Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

Every Boy Should Face His Demons, Charlie Boone!

© 2020 Geron Kees All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. All characters and situations are imaginary. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation.

This story is written NOT to include the present Covid situation. The author knows that most people have more than enough of that to deal with on a daily basis, and feels that readers wouldn't mind missing it here in the Charlie Boone universe.

Kippy Lawson frowned his best intimidating frown. "You're kidding me, right?"

The four of them were standing in Charlie's bedroom, within the elongated rectangle of the late October sun as it poured in through the front window onto the hardwood floor. Leaves drifted down outside in the breeze, taking their final plunges from the old oak at the corner of the house. It was a cool day, definitely jacket weather, and not a bad one to be indoors.

Ricky Travers looked momentarily taken aback by Kippy's expression. But then he laughed, and offered up his best cocky grin in response. "No, I'm not. You'll like my cousin, Annie. She's good people. And Moped is a fun doggie."

Kippy turned to Adrian Whitaker, Ricky's boyfriend, and transferred the frown to him. "And are you in on this plot to desecrate our Halloween?"

Adrian's eyes widened, and his gaze briefly sought out Charlie's; but Charlie could only offer a sympathetic grin.

"Well, I don't think it's a bad idea, really," Adrian said firmly.

Charlie sighed, knowing how this would play out. Kippy would be wounded at the idea of doing something so seemingly trivial and unplanned for the holiday, and would need to be coaxed into seeing the good points of the idea. Kippy had very definite notions on how holidays should go. So maybe the best thing to do was just to short circuit this whole thing and cut directly to the chase.

"I think it's a cool idea," Charlie said enthusiastically. "I'd love to go."

Kippy's jaw dropped, and he placed his hands on his hips. "Not you, too! Charlie Boone, it's Halloween! We have a tradition!"

Charlie sighed at that. "Kip, we haven't done the same thing for Halloween the past four years in a row. How can you even say that?"

His boyfriend shook his head. "Every year, something has come up. Some new adventure! Something great! Something amazing!" He pouted now, looking hurt. "And now you want to go and house sit for Ricky's cousin? Where's the adventure in that?"

Charlie moved closer, and tried to take Kip into his arms, but he shied away, looking adamant. "You always expect me to just melt in your arms and go along with you!"

Charlie took another patient step forward, pulled Kippy closer, and gently kissed him. Kippy resisted, his body as stiff as a board, and tried to pull away. Charlie pressed closer, gently raining kisses on the other boy's lips and face, and then sighed and pushed their cheeks together, and whispered into his ear, "I love you so much, Kip."

For a moment longer Kippy resisted; and then his body slowly went limp, and he pressed a kiss into Charlie's cheek. "Oh, Charlie. I love you, too."

Charlie pulled back, smiling. "You're absolutely right. Every year, something has come up to help propel us into Halloween. And this year, this has come up. Ricky's cousin wants to go somewhere for the holiday, and she wants someone to housesit her new house and look after her dog. We aren't doing anything, we're too old to trick or treat, and my parents are home this year and really don't want us tricking out the house into a scarefest for the local rugrats. There aren't any parties, and if there are, we haven't been told about them or invited." He laughed. "What did you have in mind to do?"

Kippy pouted again. "I don't know. I expected maybe Max, or Frit and Pip, to show up with something cool to do, or maybe we'd get a call from the guys on Engris, or have invading aliens come to visit, or...something!"

Charlie nodded. "Well, this is something. How do you know that we aren't supposed to be doing this this year?"

Kippy looked surprised, frowned a moment, and then looked slightly unsure of himself. "Well...because my skwish hasn't told me anything."

Charlie nodded patiently. "Did you try asking it?"

Kippy's frown deepened, but then he nodded. "Wait a second, while I check." He closed his eyes tightly, and Charlie watched while Kip's expression went from annoyance to surprise, and then to curiosity. Kippy opened his eyes then, and turned to Adrian. "Why didn't you say that your skwish was silent on this?"

"You didn't ask," Adrian said, smiling. "And you didn't give me a chance, before you went off."

"Oh." Kippy looked contrite now, and turned a smile on Charlie, and hugged him closer. "Okay, I'll go."

Charlie couldn't help laughing. "As quickly as that? What did your skwish have to tell you?"

Kippy gave Charlie a final kiss, and then drew away from him. " was kinda weird. I didn't get a sense that we should go, but I didn't get a sense that we shouldn't."

Charlie looked over at Adrian. "Is that what you get?"

"Yes. Just a sort of neutral feeling about it. That's one reason why I want to go."

Charlie squinted at the other boy a moment, then turned back to his boyfriend. "Neutral is good?"

"Oh, Charlie, you just don't get it. Skwish is very quick at letting us know things. If this trip was going to just be a total boring waste of time, I would feel that. Instead, I feel sort of nothing."

Charlie scratched his head and looked at Ricky, who just shrugged. "Don't ask me. I'm just along for the ride on this skwish stuff."

Kippy sighed happily, and reached out and gave Charlie's arm a squeeze. "This is kind of exciting!"

"It is?" Charlie stared at his boyfriend, trying to see if Kip was having fun with him; but Kippy just sighed again, this time patiently, and leaned closer again and pecked Charlie on the lips.

"Don't you get it, Charlie? My skwish is telling me nothing about this trip. Skwish has something to say about everything. So nothing at all means it doesn't know!" Kippy gave a small shake of his head, as if in wonder. "Or, that so many things can happen, or not happen, that my skwish just can't predict the outcome."

"That's kind of creepy, isn't it?" Charlie decided, now not so sure about this whole idea.

"What it is, is interesting!" Kippy countered. "It means to me that there's something strange about this trip. And I want to know what it is!"

Charlie looked over at Ricky, who just shrugged. "It's just my cousin, Charlie."

"Uh huh. What's she do?"

"She works in a bakery, customizing cakes." Ricky smiled. "She's sort of a pastry artist."

Charlie's eyebrows bounced upwards. "There's money in that?"

"Sure. Besides, she doesn't need money. Her grandparents left her a pile of cash."

Kippy suddenly smiled, winked at Charlie, and sidled over to rub up against Ricky. "You have rich people in your family?"

Adrian rolled his eyes, and Charlie and Ricky both grinned.

"Not directly," Ricky explained, trying not to laugh. "Annie is my dad's older sister's daughter. It was Annie's dad's side of the family that had some money. They left it to Annie in their will."

Kippy offered up a plainly exaggerated, toothy smile. "A lot of money?"

Ricky shrugged nonchalantly. "Well, enough to buy a nice house in the woods, anyway."

Kippy digested that, and then he patted Ricky's arm, and smiled at Adrian. "Oh, hold onto this one. There might be more where that came from."

Charlie sighed, and pinned his boyfriend with a pointed gaze. "Are you through?"

Kippy grinned, danced back over to Charlie, and rubbed up against him. "Yes. Don't worry. You give me something better than money."

Charlie grinned. "Yeah?"

"Uh huh. Fun! You're just so much fun to be with, Charlie Boone!"

Charlie scratched his head, a little disappointed. "Oh. I thought maybe you meant I was a good lover, or something."

Kippy pouted again, although this time it came with a smile. "You're a great lover, Charlie," he said sincerely.

At Charlie's answering smile, Kippy just patted his arm. "After all, I taught you everything I know!"

Ricky raised his hands and mimed a drum roll in the air. "Kerching! Point for Kip's side!"

Charlie grinned at his boyfriend. "Yes, you did. And I've added so much to that tiny amount since then. "

Adrian hooted, and made his own drum roll. "Even up, now!"

Kippy just smiled broadly, and kissed Charlie another time. "I'm excited about this trip now!"

Charlie took in the sharp little lights of anticipation in his boyfriend's eyes, and gently shook his head. Kip was in the hyper mode he adopted when some new notion had caught his devoted interest. There would be no rest now for any of them until they actually arrived at the home of Rick's cousin. And maybe not even then!

Kippy turned back to Ricky and pointed at the bed, and the cot next to it, now a permanent fixture in Charlie's bedroom. "Let's all sit and talk. I want to hear more about this."

"I do, too," Adrian agreed, taking Ricky by the arm and moving him towards a seat on the cot.

Kippy turned to Charlie and grabbed his arm, too. "Come on, Charlie. You're holding up the show!"

Charlie sighed, and let himself be towed to the bed, where he and Kippy plopped down, side-by-side, across from their friends. Kippy immediately wrapped an arm around Charlie and snuggled close, and favored Ricky with a glowing smile. "Now tell!"

An amused expression crossed Ricky's features, and the look he gave Charlie made him smile. But it was too late to turn back now. Bridges had been burned, and marshmallows toasted.

"Yeah. Tell!" Charlie added mischievously, winking at Rick and giving Kip a fond squeeze. "You're holding up the show, Rick!"

The other boy narrowed his eyes momentarily in a glare of accusation, but then just shrugged and held up one hand. "I don't know what you want to hear, Kip. My cousin Annie called and asked if I was doing anything for Halloween. She wants to drive up to the city to see some friends for the holiday. Halloween is on a Saturday this year, as you know. She wants to leave Friday morning, and said she'll be back on Monday night. She just doesn't want to leave the house empty, and with no one to look out for Moped."

"Moped's her dog?" Kippy asked.

Ricky's answering smile left no doubt how he felt about that. "Yeah. She's a Golden Retriever. A real sweetie."

"I can understand that," Kippy decided. "You don't go off for four days and leave your dog to fend for herself."

"Right." Ricky held up a hand to Kip. "And that's all."

Kippy looked unconvinced. "There has to be more than that."

"Well, there isn't." Ricky's gaze sought out Charlie's. "It's just housesitting."

"What kind of house is it?" Kippy asked. "You said it's new?"

Ricky pursed his lips momentarily. "Well, it's new for her. I don't think it's brand new, but with the kind of money she has to spend, I'm sure it's nice."

"Ah." Kippy smiled triumphantly. "You haven't seen it."

"No, Kip. I haven't seen it."

"Where did you say it was?"

Ricky looked patient. "I didn't. But it's down by Norwich, about an hour from here. It's a nice drive."

"Does it matter what it looks like?" Adrian asked. "What has that got to do with anything?"

"It has a lot to do with everything," Kip returned. "Maybe it's a really spooky-looking place. You know, like the house in that animated movie, The Addams Family, last year?"

Ricky gaped, and then laughed. "That house was butt-ugly, Kip! My cousin wouldn't buy a place like that!"

"Well, it doesn't have to be that spooky! Just a place with...with a history, you know? Maybe a creepy cult lived there, or someone was murdered in the basement?" Kippy nodded knowingly. "The real estate people don't tell you stuff like that."

