply. "I have an idea!" He held up one finger significantly. "He can make amends by working on your ship! He can fill in for your injured crewman."

Captain Rudolphus snorted. "Him? A common thief? Serving on a mission for Nicholas himself?" He shook his head. "Absolutely not."

"But if he can't come to goodness by this path, by which?" demanded Julius, standing tall. "He's landed in your lap, Captain Rudolphus. You can't ignore that."

"A bug on my windshield!" scoffed Rudolphus.

"An opportunity," corrected Julius, "to let this bad man get a glimpse of good work, in the hope he will find it contagious." He put a hand on the captain's shoulder. "Rudolphus, open your heart. Give this poor fellow a chance to be good again."

Both men turned to look at Raoul. Raoul held up his empty mug sheepishly. "Is there more hot cocoa?"

Rudolphus sneered. "He doesn't even say please."

"He has bad habits," agreed Julius. "But he may not be rotten all the way through. Not yet."

Captain Rudolphus stroked his beard. "And if you're wrong?"

Brother Julius raised his brow, a funny look in his eye. "He came from the ocean," he decided. "Throw him back."

The two men towered over him, rubbing their chins. Raoul gulped.

At last the captain nodded. "Very well," he rumbled, hands on his hips. "Get on your feet, rapscallion! There'll be no more laying about. You're working for Nicholas now, and time is joy."

Raoul rocketed to his feet. He slipped on the ice and danced a bit to keep his balance, accidentally kicking over the table. He tried to salute, but ended up throwing his mug across the room. Brother Julius ducked. The mug shattered behind him. "Oh my!"

"Sorry," mumbled Raoul.

Captain Rudolphus rolled his eyes.


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