"I don't think Santa would approve," Meghan said, pointing to the backpack where Brian had just stashed a copy of the "Hacker's Handbook...

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“I don’t think Santa would approve,” Meghan said, pointing to the backpack where Brian had just stashed a copy of the “Hacker’s Handbook.”

“It’s not what you think,” Brian said. “I’m hoping it can help me figure out how the network is being compromised. Whoever’s doing this is really good.”

“So why hide it?”

“Come on. You know my past. And I admit it: Hacking into the North Pole Network would have been cool back then. But Elf Camp changed me.” He smiled proudly. “I’m the first camper to make head counselor in less than a year.”

“Is the hacker as good as you?” Meghan asked.

“Better. Whoever it is knows what I’m going to do before I do. Look.”

Meghan found herself wanting to believe him. She scooted her chair next to his.

“Here’s what’s come in so far.” Brian toggled to a screen on his monitor.

“You Better Watch Out.” Evil red eyes peered out from the O’s.

“That arrived just before the whole system crashed,” Brian said. “This one” — “He Knows When You Are Sleeping” — “came right before a sleep-chamber malfunction turned campers into sleep-over zombies.”

He toggled a third time. “This came the night you guys arrived”:

“Have A Blue, Blake Christmas” flashed in oversized sky-colored letters.

Meghan felt a chill. “Rudolph’s nose! But what’s the Blake connection?”

“It’s got to be someone in the computer club,” Brian said. “If I could just … “

“What?”

“Get into a meeting,” Brian said. “Thing is, I got other kids, my friends, in trouble. Courtney Smith and Gary Hobbs both were suspended.”

“What if I joined?” she said.

“No way. If the hacker is in the club, it could get dicey.”

A camper appeared in the doorway. “Break time. We’re thinking snowball fight. Campers against counselors.”

“You’re on,” Brian said. “Be prepared to lose.”

Giggles and shrieks filled the night air. Brian chased Meghan. Jack came to her defense. The three collided and fell into a laughing heap. Brian and Meghan were nose to nose. Time seemed to freeze.

“My glasses!” Meghan cried. Brian plucked them from the snow and handed them over. They both scrambled to their feet and away from each other.

Meghan was trying to stay cool under Courtney Smith’s skeptical gaze.

“Why didn’t you join when school started?” Courtney demanded.

Meghan looked around the lab. Some kids worked alone, others played video games against each other. Courtney’s younger brother Dylan and Erin Hobbs’ brother Gary were the only kids she recognized.

“My mom’s paranoid,” Meghan explained. “She read in the paper that the club president got expelled last year for changing grades in the school computer.”

“Brian Radcliff,” Dylan piped up. He wore a Beatles T-shirt. “A real loser.”

“Shut up, Dylan,” Courtney said.

“That was last year,” she told Meghan. “I’m in charge now.”

It struck Meghan how much Courtney and Dylan looked alike. Same height and build. Same haughty air. Same dirty-blond shoulder-length hair. Put them in the same clothes, from behind you couldn’t tell them apart.

“Whatever happened to him?” Meghan asked

Everyone had an answer.

“He’s in jail.”

“Security consultant. Makes millions.”

“You wish,” Dylan said derisively. “Radcliff works for the Geek Guys.”

“What’s that?” Meghan asked.

“They drive VW Beetles and do home-computer repair. Like I said, a real loser,” Dylan said.

“I told you to shut up, Dylan,” his sister said.

That night in Brian’s office, he and Meghan compared a nursing-home request for 35 foot baths with what the computer ordered: hula hoops.

“You think someone from Blake’s computer club is doing this?” Meghan asked.

“I’m not positive,” Brian said. “There’s something I haven’t told you.” He got up and closed the door. “How I became head counselor.”

“Elf Camp runs year-round to keep up with the demand, not just for toys, but kids in trouble. This past summer, Courtney, Gary and Dylan got their invitations. I was their counselor.

“At first, I thought it was great until Courtney and Gary hacked into the network. The ‘Hacker’s Handbook’ is theirs; I caught them with it in here. I warned them three times.” Brian sighed.

“But when they altered the sleep chambers’ efficiency level — kids were so tired, they started having accidents on the job — Santa sent them home. The hacking stopped and I got promoted.”

Eerie music emanated from Brian’s computer speakers. A pop-up flashed across the screen: a stuffed stocking bearing this message:

“Christmas Is Doomed!”

Wednesday: Santa Claus is coming to town