Charlie turned his head and stared at his boyfriend. "Have you ever considered the idea that it's just a house, and that all we will be doing is having four nice days to ourselves, maybe hand out some candy to the local kids on Saturday night, and look after a really nice dog?"

Kippy pouted. "Oh, Charlie! Stop being so negative!"

Charlie laughed. "Having a murder take place in the basement is positive?"

"Well, it's something. There has to be some reason why my skwish is being so quiet on this."

"Maybe nothing will happen," Ricky suggested. "Maybe it will go just like Charlie said, and we'll just have four nice days together." He smiled. "Wouldn't that actually be a pretty cool way to spend the holiday?"

Kippy made a face, but Charlie could see that his boyfriend was thinking about it. "Well...yeah, that wouldn't be so bad." He allowed Charlie a smile. "I can think of worse ways to spend the holiday, than just being with Charlie and you guys."

"The town is nice," Ricky said. "Comfortable. They have some nice shops there. And Annie said there's a pizza place that delivers."

Kippy emitted a faintly contemptuous sound. "It won't be Irving's." But then he sighed, and managed to offer up a nice grin. "But I'm sure it will do."

Charlie put his arm around his boyfriend and gave him a squeeze. "And I thought you were going to be hard to convince!"

Ricky and Adrian both laughed, but there was nothing mean about it. Kippy grinned, and nodded. "I deserved that, and I'm sorry. I just thought...well, Halloween is usually such a special day for us. This one sounds"

"Dull," Charlie supplied, smiling. He leaned over and kissed Kippy's cheek. "It won't be, I'm sure."

"There's an idea," Ricky said brightly. "Maybe your skwish knows that nothing will happen at all but that we'll have a great time together, and it was just so bored it went to sleep and can't answer."

Adrian favored his boyfriend with a surprised laugh, and then a smile. "Stop teasing him, Rick."

"It's okay," Kippy decided, nodding. "I see now I was being a little, um, inflexible." He beamed at Charlie. "You know how flexible I usually am."

Charlie grinned. "Do I!"

Everyone laughed, and Adrian reached across and patted Kip's knee. "I'm glad you see the possibilities here."

Kippy nodded. "Even if my skwish isn't saying anything about this trip, I feel it on my own that there will be something special about it." He turned to Charlie. "When do we leave?"

Charlie shifted his gaze to Rick. "When do we leave?"

"Uh, mom said I could take her SUV. We can leave early Friday morning. I'll call Annie and let her know we're coming."

"Great!" Kippy gave Charlie a huge squeeze. "This will be fun!"

Charlie sighed, and then just had to lean over and give Kip a kiss. "You make my life interesting, I'll say that."

Kippy nodded, his eyes shining. "It's my job, Charlie." He returned the kiss. "That, and loving you forever!"

The road wound through a wooded countryside bright with reds and yellows. A fair amount of stubborn green lingered among the trees - those growths which had either resisted the call of the coming winter thus far, or for which green was a yearlong color. This part of the state leaned heavily towards deciduous trees, but the conifers were also well-represented. The result was beautiful, any way you looked at it.

"Wow," Kippy said quietly, watching as the early morning sunshine played light games among the trees to the east. "It's certainly pretty here."

Adrian, up front next to Ricky, turned and smiled at him over the back of the seat. "It looks just like home, Kip."

Kippy looked surprised at that, and Charlie gave him a gentle squeeze with his arm. "He's right. It's just as pretty back where we live."

"It is?" Kip frowned, and then sighed. "Remind me to look more closely when we get back."

Charlie looked out the window, and nodded to himself. Much of the state had once been covered with the same old growth forest, and it was all glorious at this time of the year. "I don't think we're more than about forty miles from home," he told his boyfriend.

"I know. I was just..." Kip turned to gaze at Charlie. "I just feel...kind of...away from everything this holiday. I was wondering what everyone was doing. Max, and Frit and Pip. Pacha, Mike, Bobby, and Kontus."

"Ragal and Casper," Adrian added, with a sigh. "And Billy and Will."

Ricky grunted, and his eyes briefly met theirs in the rear view mirror. "Don't forget Murcha, Onglet, and Ilia."

Kippy shook his head. "Oh, I couldn't."

"And Nicholaas, Ronja, and Auggie," Charlie added. He sighed, and gave his boyfriend a squeeze. "What's up, Kip? Why the nostalgic moment?"

Kippy smiled at him. "I'm just remembering all our friends. It's a holiday, Charlie. Or, it will be soon. I always think about our friends at holiday times. I mean, I think about them a little extra, you know? And how lucky we are to have so many good ones."

"We are lucky," Adrian agreed. He smiled. "Lucky to have each other, too."

"That's got my vote," Ricky agreed, his grin plain in his voice. "I'd get lost without you guys." He turned to smile at his boyfriend. "Especially you."

Adrian positively glowed in response, and Kippy smiled happily, sighed, and pushed up even closer to Charlie. "I love love."

Charlie nodded, gave his boyfriend a kiss, and let his eyes resume contemplating the fall beauty around them. "It's a great place to be in love, isn't it?" he asked softly.

Kippy just nodded, closed his eyes, and gave a big, happy sigh.

Adrian looked at his watch, and then at his boyfriend. "I'll give you a big hug and a kiss when we get to your cousin's house. You said an hour to get there?"

Kippy's eyelids immediately bounced upwards again, and he laughed. "Yeah. Are we there yet?"

Ricky snorted, but gave Adrian a sweet smile before looking more closely at the road ahead. A large field had appeared to one side, and then a house accompanied by farm outbuildings. "We should be getting to the town before much longer. I've only been down this way a few times, but I remember that big barn there. Maybe five more minutes."

The woods along the country route continued to draw back from the shoulder as more fields came into view, and individual houses began to appear, set well back from the road. The driveways continued getting shorter as they drove along, until the houses were much closer to the road; and then they entered a small valley, and a town laid itself out ahead of them.

"Wow," Kippy said, laughing. He reached forward and patted Ricky's shoulder. "That's what I call service!"

Charlie surveyed the view, smiling. Wow was right. The entire valley was visible as they approached, and what he could see of it looked enchanting. This place had the look of a genuine rural town, surrounded mostly by undeveloped nature, and had a feel to it already noticeably different from the suburbs they lived in. Even though there were probably thousands of people living in Norwich, he could close one eye and imagine that they all knew each other, and looked out for each other. Small towns seemed to have a magical quality to them, a sense of community that was sometimes no longer apparent in the greater world today.

Charlie knew that some of that thinking was wishful, and that people everywhere had the same joys and the same problems, mostly. And small towns often were short on opportunity for those looking to be more than the life they had been given seemed to allow. The same atmosphere that made a small town comfortable and intimate could be suffocating under other circumstances. But it was a nice thought to imagine that some places might defy the rules, just a little, and be much more wonderful to call home.

Another town, much smaller than this one, came to mind then, causing Charlie's smile to broaden.

"What are you grinning about?" Kippy asked then, pushing against him. "I want some of that!"

Charlie laughed. "You got me feeling nostalgic, too. I was thinking of Twombly, and wondering how our friends there are doing."

Kippy's interest notched up another level. "Ooh. I'd love to see them all again." A look of determination came into his eyes. "We need to visit Twombly again before Christmas, Charlie."

"I'd be up for that," Ricky said. "What about you, Ad?"

"Oh, I'd love to see Kiley and Kiri again." Adrian's eyes widened, and he smiled. "Hey, maybe your uncle would like to go, too."

"Uncle Bob?" Ricky nodded. "I'll bet he would." Ricky's eyes met Charlie's in the rear view mirror. "Hey, maybe we would do another magic show for the town?"

Kippy took a deep breath at the suggestion, and then let it gush out enthusiastically. "That would be so cool!" He pushed excitedly against Charlie. "Wouldn't it?"

"It would," Charlie agreed. In fact, another holiday visit to Twombly sounded like a great idea. "Maybe we could invite Max and the kids to come along. I'll bet even Nicholaas and Ronja would enjoy it, if we could manage to pry them all away from Christmas preparations."

"Max can just finagle time a little," Ricky suggested. "Or Nicholaas could do it. Then they wouldn't get behind at the work shop at all."

"We could invite Ragal and Casper," Kippy said then. "They've never seen Christmas before. They'd love it!"

"And I'll bet Pacha and Kontus have never had a Christmas before, either," Ricky added. "And Mike and Bobby would have fun, too!"

Everyone started talking at once, and soon Charlie waved a hand for attention, and when that was ignored, he put two fingers into his mouth and blew out a fierce whistle.

"You don't have to be so loud, Charlie," Kip immediately admonished. "It's not like we couldn't hear you."

Charlie just laughed at that. "Okay, we have the germ of a good idea here. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. We have to do Halloween first, so I suggest we put Christmas away for now and concentrate on where we're going, before we miss our turn or something."

"Party pooper," Kip returned, but with a smile. "You won't forget, will you?" He tried to eye Charlie suspiciously, but it could scarcely hide behind the good cheer he was obviously feeling.

Charlie hooted out a laugh. "With you around to remind me? Never!"

His boyfriend smiled, and patted his arm. "You're learning, Charlie." He waved a hand at Ricky. "Onward, Richard!"

Ricky grinned and nodded, and both he and Adrian returned their full attention to the road ahead. Kippy sighed happily again, and rubbed his shoulder against Charlie. "You're so much fun."

Charlie laid his head back against the headrest and smiled, just happy to be right where he was at this particular moment in time.

They soon passed a large pond on their left, and then - of all things - a small airport; and then Route 12 meandered on into the central part of town, and sort of became the main drag. According to the GPS in the dash of the SUV, they had to make a right turn at a traffic light near the center of town, and as they neared, Ricky slowed down to watch for it. The traffic was light, anyway, and it was easy for him to take his time.

He suddenly made a decisive sound, and nodded. "That's it ahead. We want to go right at that light coming up, and head to the western side."

Kippy scratched an ear, and looked out the window in that direction. "Won't that just take us back into the woods?"

"Almost," Ricky agreed. "My mom said the house is on a pretty, winding street with a few other houses. But the properties are pretty big, and the houses aren't close together. My cousin has a little over nine acres around her place, mostly wooded."

"Wow." Kippy looked impressed. "That does not sound like a cheap dump to me."

Ricky laughed. "No, it wasn't. My dad didn't tell me what she paid for it, but I could tell from the way he acted it was a nice chunk of change."

Kippy rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "I can't wait to see it."

"You'll be surprised," Ricky told him.

Charlie looked into the rear view mirror, and could see Ricky smiling. "I thought you never saw the place, Rick?"

The other boy laughed. "I haven't been there in person. But I've heard all about it, and seen a few pictures of the inside. My mom loved it when she saw it."

Kippy made a disappointed sound. "Your mom loved it? much for a cult having lived in the place."

Everyone laughed.

Ricky shook his head. "No cults, and no murders, Kip. But you'll like the house, anyway."

They reached the light and turned, and very quickly it did indeed look as if they were heading back out of town. But Ricky was watching the left side of the road, and soon a side road presented itself. They slowed, and Ricky turned into it.

A narrow blacktop lane lay before them, winding away into the woods. It was just wide enough for two cars to pass, and Ricky drove along slowly, slowing down even more as they reached the many blind curves, and then speeding up slightly again on the straightaways. Forest towered all around them, sparkling red and gold in the morning sun. The road began to climb, though the grade was a gentle one.

Suddenly, the woods to one side swept back from the road, and a house could be seen sitting at the end of a long driveway. Charlie squinted at the place, immediately enchanted by the old-fashioned design, which was in the Queen Anne family, he was pretty certain. A great turret to one side of the home towered three stories above a covered wraparound porch, which continued across the front of the house and then down the other side. A steep, front-facing gabled roof held a line of cathedral-style windows, while dormers on the side opposite the turret ran in a line to the back of the house. The sense of age was immediate, but so was the sense that the house had for a long time been lovingly cared for. It was painted in tans and light greens, and looked both neat and charming.

"What a pretty place!" Kippy said in surprise. "Is this the house?"

"Uh uh," Ricky said, laughing. "But it's a beauty, isn't it?"

"Wow," Adrian said, shaking his head as they drove past. "If your cousin's place is anything like that house, I think this is going to be a great four days!"

"I'm not telling," Ricky returned, laughing. "It's going to be a surprise."

They continued on the road, which was still moving upwards, and passed another house, totally different from the first. Charlie decided this one was some kind of Gothic revival. It was also sitting well back from the road, and looked very well maintained. Charlie frowned, and then shook his head.

"These are old houses, but they're in really great shape. And they're big. Unless I'm totally wrong, these places would probably sell for close to a million bucks apiece today, Rick. And that's probably conservative. Your cousin didn't spend all her money on this house of hers, did she?"

Ricky laughed. "No. My dad said she got a hell of a deal on it. It sat for almost two years on the market with no buyers."

Kippy perked up at that. "Something wrong with it?"

Ricky sighed. "No, Kip. No one was murdered there, if that's what you're thinking. There aren't any local legends about the place being haunted, either. My dad said it was probably a mixture of design and location that kept it from selling for so long. But he also said the place is beautiful, and my mom just thought it was the nicest house she'd ever seen."

Charlie gave Kip another squeeze. "Besides, if it was just haunted, we already know about stuff like that, with Billy and Will. It would probably mean just a new friend or two, right?"

Kippy smiled at that. "I wouldn't mind!"

Ricky examined the GPS more closely, and slowed down. In a moment another driveway appeared, but this one was just in a slit among the trees. There was no lawn, and there was no sign of the house. But a new mailbox was there by the drive, with the number '1509' visible on the side in white letters.

"This is it," Ricky said, turning in.

Everyone sat forward expectantly as the SUV cruised up the narrow, leaf-covered drive. Here was another gentle grade, and Charlie was willing to bet that it was just enough of a hill to make the climb tough in the snow in anything but an SUV. That, and the setback from the road, indicated that the house was probably located more towards the center of its lot than the front. That probably meant the house was totally surrounded by trees, and would feel pretty isolated back here in the woods.

But then the driveway took a sudden turn to the left, and then a lawn did present itself, wide and strewn with colorful leaves, and stretching up a gentle incline to the house, which apparently sat atop the hill itself. Virgin forest surrounded the sides and rear of the place, but a totally unexpected gap in the trees in front of the house gave a stunning view out over the treetops below of the entire valley, and the town of Norwich, shining like a jewel in the late morning sun.

Stunning as the view was, it was the house itself which took Charlie's breath away. Large, three stories in height, with a cupola squarely atop the center, and a wide covered porch - a veranda - surrounding the first floor below, the house was painted white with dark red trim, and dominated the open space among the trees. A narrower balcony above the veranda, supported on columns from below, circled the place at the second floor, a smaller, slanted roof shielding it from the elements. There was a lot to see, even at first glance, and Charlie's eyes darted everywhere, trying to take it all in.

"It''s an octagon house!" he said after a few moments, shaking his head slowly in wonder.

"Wow," Kippy breathed, his eyes trying to move everywhere at once, just as Charlie's had done. "This place is amazing!"

The driveway turned and gave them a side view of the house. Wide, multi-paned double doors gave egress onto the veranda and the upper porch from several of the sides they could see. The windows were tall and broad, with ornate molding about them, and the roof lines were adorned with what looked like carved trim.

But the most magnificent feature was the cupola atop the house, with windows all the way around, and a marvelously ornate copper finial projecting upwards from the peak of its domed roof.

Ricky pulled the SUV to a stop in the drive so that they could all get a good look, and gave an appreciative whistle. "Man! Even having heard about it, I wasn't ready for this!"

Adrian gave a small laugh. "Awesome! This is going to be such a fun four days!"

Kippy turned to Charlie. "An octagon house, you called it? What do you know about it?"

Ricky immediately turned in his seat and grinned at Charlie. "Yeah! Why am I not surprised you know what this is, Britannica Brain?"

Charlie made a face at his friend, but then gazed anew at the wonderful house. "Um...well, as I remember, the design was popular in the mid eighteen-hundreds. With all the windows and doors its an extremely open and airy design, and makes maximum use of interior space. An octagon can enclose twenty-percent more space than a square of the same perimeter, so the living area is greater than a normal house." He frowned. "There was a guy named Fowler, I think, who really pushed the design around the time of the civil war, but it never really took off the way he'd hoped it would." Charlie nodded. "These types of houses are fairly rare today. I have to say I'm amazed to see this one. It was about the last thing I expected to find here!"

Ricky returned his gaze to the house, and smiled as if he owned it himself. "It is utterly cool, I have to admit. How about we drive on up and get a better look?"

They continued up the drive, which soon split in two, with one drive curving off to the front of the house, and another heading around to the back. They could see then that there was a wing extending off the rear of the house, one floor only, that included a trio of garage doors among the other doors and windows there. Ricky paused, shaking his head. "This place is pretty big."

Charlie nodded. "Seriously. My dad's house is about 2700 square feet. This place is easily four times the size of that."

Rick's jaw dropped. "It's almost a mansion, isn't it?"

"'ll do until one comes along."

Ricky frowned at that. "Something doesn't seem right. I don't see how my cousin could have gotten a place like this, even if she spent all of her inheritance."

Charlie smiled. "I won't be the one to ask her."

"We're guests," Kippy immediately spoke up. "It would be rude to ask, no matter how much we're dying to know!"

Everyone laughed at that, and Ricky just gave a short sigh. "I'm sure she wonders why we're just sitting here. Let's go on up."

He chose the left hand drive, and soon pulled up before the wide wooden staircase leading up to the veranda. Mulched flowerbeds ran to either side of the staircase, below large double doors that served as the main entryway. Even as they were getting out of the SUV, the right hand door opened and a dog came charging out to stop at the head of the stairs. She gave two loud barks, wagged her tail fiercely, and gazed down at them with an amusing mixture of suspicion and pure delight.

And then Ricky bent down and whistled, and the dog spotted him and bounded down the steps, making joyful sounds as she almost leaped into Ricky's arms.

"Hi, sweetie!" Ricky cooed, squatting and circling an arm around the dog, while rubbing her vigorously with his other hand. "Hi, honey! How's that doggie doing?"

For her part, the dog tried to apply her tongue to hand and face at the same time, and Charlie grinned as she managed to get good licks in on both while Ricky squeezed his eyes closed and laughed.

Adrian sighed, and smiled broadly at Kippy. "Been there, done that."

Kippy grinned at Charlie, and just nodded.

A woman came out of the house then, and immediately broke into a smile at the sight below. "Be careful, Rick. She was just licking her butt a few minutes ago."

Ricky gave out a groan and rose to his feet, one hand still on the happy dog's head. "Oh, god, tell me you're kidding."

"Not really." The woman, who was in her late twenties, with long, dark hair and the pleasant features that seemed a given in Ricky's family, laughed and then came down the steps, her smile now fixed upon the boys. "Hi. I'm Anne Beecher, Rick's cousin. Call me Annie."

Introductions were made all around, while the Golden Retriever circulated among the boys, making friends.

"This is Moped," Annie continued, as the dog stopped at Kippy, and decided he was the most interesting thing she had ever seen, at least in the last five minutes.

Kippy bent and petted the dog, who immediately rubbed up against him and looked happy.

Annie looked amused. "Wow. She likes you."

Ricky laughed at that. "She likes everyone, doesn't she?"

"Mostly." Charlie could see the humor in the woman's eyes, and immediately liked her himself. Not that he would have expected much else from a member of Ricky's family.

"Why don't you guys come on in?"

She turned and started back up the steps. Moped, not to be beaten inside, gave a little happy yelp and raced past her, and then turned and waited in the doorway, her face set in a grin and her tail wagging furiously.

Welcome to my house!

"What about our bags?" Adrian asked. They'd each brought along a gym bag with a couple of changes of clothing inside.

Ricky waved a hand at the SUV. "We'll come back and get 'em later."

They followed Annie inside, into a sort of vestibule with two arched doorways leading to each side of the house, and Charlie let his eyes do a quick inspection. The ceilings of the rooms were lofty, a foot or more higher up than in modern homes, which gave the rooms a much greater sense of space. The floors were a light hardwood with a fierce shine, and the sun made the floor of the room to their left positively glow with life. Charlie shook his head at the quality of everything he saw, still amazed that someone could get a house like this at anything like a reasonable price.

"You place is beautiful," he said, smiling at Annie. "And so intriguing. There aren't many octagon houses left in these parts anymore."

A new interest shone now in Annie's eyes. "Oh, I know. I was floored when the real estate agent brought me up here. I could never have imagined owning a place like this."

Ricky turned and grinned toothily at her. "We were trying to guess what it cost when we saw it."

They followed Annie into the large right hand room, which was beautifully furnished as a living room. The furniture looked new, and expensive, though was not quite enough to fill the room. The large windows gave a stunning view of the lawn and the valley beyond, where Norwich sprawled in the sun, the sunlight winking here and there off the windows of a hundred homes and businesses.

"The view is incredible," Kippy said, turning to examine the room. "Oh! Look at that!"

Charlie and the others turned, and through another archway they saw a circular grand staircase, broad enough for four people to walk abreast, which occupied the exact center of the house, and which rose within a framework of ornate columns. Kippy tossed Charlie an enchanted look, and then went through the archway to the staircase and craned his neck to look upwards. "Oh, Charlie! You can see all the way up to the dome at the top!"

Charlie had to go and see for himself, and gasped at the sunlight streaming into the windows of the cupola, four floors above."Man, that is just stunning."

Rick and Adrian looked, too, and shook their heads at the golden spill of sunshine far above them.

"Wow," Ricky said to Annie, as they came back into the living room. "You got a hell of a place here, cousin." He licked his lips, flashed a smile at Charlie, and then leaned conspiratorially toward Annie. "I promised my mom I wouldn't ask you about the the heck could you get a place like this?"

Annie smiled as Moped rubbed up against her, and looked down at the dog a moment before patting her affectionately. "Moped knows, don't ya, honey?" She smiled at Ricky then. "I just got lucky, somehow."

Ricky strained not to say anything more, and it showed. Annie laughed, and reached out and patted his shoulder. "How about coming into the kitchen and having some cocoa? We can sit at the table and I'll tell you the story." She looked up at a clock on the wall, and nodded to herself. "I don't need to get going for a couple of hours yet, so there's time. Come on."

When Moped saw they were heading for the kitchen, she started leaping and bounding excitedly, and Annie looked back at them. "She knows that this is where the food is kept."

They went through the vast center of the house, with its wonderful staircase, and into another room. The first thing that caught Charlie's eye was an ornate grand piano standing in the center of the room, followed by a huge wall of bookcases that occupied the outer wall to either side of a fireplace large enough to walk into. Most of the bookcases were empty, as was the rest of the room. Annie had apparently not had time to furnish it yet. Charlie, always short on space to store his own books, loved the room immediately, and said so.

"Oh, I know," Annie said, nodding. "I can buy books for the rest of my life, and probably not fill up these shelves."

"I didn't know you played," Ricky said, indicating the piano.

"I don't. It came with the house."

"Wow," Kippy said, walking over to the instrument and depressing a couple of the keys. A pair of pure, clean notes drifted throughout the room. "I like this place more and more with each step!"

They went through the room and into a hallway, and Charlie realized that they were entering the wing at the back of the house they had seen from outside. They passed through a dining room with large windows to either side, and into the nicest kitchen Charlie thought he had ever seen.

Adrian gasped. "You could cook for an army here!"

Annie just nodded."It looks great, doesn't it? But it's actually a pain in the butt, because everything is so far apart. Fixing meals is my chief exercise each day." She smiled to let them know she was kidding, but Charlie could see where a person could get a workout if they had to prepare a large meal for a lot of people.

There was a nice oak table before a wide window to one side, with eight chairs around it, and Annie told them to sit while she put on the hot water for the cocoa. "I have tea and coffee, if anyone would rather have that."

But cocoa sounded good to the boys, the perfect accompaniment to a chill autumn day. Annie nodded, and took a seat at the table with them while the water heated. "So, about the house--"

Ricky quickly held up a hand. "You don't have to tell us. I was being rude, and I'm sorry."

The woman smiled. "You're just like your dad. But I really am not bashful about this. I just had some nice things happen to me. I don't mind talking about them."

Ricky looked nervous, and looked at the others a moment before nodding. "Uh...just as long as you never mention to my mom that I asked."

Annie's eyes danced with silent laughter. "I promise." She looked around at the kitchen then, and sighed. "Well, you know about my grandparents leaving me the money, right?"

"Just that they did," Ricky said, trying not to smile.

"Oh. Well, after all the taxes and legal fees were paid, it came to just under a million dollars."

Ricky whistled in appreciation, and Annie nodded. "I know. I thought I was going to pass out when the lawyers told me. I was living in that small apartment in the city, and had absolutely no idea what to do with that kind of cash. I like my job at the bakery, and my friends, and I just didn't want to give up the life I had."

Kippy looked around the vast kitchen. "And yet, here you are."

"Yep." Annie smiled. "After it sank in that I actually had money, I wondered what to do with it. I gave some to the animal shelter where I got Moped, and some more to the children's hospital in town. But that didn't even put a tiny dent in it, really. So I got to thinking about it, and finally realized that the one thing I was sort of unhappy with in my life was my tiny apartment. I began to think about how nice it would be to have a house."

Charlie smiled at her. "I'd say you fixed that problem, huh?"

"Yeah. It's a strange story."

"We have time," Kippy said, sweetly.

Annie glanced over at the teapot, and nodded. "Well, I set a limit on distance. I didn't want to be more than a half-hour from the bakery, because I have to drive that every day. Living in my apartment, it took me about that long each day, because of the traffic, and that was pretty much the limit of my patience. So I figured if I looked for a house in the other direction from the bakery, out in the country, I might find something I'd like, and even get a nicer drive out of it."

"It took us about an hour to get here," Ricky acknowledged.

"I know. It takes me about twenty-five minutes to get to work from here." She laughed. "But I haven't been here for a winter yet, either."

"The driveway looks like it might be a problem in the snow," Charlie agreed.

Annie shrugged. "I have an SUV, like most people around here. I guess we'll see."

Kippy looked around the sunny kitchen, and smiled. "I love the way this place feels."

Adrian, seated across from him, laughed. "I was just about to say that very thing."

Charlie smiled. He'd been feeling much the same. The house had a comfortable presence to it, as if many happy people had lived here over the years. And if he really looked, he could see that the place was old, but had been nicely updated over the years, and extremely well-kept. The kinds of hardwood floors he'd seen, the milled crown mouldings in the rooms, wainscoting on the walls, plaster ceilings - these were the hallmarks of a bygone era in home building. You didn't see this sort of craftsmanship in most modern houses.

"Any idea how old the house is?" he asked. "Just by the way things were done, I was guessing it's at least a hundred years old."

Annie looked pleased with his estimate. "That's very close. The house was completed in 1900, actually."

"Wow." Adrian looked about the kitchen again, and shook his head, plainly amazed. "I'd have never guessed."

"The same family owned it all those years," Annie continued, looking a little amazed, herself. "The Ravishaws. Rebecca Ravishaw, the woman I bought the house from, is the granddaughter of the man who built it in the first place. She's almost ninety now."

"What happened to her?" Kippy asked.

"She moved into a retirement place in town. She refused to do that until the house was sold, so she was delighted to have me come along."

Ricky shook his head. "It must have taken every penny you had to get this house."

Annie laughed. "Since it's you, I'll tell you. I paid seven-hundred thousand for it. I still have over two hundred thousand in the bank."

Charlie had to sit on the amazement he felt at hearing that. "Wow. You got a heck of a deal."

Annie frowned at that. "Three years ago, when the house was first put on the market, the asking price was one-point-three million."

That pronouncement was greeted with total silence as all the boys digested it. Charlie could see the same disbelief in the other boy's faces as he was feeling himself. But he wanted to tread lightly here, being aware that Annie was not his family, and this was not really his business. Fortunately, Ricky was of a different mind.

"What the hell happened? Why did it eventually sell so cheaply?"

Annie looked around the kitchen herself, and then got up to go to the teakettle. "Anyone want milk in their cocoa?"

"I'll take a little," Charlie said.

"Me, too," Kippy agreed, smiling for a moment at Charlie.

Ricky sat back in his chair, looking momentarily annoyed at the interruption; but then managed a smile. "Adrian and I like milk, too."

"Me, too." Annie got five mugs from a cabinet, spooned cocoa powder into each one, added the hot water, and then got milk from the refrigerator and swirled a little into each cup. "Come and get it. Spoons in the drawer there."

The boys got up and each retrieved a steaming cup and a spoon. Charlie looked down into his mug, and smiled at the tiny marshmallows floating there. Ah, the wonders of modern food chemistry!

Annie took her mug back to the table and sat down. Ricky was right behind her. "So, anyway--"

Annie laughed, but waited until everyone had a seat again before continuing.

"When I started house hunting, Kori Campbell, at the bakery, put me in touch with a real estate person she knew. Naomi Witt. She has properties all over this area. I called her and we talked, and I gave her an idea of what I was looking for."

Charlie smiled, and looked around the kitchen again. "Certainly not this."

"No. I'd looked online at properties out this way, and realized that nothing that I liked was really going to be dirt cheap. But even so, there are some very good deals to be had for far less than I spent on this place. I kind of set my cap at five-hundred thousand, figuring that would still give me a nice nest egg for my old age." Annie gave a little shrug. "And then one Saturday, Naomi and I got together and she drove me around to some of the properties she was representing."

"I'll bet that was fun," Kippy said. He smiled a little dreamily at Charlie, as if to say, someday that will be us!

Charlie returned the smile, the idea of house hunting with Kippy someday not at all unpleasant to consider.

"It was." Annie contemplated the beamed ceiling a moment, as if remembering. "There are some really nice houses out this way."

"A few right on this road," Charlie agreed. "We saw them coming in."

Annie nodded. "Yeah. Well, that first Saturday turned into several Saturdays. I saw some great houses, but none of them just screamed buy me!"

"You wanted the right house to scream at you?" Kippy asked, trying not to smile.

Annie's eyes held the lights of laughter. "Sure. I really felt I would know when I saw the right house."

"So how did you wind up here?" Ricky asked.

"Well...In the conversations I had with Naomi as we drove around, I probably let it slip a little that I had inherited more money than my target price." Annie laughed. "No, I know I let it slip. After a month of Saturdays of her driving me around to houses I didn't buy, she was probably getting a little desperate. So one Saturday she asked me if I'd mind taking a look at a place that was above my stated budget, just because we were going right by it and she thought it might interest me. I figured it couldn't hurt, since I had already grown quite good at saying 'no' to other properties. That turned out to be this place."

"Wow," Charlie said. "That's kind of nervy of her, to bring you to a place that was selling for twice your budget."

"Hmm. Well, it might not have been as nervy as you think. On the way here she described the house, and made it sound really nice. And then she said she was the second agent to have it, that the first one had given up after a year. Naomi was more persistent, and had been trying to sell it for two years. She said that the owner had come way down in price since the house was first listed. I asked what was wrong with it, and she gave me the oddest look."

Adrian leaned forward on the table. "What was odd about it?'

Annie considered that, and then shrugged. "Even now, I can't say. After telling me what a wonderful place this was, it seemed really weird what she told me next. She said she had showed the house to over sixty people in two year's time, all of whom had stood outside and said how much they loved the property, and all of whom had said, a half-hour later after going through the house, that they were either not interested, or that they'd think about it and get back to her. And no one ever did."

Kippy turned to stare at Charlie, as if asking what he thought about that.

"That's...strange," Charlie said. He looked around the kitchen again, and frowned. "What's not to like?"

"Beats me." Annie sat back in her chair. "Anyway, when I first saw this place, I fell in love with it. But I also was sure I couldn't afford it."

Ricky pursed his lips, and looked around the kitchen again. "What were they asking then?"

"The price at that point was still one million. I just laughed when I heard that, and told Naomi it was way beyond my budget."

"But you looked the place over, anyway?" Kippy asked.

"Uh huh. I figured it certainly couldn't hurt to look. And after we'd been everywhere and seen everything, and were standing outside in the drive again, Naomi asked me what I thought of the house. I told her it was just gorgeous, and that I loved it. But also that I couldn't afford it."

Charlie nodded. "How'd she take that?"

Annie laughed. "She smiled, and looked happy. And then she drove me to another place to look at a few miles from here, and never mentioned this house again."

Kippy arched an eyebrow at Charlie, and Charlie just nodded, agreeing silently that it was a very odd story so far. "So how'd you wind up here?'

Moped came over and sat by Annie, watching her expectantly, as if she found it hard to believe that all these humans at the table were only drinking, and not eating anything. Annie smiled at the dog, and laid a hand atop her head.

"On the Thursday after Naomi brought me here, she called me at the bakery. She said that Rebecca Ravishaw, the owner of this house, wanted to meet me. She said the woman seemed certain we could arrive at some sort of deal for the house. I was stunned, because I knew how much the price had been dropped already, and I also knew I couldn't afford much more than what I had already budgeted. But Naomi was very insistent, and she said we could just do it on Saturday in between looking at a couple of other places."

Ricky grinned. "Obviously, you did it."

"Sure. I was actually a little thrilled at the idea of seeing this place again. And I figured it wouldn't hurt to talk to Mrs. Ravishaw. I mean, like I already said, I know how to say 'no."

"You met her here?" Charlie asked.

"Uh huh. She was in a wheel chair when I got here, sitting on the veranda with a caretaker. Naomi and I got out of the car, and Mrs. Ravishaw stood to meet us. I got the impression then that the wheelchair was just for traveling, and that she could still get around on her own."

"Oh, what was she like?" Kippy asked, closing his eyes.

Annie smiled. "Well...I think she must have been beautiful in her youth, because she still had a lot of it with her. She had the greenest eyes I've ever seen, and they were just so sharp and alert. And she smiled a lot, and seemed to find humor in everything we talked about." Annie nodded. "I really appreciate humor. It shows a good spirit."

Kippy smiled, and opened his eyes. "I like her already."

"So did I. She took me around the house, and showed me everything." Annie laughed. "She said she was moving out the things she wanted, and her family was taking some more. But that most of the furnishings would come with the house." Annie shook her head as if in amazement still. "A lot of the furniture is antique, and probably valuable. And she was very careful to point out that the piano came with the house, too, as she had no place to put it now in her new living quarters. I don't play, but I've sure considered learning now."

"Has a nice sound," Adrian agreed.

Annie nodded. "Well, she showed me everything that Naomi had showed me, but somehow it was just a much better tour of the place. There's a lot of family history here, and I learned a lot of it during that tour. By the time we were done, I loved the house even more than I already had. And I could see how much Becca loved it, too."

Annie patted the tabletop. "We wound up sitting right here after the tour. Becca said that she knew the market value of the property, but that she cared less about that than finding an owner that would love the place and take care of it. She said she was already set for the rest of her life, and that all she really needed to get out of the house was enough to leave in the estate to pay for the college educations of her three great-grandchildren." Annie gave a little shake of her head, as if she still couldn't believe what had come next. "And then she asked me what I thought of seven hundred thousand."

Ricky whistled. "That's a hell of a drop!"

"I'll say. I probably whistled just like you did." Annie leaned forward on the table to look at them. "In that second, I realized I had suddenly gone from dreaming about a house like this into a position where I could actually afford the house and still have some savings."

Charlie sat back and looked around the kitchen again, and out the window at the property beyond. Land in this area was not very expensive. There was a lot of it, and the demand not high, as it was so rural. The acreage would be a small part of the value of a place like this, less than ten percent, he figured. But the size of the house alone --

"Do you know how many square feet this house is?" he asked then.

"Sure. It's ten thousand four-hundred square feet."

Charlie nodded. Wow. And that was habitable square feet, and didn't include places like the cellar, garage, outbuildings, and such. Charlie did a little mental math, figured out the cost per square foot, and compared it to the prices of homes back where they lived. He laughed then. "Annie, I think you stole this place."

She gave a little pout at that. "Oh, don't say that. I'd hate to think I cheated that poor old woman."

Ricky grunted. "She's the one that suggested the price."

"But I think she was a little desperate, too." Annie looked around the kitchen again. "I want to be happy here, not to think I ripped someone off."

Charlie was immediately contrite. "I'm sorry, Annie. I didn't mean that literally. I just meant you got a very good price on the place." He looked around and smiled. "I think you'll be very happy here."

"I would be," Kippy said. "I feel it."

"Me, too," Adrian agreed. "This place is just cool beyond words, Annie."

The woman smiled at that, and relaxed. "Moped loves it, too."

The dog, hearing her name, barked and gave a suggestive glance towards one of the cabinets. Annie sighed, and patted her head. "It's not time for dinner, honey." She looked over at Rick. "Let me show you where her food is, and tell you what she gets. As far as you guys go, eat whatever you want. I went to the store yesterday to stock up for four hungry guys, and then I remembered Ricky was coming, and stocked up for six."

Adrian hooted at that, and covered his mouth with a hand, and Ricky rolled his eyes and sighed. "Sure, sure. Make fun of the growing boy." Ricky looked like he had a thought then. "Oh, hey, you have candy for the trick or treaters?"

Annie laughed. "There is some in that cabinet by the fridge. But I really doubt anyone is going to walk all the way out here to trick or treat."

"The other houses on this road don't have kids?" Adrian asked.

"If they do, I haven't seen them." Annie smiled. "But I bought a few things, just in case. If they show, feel free to hand the stuff out."

Charlie and Kippy laughed, and Kippy slid his chair a little closer. "This is going to be fun!"

Charlie took in the enthusiasm in his boyfriend's eyes, and gave a little internal sigh. "Yes, it is."

They got up, and everyone got a quick lesson in what Moped ate, and when. After that, Annie waved a hand at the ceiling and smiled. "Come on upstairs, and I'll show you around. I'm just going to close the door to my bedroom, and expect you guys to respect my privacy there. All the other rooms are open. Like I said, Becca took some of the furniture out of the house. Most of it is old, but still looks great. So the bedrooms all have beds in them. I laid out some clean linens on the table in the central area by the stairs, and you guys can just choose your own rooms and make the beds up, if you don't mind.

"Yeah?" Ricky looked impressed. "How many bedrooms are there?"

"Six," Annie returned. "Two on the second floor and four on the third. Mine's on the second, so that only leaves one open there."

"I thought there might be more."

"You haven't seen them," Annie countered. "They're big!" She laughed. "And there are three or four empty rooms that could be used for bedrooms, if I suddenly needed more."

"Let's go!" Ricky said, winking at Adrian.

"And after that, I'd better get going," Annie continued. "You have my number, Rick. Just call me if any problems come up, okay?"

"Sure. But I can't imagine what might come up that we couldn't handle. Right, Charlie?"

Charlie smiled and nodded, unable to imagine any problems they couldn't handle, either. This was going to be a fun weekend!

He and Kippy joined the others as Annie led them up the circular stairs to the second floor. Besides two bedrooms, there was an office, with what looked like an ancient roll-top desk, a sitting room of some kind, and three other rooms that were empty. Ricky took immediate notice of the empty rooms and commented on them.

"I think Becca's family took that furniture out before I even toured the house," Annie explained. "I don't know what the rooms were originally used for. I can use them for anything I want, I guess. The bedrooms still have furniture in them, though one or two things were taken from each one. I was going to consolidate and see what I could come up with, but haven't gotten around to that yet. I already see I could spend a fortune just furnishing this place, and I don't want to do that. Not all at once, anyway." She laughed. "I've got years to worry about that."

"You already bought some stuff, though, right?"

"Yeah. That furniture you saw down in the living room is new. My stuff from the apartment would have gotten lost in a room that size. My own bedroom set is new, too. Everything else came with the house."

Charlie shook his head in wonder. "You may have some real antiques here."

"I know. Did you get a look at that roll-top desk? It's immaculate, and probably as old as the house." Annie smiled. "I won't be getting rid of most of what was left here, I already know."

They looked around, and Ricky said he liked the bedroom on the second floor, and asked Charlie and Kip if they would mind if he took that room for himself and Adrian. Charlie could see that his friend was in love with the exterior porch, which might be kind of romantic on a starlit night - something the third floor rooms didn't have. Charlie said they didn't mind at all, and he and Kip walked up to the next floor, and found a bedroom they liked that had a beautiful view, even if no exterior porch.

There was a different kind of perk here. In the central area they found a smaller circular staircase the wound up into the cupola, and deposited them on a balcony that circled the interior. They walked around it, taking in the stunning view through the multi-paned windows, and Kippy sighed and pulled Charlie close. "I think I'm in heaven."

Charlie kissed him, and smiled. "If you think that now, you'll really be happy tonight."

Kippy almost giggled, and gave a little sigh. "Oh, Charlie, you say the most romantic things."

Charlie pulled his boyfriend closer, and they stood silently together and gazed out at the stunning view.

"There's a good girl," Ricky said, as Moped launched herself into her bowl of food. "Hungie doggie, huh?"

Charlie laughed. "You always talk baby-talk to dogs?"

Ricky straightened and grinned. "Only if I like them. And they like me. It's hard to talk baby-talk to a Doberman that's about to rip your face off."

Adrian and Kippy, seated at the kitchen table, laughed.

"But Moped wouldn't hurt anyone," Ricky continued, watching the dog eat. "She's a sweetie."

Annie had left just before noon to go meet her friends, and the guys had walked around the house and property for a couple of hours getting the lay of the land before returning to grab their bags from the SUV and take them upstairs to their selected bedrooms. They had then made their beds from the linens Annie had left for them, and killed some more time walking around outside on the second floor balcony, and then looking out at the magnificent view provided by the windows in the cupola. Now it was going on five o'clock, and they'd brought Moped down to the kitchen for her evening meal.

"Makes me hungry, watching her go at that bowl," Adrian said, smiling. "And it reminds me that we missed lunch. We should be thinking about what we want for dinner."

Kippy nodded at that. "I'm hungry, too. The first thing we should decide is if we want to cook, or go out to eat."

"We could order a pizza," Ricky reminded. He walked over to a counter and picked up a sheet of paper laying there. "Migro's. They deliver."

Kippy adopted a patient look. "We're going to do that tomorrow, for Halloween, aren't we?"

"That's true," Charlie agreed. He smiled at Rick. "You're not trying to mess up tradition, are you?"

Ricky laid a hand on his chest. "Me? I wouldn't dream of it. But I do intend to eat something, and soon. So let's make a decision, okay?"

"I wouldn't mind going into town for dinner," Adrian said. "I'd love to see the place a little better. We pretty much just whizzed through and then back out again." He smiled. "There must be other places there to eat."

"There are." Ricky held up the paper. "Annie left a list of her five favorite places." He examined the sheet, and smiled. "How about the White Owl Cafe? I kind of like the name."

Kippy frowned. "What do they serve?"

Ricky glanced at the paper again, and shrugged. "Hell if I know. Maybe you can look it up on your phone."

Kippy blew out an exasperated breath, but hauled out his cell and entered the required information on Google. He frowned at the screen of his phone a moment, and then smiled. "Well...they have a site, anyway. Um...wait. Dinner starts being served at five. Here's the menu...hmm...well....hmm." He looked up and smiled. "Looks like they have some good stuff!"

Charlie nodded. "If Kip's happy, so am I."

Ricky's eyes went to Adrian, who laughed. "Hey, if you like the name of the place, it has to be good."

Ricky nodded. "It's close, too. Right back on Route 12, just off main street."

Adrian turned to Kippy. "You have your phone out. Want to call and see if we need a reservation?"

"No problem." Kippy did that, and quickly had a table for four for them. "Cool. Let's go."

Ricky laid the paper back on the counter and turned away from them. "Hold on a second while I make sure the door to the garage is open."

The garage, at the end of the wing holding the kitchen and dining room, contained a large litter box where Moped could go if no one was home to take her outside. Annie left the dog inside each day when she went to work, and Moped was used it now. She had several beds placed around the house, all in front of windows where she could look out, and each accompanied by rawhide chews and squeaky toys. Moped could choose where she wanted to relax and wait for Annie to come home. Ricky thought the dog was a little spoiled, but also that it was Annie's right to spoil her.

He was back in a moment, waving the car keys at them. "Okay, let's roll."

Moped followed them to the front doors, then seemed resigned when Ricky held her back as the others exited. "You have to stay here, honey. We'll be back soon."

Ricky turned on the porch lights, then squeezed through the doorway and closed the door, and pulled out the ring of keys that Annie had left him, and set the deadbolt. There was motion to the right of the door as Moped nosed aside the thin white curtain covering the narrow lights beside the door, and stared out at him. He smiled at her and waved, knowing she would simply go find somewhere comfortable to lie down and wait for them to return.

"She'll be okay, won't she?" Adrian asked, as Ricky climbed into the driver's seat.

"Sure. She's used to being left. We'll only be gone a couple of hours, anyway."

"It will be dark when we get back," Charlie said. "I'm kind of interested in seeing this place at night."

Kippy pushed up against him. "Looking for spooks?"

"No. I meant seeing how the house looked, lit up and all. It's got to be dark as pitch here at night, maybe save for some lights from town. But they'll be small and distant. I want to see what the house looks like at night."

Kippy smiled at the structure as Ricky started the engine and put the SUV into gear. "It's really an amazing place, Charlie."

Charlie nodded. "I feel that, too. And I'm not sure why. Besides being huge, and of a unique design, and utterly cool, I mean."

The other's laughed.

The SUV moved to the circular turnaround at the end of the drive and reversed course, and passed the house heading for the road. Charlie caught a last look at Moped watching them from the vertical row of windows by the door, and then they were past. He smiled. "I have to wonder, sometimes, what dogs think of us."

Kippy laughed. "If I was a dog, I'd see that humans do all sorts of cool things. It would be fun to be a part of that, and I'd miss it if I got left behind."

Charlie nodded, but didn't say anymore. Moped would probably have forgotten about them by the time they got back, and would be overjoyed all over again that these new people had returned. Being a dog had to be kind of dull at times, with long periods of boredom interspersed with amazingly interesting spurts of action involving people. The thought made him smile. Actually, being a human could be that way, too!

They hit the lane, which was empty of traffic, and headed back to town. There was a slight breeze now, and the trees moved slowly and gracefully around them, a gentle rain of reds and yellows striking the road ahead and dancing away to the shoulders as they passed. Charlie felt Kippy squeezing his hand intermittently, and wondered what his boyfriend was thinking. If the smile he wore was any indication, it was happy thoughts at just being there. That made Charlie happy, and he gave a little sigh of content and relaxed in the seat even more.

They were very quickly back in town, and Ricky turned right on Route 12, known as Broad Street here. The road widened, and Ricky easily found a parking place along the curb, which was marked out with a lane of its own just for that purpose. The cafe was in a row of businesses along the street, a narrow, deep building, and Charlie smiled as they arrived at the front door. A line of various-colored pumpkins hugged the exterior wall beneath the front window, offering an immediate Halloween mood.

The interior of the cafe was cheerful and bright, with old-fashioned crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, forming glowing pools of yellow light on the polished surface of the dark hardwood floor below. A row of track-lighting was trained on several shelves of art glass along the wall opposite the counter, providing some color along with additional lighting for the tables below. The counter was long, with a line of crystal lighting above that matched the chandeliers, and the painted brick wall to the rear of the counter held shelves holding what looked like bottles of wine. Several wonderful aromas were immediately apparent to their noses, and Charlie was reminded again that they had missed having lunch.

The cafe was not crowded, with only three of the tables already occupied by diners.

"I like this place already," Kippy said, smiling. "It's like Irving's, but with charm."

Charlie smiled at that, even as a pleasant young woman in a black White Owl Cafe tee-shirt approached them, menus in hand.

"Uh, Travers," Ricky said, smiling. "Party of four." He turned to Adrian and grinned. "I always wanted to say that."

The woman laughed, and swept a hand towards the tables. "You can pick your own, if you want. We also have outside tables out back, but it's probably too chilly for that now."

Ricky looked around at the others, but when no one immediately jumped at the outside eating idea, shook his head. "Yeah, we'll stay inside, I guess."

"That table looks good," Adrian said, pointing at the last table in the line along the wall. "It's well away from everyone else." When the woman's eyebrows rose somewhat questioningly, he smiled and pointed at Ricky. "Oh, my friend here just likes to throw food. We don't want to get any on anyone else."

Charlie and Kippy laughed right off, and the woman smiled at the joke. "Oh, I see. One, table, four chairs, one mop. Gotcha. Come this way, please."

She turned, and Adrian pointed at her and smiled. I like her!

They followed the woman, were seated, and each handed a menu. "I'll let you guys look, and be back to take your order in a few minutes."

Ricky sighed happily and opened his menu. "Man, I'm hungry!"

Charlie let his eyes rove over the sandwich offerings, which all looked delicious; but he really felt like a dinner meal, not a late lunch.

"Ooh, look at the Bleu Apple Cranberry Chicken wrap!" Kippy said, licking his lips.

Charlie looked at the entry, and agreed that it looked scrumptious. "But I want dinner, I think."

Kippy sighed, but nodded. "Yeah. I'm starving."

They oohed and aahed a bit over what was offered, then made their selections. Ricky decided he'd get a Delmonico rib eye steak, which came with potatoes and vegetables. Charlie and Kippy both opted for the Salmon Risotto, grilled wild-caught salmon served over lemon risotto and sauteed spinach. Adrian tried to decide between the two, then laughed and selected the Surf-N-Turf instead, which consisted of a beef filet with crab cake, over risotto and sauteed spinach. "That's sort of a little of each," he observed, smiling.

They got a plate of White Owl Mac 'N Cheese to share between them, which the menu stated was macaroni covered in gooey locally-made cheese and topped with bacon and green onions. They got the Apple Haze to drink, freshly pressed hazy apple cider made next door in Vermont. The woman came back and took their order, smiled at the comments they made, and asked them if they wanted something to gnaw on while they waited for their meals. They looked over the small side dishes, and then decided it might take the edge off their anticipation, and declined.

"We'll have the cider now, though," Charlie said.

"Coming right up."

Adrian smiled after the woman as she headed back towards the counter. "She has a good sense of humor."

Kippy nodded, and looked around the interior of the cafe. "I could get used to this. Living in a small town is probably very relaxing."

Adrian leaned closer and lowered his voice. "We'd just mess it up."

Kippy grinned, and also leaned forward conspiratorially. "How so?"

The laughter in Adrian's eyes was infectious. "The first time Murcha landed Lollipop nearby, the people here would freak. And then there's having elves suddenly underfoot, and aliens, and who knows what else."

Charlie smiled. "We haven't upset the burbs with that stuff."

"Not much upsets the burbs," Adrian countered. "They're too busy with life to notice things like spaceships landing or elves visiting."

Ricky chuckled at that. "Murcha won't let the ship be seen. And Max and the others could pass for the boy next door!"

Kippy smiled dreamily. "I wish!"

Ricky hooted, and patted Charlie's arm. "There, there. I know he didn't mean it."

"He meant it," Charlie countered. "He might be my boyfriend, but that's never kept him from enjoying the scenery."

Kippy sighed. "Oh, Charlie. You know you have my heart forever. But a pretty face is like fine artwork. Would you walk through the Met and ignore the masterpieces on display?"

"Probably not." Charlie smiled at his boyfriend. "Have I ever been jealous? No. It's because I know you're only looking."

Kippy made a face. "I wouldn't mind if you were jealous, just a little."

Ricky and Adrian laughed, and Charlie sighed. "Okay. I am jealous. But just a little."

Kippy looked happy. "That makes me feel like you don't want to lose me."

"I don't want to lose you," Charlie said evenly. "You mean everything to me, Kip."

Kippy looked startled, and then took Charlie's hand on the tabletop and rubbed it affectionately. "I'm sorry. I was just kidding around."

"I know." Charlie nodded. "I know, Kip."

They smiled at each other, and Charlie again felt the special link that only he and Kippy shared. It had grown stronger these past five years, and Charlie could not imagine anything capable of breaking it. He could see a similar link between Rick and Adrian now, and it made him happy for his friends. Luck, it would seem, had smiled on all of them.

Their plates arrived, and they dug into their meals with great gusto. The food was excellent, and seemed to disappear quickly. They talked and laughed while they ate, and Charlie was conscious of the good time they were having.

Outside, the sunlight slowly waned, and soon the streetlights lit. Night came on quickly at this time of year. Charlie missed the protracted evenings and lengthy sunsets of summer, but knew they would be back in a few month's time. The world moved on, always.

They finished, and sat back in their chairs. The server reappeared, smiling. "By the look of you, I don't think there will be any dessert?"

"I'm stuffed," Ricky said, smiling.

Adrian laughed. "And if he's stuffed, the rest of us have to be."

The woman made a show of examining the walls and floor. "No mop needed, either." She smiled. "I always say, when the food's too good to throw, you know you've had a good meal."

"It was good," Charlie said, smiling. "Thanks."

"Sure. You guys just stopping for a meal? I haven't seen you in here before."

"Just visiting family," Ricky said. "And enjoying the town. It's pretty."

The woman smiled. "We like it. Well, I'll get your check, then."

"I want to leave her a good tip," Adrian whispered, as she strode away.

"I'll chip in," Kippy said, digging out his wallet.

They all chipped in, and left more than they might have normally.

The woman came back with their bill, and Ricky waved a hand. "I got it." He opened his wallet and handed her a credit card.

She smiled at the look on Ricky's face. "Be right back."

Charlie grinned. "Credit card, huh?"

Ricky couldn't hide his pleasure. "Yeah. It's secured by a deposit, but you gotta start somewhere."

"I've been thinking of doing the same thing," Charlie said. He smiled again at the look on his friend's face. "After seeing how much fun you're having, I think I will."

Kippy clapped his hands together as the server neared their table again. "Now we can go back and see what an octagon house looks like in the dark!"

Charlie was aware of a slight pause in the woman's step as she arrived at the table and handed Ricky his card. Charlie looked up at her, saw the frown on her face, and the new way that she seemed to be looking them all over. She noticed him watching then, and her face slowly reddened. "Sorry."

Charlie nodded. "Something my friend said?"

The woman looked undecided. "Well...I heard what he said, about the octagon house. There's only one around here - the Ravishaw house, up on the hill outside of town."

Charlie nodded. "That's the one he meant."

The woman nodded again. "You're staying there?"

Ricky frowned. "My cousin bought the house a few weeks back."

"Yeah. I heard it had been sold. I didn't know the new owner had moved in. " She leaned closer to them. "But you're staying there? Right now?"

Charlie nodded. "For a few days."

The woman's eyes went to Ricky. "And your cousin has been living there a few weeks, you say?"


"And everything's okay?"

Ricky cocked his head to one side. "What's that mean?"

The woman looked flustered, and then grinned. "Oh, it's nothing. All the business people in town know Mrs. Ravishaw. The family has been here forever. She's very nice."

Charlie looked at Kippy, who had a strange expression on his face.

"You were going to say something else," Kippy said then.

The server shook her head. "It's nothing. Something stupid I heard recently, that was stuck in my mind. It's nothing."

"We'd love to hear, if it's about the house," Charlie said quickly.

The woman's nose wrinkled, and she looked a little embarrassed. "Well...we have a regular that comes in here. Mrs. Viggerol. She's a retired nurse, and she worked for Mrs. Ravishaw for a few days as caretaker."

"A few days?" Ricky repeated. "What happened there?"

The server looked around at the boy's faces, and Charlie could see the here goes nothing impulse build in the woman's eyes. "Well....she sat in here one night and told one of the other servers that the octagon house was haunted. I heard the whole conversation."

"I knew it!" Kippy gushed, looking joyful.

Charlie laughed at him, and then smiled at the server. "Don't mind him. His sense of humor is weird."

The woman also laughed. "Well, I feel stupid even mentioning it. But Mrs. Viggerol was very adamant, and very convincing. You hear stuff like that, and your first notion is that the person telling you has been drinking, or isn't quite right. But Mrs. Viggerol is a pretty upright old lady, and she's lived here for longer than I've been around. She was very convincing. We just thought it was funny at first. But I remember the look on her face while she was talking. Serious. A story told like that kind of gets in your head and won't go away, you know? When you guys mentioned the house, my first thought was --"

She stopped, and frowned.

"Was...what?" Charlie prompted.

"Well, I don't know what I thought." She looked at Ricky. "Maybe to caution you? But...obviously, if your cousin has been living there a few weeks already, there is nothing going on there. And Mrs. Ravishaw lived there a long time without any problems." She sighed. "I guess Mrs. Viggerol was having a bad day. Maybe she was just saying that to explain why she left her job there so quickly."

Charlie and Kippy exchanged glances, and then Charlie smiled up at the server. "What happened to Mrs. Viggerol?"

The server shrugged. "She said she heard things and saw things, but that Mrs. Ravishaw seemed not to. It scared her, and she left the job after a few days."

"Where is she now?" Charlie asked.

A smile crossed the woman's face, but quickly turned back into a frown. "You want to talk to her? Some of the people in here that night laughed at her. She was a little upset when she left. She may not take kindly to questions from strangers."

Ricky nodded. "We'd love to hear any stories about the house."

The woman suddenly leaned down. "What's it like? The house? I've never actually seen it up close."

"It's gorgeous," Kippy said, before anyone else could speak. "Beautiful, inside and out."

"It is," Adrian agreed. "It's a wonderful old house."

"Hmm." The server frowned again. "Hardly sounds like a creepy old haunted mansion, does it?"

"It doesn't seem like one, either," Ricky said, pointedly.

The woman bit her lip. "Well...look, I'm sorry I said anything. It's crazy, talking about ghosts and things like that."

Charlie knew better. Billy and Will had taught them a lot about the afterlife. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio...

"It's almost Halloween," Kippy said. "What better time is there?"

"You just want to talk to her?" the server asked. "Maybe I should ask her first?"

"Well, we're only here for a few days," Ricky said, shrugging like it didn't matter. "Don't worry about it."

The woman was obviously torn on how to proceed.

"We'll be nice," Charlie said, smiling. "And we won't mention where we heard the story."

"Yeah. Well, I don't want to get Emily - that's the other server - in any trouble with Mrs. Viggerol. But...there were a dozen people in here that night that heard the story. The way some of them laughed, I don't think Mrs. Viggerol will suspect where you got your information, anyway." She made a face. "Still doesn't make it right for me to put her out there."

"We'll be tactful, too," Charlie said patiently. He smiled again.

The server smiled back at him and nodded. "You're pretty convincing." She leaned down and put her hands on the table. "Okay. Mrs. Viggerol is working over at the movie theater, behind the concession stand. She's in her late sixties, gray hair, has a very friendly face. She should be there right now."

"I thought you said she was a nurse?" Adrian asked.

"Retired, I said," the server returned. "Everybody's gotta eat. I guess her social security isn't enough."

Charlie looked around the table. "We should be going."

The server blew out a short breath, and looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry, guys. I shouldn't have said anything."

"It's fine," Charlie said, getting to his feet. "We're not going to cause anyone any trouble."

The server watched them go, obviously conflicted about having mentioned anything at all. Charlie felt a moment of sympathy for her. Here was another facet of small town life: There were very few things that didn't get talked about.

They stopped outside, and Charlie looked up and down the street. The movie theater was right across Broad Street, and a few buildings down. He turned to the others. "Anyone feel like a movie?"

Kippy took hold of Charlie's arm, and wrapped his own around it. "So we're going to talk to her?"

"I sure want to," Ricky said. "If there's something screwy going on at Annie's, I want to know about it."

Adrian nodded. "Better safe than sorry."

Charlie frowned. "Once upon a time, I'd have just smiled at a story like this and forgotten about it." He briefly tilted his head back and examined the stars overhead. "But we've come a long way since that frame of mind." He looked around at the others. "I think we should talk to her."

"Can we just ask her, straight out like that?" Kippy asked. "Hey, we heard you saw ghosts up at the Ravishaw house?" He made a face. "That would make me shut up in a hurry, I know that."

Charlie nodded. "Yeah. I don't want to embarrass her or hurt her feelings." He thought about it a moment more, then sighed. "Maybe asking her straight out isn't the way to go. We might have to go a more subtle route. Let me think about it, okay?"

They crossed the street and approached the theater. There was no line, but that wasn't that surprising. Charlie was pretty certain they were early for the next show.

"We've seen this movie," Kippy said, looking up at the marquee. "It wasn't all that. Remember?"

"We don't plan to stay, anyway," Charlie said.

The girl at the ticket window confirmed their earliness. "Next show's not until seven. You can wait in the lobby, if you want."

Charlie smiled at her. "That'd be fine."

They bought four tickets and went inside. The lobby was meant to look old-fashioned, and had a nice feel to it. The concession stand was open, and an older woman fitting Mrs. Viggerol's description was sitting in a chair behind the glass popcorn case. Charlie looked her over, and sighed again. "Listen to what I say, and follow my lead," Charlie said softly to the others, as they moved forward.

The woman saw them coming through the glass and smiled.

"Well, we've got some time to kill," Charlie said, a little more loudly, as they arrived at the stand. "Might as well get something to munch on while we wait."

The woman got to her feet and smiled at them over the countertop. "What can I get for you?"

Charlie blinked as their eyes made contact, feeling an unusual yet familiar sense there, a sort of brightness and clarity that was commanding.

"I'll take a medium popcorn," Ricky said. "What about you, Ad?"

Adrian was also gazing at the woman a little wondrously. "Um...I'll take one, too. I'm still pretty full from dinner."

Charlie looked at Kip, whose eyes were definitely wide with recognition. He nodded. "Sounds good to us," Charlie agreed.

The woman smiled. "Four medium popcorns, coming right up."

Charlie smiled at Ricky. "Your cousin got a great deal on that house, man."

Kippy turned to Ricky then and smiled. "I still can't get over what a nice place it is. Your cousin must be in seventh heaven there."

Ricky grinned. "I'll say. I'm kind of surprised she went off for four days and left it."

"It's just so unusual," Adrian ad-libbed. "I've never seen an octagon house before!"

Charlie was watching Mrs. Viggerol as she filled the paper cups with popcorn. At Adrian's words, she nearly dropped the scoop, and her eyes came up to stare at them through the glass between them. There was no question in Charlie's mind that her reaction was genuine.

"I can't get over people telling us the place is haunted, though," Charlie said, smiling. "Who ever heard of such a thing?"

Mrs. Viggerol carefully went back to what she was doing, filling the cups, but Charlie could see now that her hands were shaking. He felt badly about that. Obviously, the woman had some strong feelings about the subject they were discussing.

She straightened, and moved the cups to the countertop.

"Ghosts!" Kippy repeated. "That's ridiculous!"

Mrs. Viggerol frowned at them. "You should never make light of things you don't know about."

Charlie knew they were being very manipulative. It would have been a simple matter to march right up to the counter and ask Mrs. Viggerol about her experience at the Ravishaw house. But somehow he thought that would not get them the response they wanted.

"We just don't believe in ghosts," Charlie said, shrugging. He nodded at Ricky. "His cousin just bought this big house up on the hill outside town. It's really a nice place. Someone already told us it was haunted, though. It's ridiculous."

Ricky nodded. "My cousin's been living there for weeks. She hasn't seen anything."

Mrs. Viggerol nodded carefully. "Maybe everyone doesn't see them. That doesn't mean they're not there." She bit her lip a moment. "Maybe they only come out at night."

Ricky frowned. "Well, my cousin is there at night, too. She hasn't seen anything spooky."

"Maybe she can't. See them, I mean." Mrs. Viggerol looked unsettled now. "I think only some people can see these things."

Adrian looked interested. "Well, we're staying there for the next few nights. I haven't felt anything spooky yet."

The woman forced a smile. "Maybe you won't."

Charlie frowned at the woman. "You sound like you're saying you've seen something."

Mrs. Viggerol took a deeper breath, and smiled at them. Obviously, she had regained her composure. "I didn't say that. And if I did, I would be careful who I talked to about it." She gently rolled her eyes. "Otherwise, people might make fun of me."

Charlie leaned on the countertop. "Have you ever seen a ghost?"

The woman smiled at him. "Well, there are ghosts, and there are ghosts, I suspect. Most people think of ghosts as people that have died. I tend to think there might be other sorts of things that haunt houses besides the spirits of the dead."

"What kind of other things?" Kippy asked, leaning on the countertop next to Charlie. "What other things can haunt a house besides dead people?"

Mrs. Viggerol tried to put a cap on the first cup, and almost dropped it. Her eyes fastened on Kippy's. "There are other forces in the world besides people. And death is not the only door. Some things in this world have never been alive at all, I suspect. Dark things." She snapped the top into place and nodded at Kippy. "Demonic things."

"Demons?" Charlie asked, not having to feign incredulity. "That's a little much, isn't it?"

"It's a name," Mrs. Viggerol countered. "Just a word, maybe, to describe something beyond our normal understanding." She took another breath, smiled again. "Do you boys want drinks with this?"

Somehow, Charlie felt that was all they were going to get, short of asking more direct questions. And now he felt he didn't want to do that to Mrs. Viggerol. She had obviously decided this was a subject best not discussed.

Kippy must have felt the same thing. He looked at Charlie and gently shook his head. "I don't want a drink."

Charlie looked over at Ricky. "We're done."

Ricky nodded, and smiled at Mrs. Viggerol. "Just the popcorn, thanks."

They made some more pleasant conversation, paid for the popcorn, then found seats on the other side of the lobby from the concession stand, out of earshot.

Kippy frowned as they sat down. "That was a little devious."

Charlie nodded. "I didn't like it, either. But we needed to know if this woman was serious about seeing something at the house. I believe she is."

"I felt that, too," Adrian agreed.

Ricky smiled tightly. "Funny how we all seemed to know what to say to get her to talk."

"No." Kippy shook his head adamantly. "Didn't you feel it? Our skwish was linked."

Ricky shook his head. "I don't have any skwish."

"Of course you do," Adrian countered immediately. "You and Charlie both have it. It's just different from what Kip and I have."

"I think I did feel a sort of joint purpose," Charlie admitted. "Anyway, we got the information we needed." He cast a quick glance towards the concession stand. Mrs. Viggerol had taken her seat behind the popcorn case again, but she seemed to be watching them through the glass. "She seems to think that something other than just ghosts are present in the octagon house."

Ricky snorted. "But wouldn't Annie know by now? And how about Moped? Aren't dogs supposed to sense things even we can't?"

Charlie shrugged. "I don't know." He turned to Kip. "Did you sense something a little different about Mrs. Viggerol? When you made eye contact with her, maybe?"

Kippy didn't have to think it over. He nodded immediately. "You mean like a sort of extra intensity, as if her words meant more than normal?"

Charlie smiled. "That's sort of what I meant, yes."

Adrian looked over at the concession stand. "She has skwish."

Kippy slowly nodded. "I think she does. It's weak, not like what I get from all of you. But I definitely felt it while talking to her."

"I see where you're going," Ricky said. "Annie doesn't have skwish, or we would have sensed it, too. So you think only someone with skwish can see the goblins at the house?"

Charlie gave a small laugh at his friend's words. "Or something like that. But...maybe it's a little more complex than that. I'm reminded of what Annie said the real estate lady told her. That so many people loved the house from the outside, but lost interest after touring the inside."

"You think skwish is a factor in that?" Kippy asked.

"Maybe. I mean, we all have active skwish now, but once we didn't even know we had it. It wasn't developed at all, and it didn't work for us."

"So these people that looked at the house and turned it down all had latent skwish, and that spooked them away?"

"No. Actually, I was thinking the reverse." Charlie looked around at his friends. "We all love the house. We all feel it's a special place. Annie feels the same way. I think Annie is the one with the skwish, but that it is completely undeveloped, and so we don't yet sense it." He tossed his head towards the concession stand. "Mrs. Viggerol has skwish, and hers is slightly more developed."

"But she didn't love the house," Kippy pointed out.

"Maybe she did, originally," Charlie returned. "Right up until the minute she started to see and hear things. Her skwish may be developed enough that she can experience whatever it is that's in the house. Then her fears took over. He own ideas on what she was seeing. Someone with skwish enough to see things may have no idea what it is they're seeing."

"So what about all the people that looked at the house and changed their minds?" Adrian asked. "Are you saying they didn't have skwish, and that sent them packing?"

Charlie shrugged. "If there is some force inside that house, it may be aware of those people with skwish, even a latent version. I'm thinking that those people unable to sense whatever is there may have been deliberately discouraged from buying."

"Oh, Charlie," Kippy said, putting a hand on his boyfriend's arm. "That sounds like you think whatever is there may be intelligent!"

Ricky nodded. "We're doing a lot of supposing here."

"Well, we are," Charlie agreed. "I'm just trying to work out the possibilities based on what we've learned."

"Oh, hey," Adrian said, looking from one boy to another. "Wouldn't that mean that the Ravishaws would have to have some kind of skwish? I mean, they built the house and lived there forever. They'd have been run out if you're theory is true."

Charlie nodded. "Remember what Annie said? That Mrs. Ravishaw wouldn't move out of the house until she found someone that loved it as much as she did.. And she also cut the price considerably to make certain that the house went to Annie. That makes me a little suspicious right there."

Ricky looked alarmed. "Could Annie be in any danger, then?"

Charlie held up one hand. "Let's not jump the gun." He looked over at the concession stand one more time, and then got to his feet. "Let's go. I want to get back to the house."

They stopped at the ticket stand on their way out, and Charlie held up his phone to the girl inside. "Just got an emergency call. We can't stay for the movie."

The girl looked sympathetic. "I can refund you right up until fifteen minutes before the flick starts. Plenty of time. Can I have your tickets back?"

They passed them to her through the drawer, and their money was refunded. "Good luck, guys."

Charlie thanked her, and the four boys moved off.

"I'm starting to feel like a crook," Kippy complained, as they crossed the street to the SUV.

Charlie put an arm around his boyfriend's shoulder and hugged him. "We're done with all that sneaking around. Stop worrying."

But after they climbed into the SUV and belted up, Charlie leaned over and planted a firm kiss on his boyfriend's cheek. "Don't ever change, Kip."

Kippy turned his head and smiled, and leaned closer and kissed Charlie, with feeling.

They made good time going back. The trip was short to begin with, but at this time of the evening there was no traffic to speak of. They reached the lane and turned into it, and Ricky drove it faster than he had in the light earlier that day.

"Slow down, Rick," Adrian said, reaching out to place a hand against the dash. "The house will still be there when we get there,"

Ricky took his foot off the gas and the SUV immediately slowed. "Sorry. All this spook talk has me worried for Moped. This might be the first time she's been left alone at night."

Charlie reached forward and put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "She'll be fine. I'm sure Annie has arrived home after dark before. Especially at this time of year."

Ricky nodded, and blew out a small breath. "Yeah, you're right. I was just thinking...well, I don't know what I was thinking."

Kippy sighed. "We can deal with this, whatever it is. If it's anything at all. So far, this is all just talk and speculation. But if it's actually spirits, like Billy and Will, we can talk to them, I'm sure."

"Yeah, I know. " Ricky laughed. "Whatever it is can't be worse than the Moth, right?"

They rounded the last bend in the road before the driveway, and a strange sight appeared out of the darkness on the shoulder ahead. Ricky stepped on the brake, and the SUV ground to a halt. "What the hell is that?"

Charlie leaned forward and peered at the odd vehicle parked on the shoulder just before the driveway, and smiled. "Wow. I think they used to call them 'woodies'."

Kippy gave a short laugh. "I like the name!"

Charlie smiled at his boyfriend, then gave Ricky a gentle prod with his fingertip. "Get closer, will ya?"

Ricky nodded, and eased the SUV forward. The strange vehicle was a deep burgundy in color, with serious bulges, curves, and lines that were totally dissimilar to the cars of the day. In a way it resembled an SUV, but was lower and longer. The tailgate and upper sides of the vehicle seemed to be sheathed in wood, which was as shiny and well cared for as an elegant coffee table. The car sat on tires with large white sidewalls, and seemed encrusted with more chrome than Charlie had ever seen on a single car before. One long chrome piece ran along the side from back to front, mimicking the curve of the body lines. Charlie squinted at a word written in polished chrome on the rear quarter panel of the car, and smiled. "Dynaflow. I may be wrong, but I think it's a Buick."

Kippy gaped. "That thing is a Buick? It looks like an antique vacuum cleaner."

Charlie nodded. "It's a classic, and this one is in great shape. Early fifties, I think." He laughed. "I like old cars, but I'm not an expert."

"He said," Ricky appended, with a snort. "Britannica Brain strikes again!"

"Oh, shut up," Charlie said, giving the seat ahead of him a playful push. He looked over at the car again. "I wonder what it's doing here?"

"Probably broke down," Ricky responded dryly. "And you probably need a time machine to find parts for a thing like that."

"I would have left a note on it, if I had to leave it along the road," Adrian said. He quickly unclipped his seat belt and opened the door. "I'll look."

He climbed out, and entered the glow of the headlights as he walked along the length of the car, peering into the windows. He arrived at the front and inspected the windshield, shook his head, and then returned. "No note. It's all the way off the road, too, like it was parked. Not like it stopped and drifted over."

"Maybe someone visiting one of the neighbors?" Kippy suggested.

"They all have driveways," Charlie pointed out. "Even if you decided to park out here, why park in front of a neighbor's house?"

Ricky suddenly stiffened. "Maybe someone went up to Annie's house."

Adrian got in and closed his door. "Let's go."

They pulled forward past the old car, and Ricky turned the SUV into the driveway and started up the hill. As they reached the curve to the left, Charlie caught a glimpse of movement in the woods beside the drive. Ricky stomped on the brake at the same moment, and the SUV slid to a stop. Ricky whipped open the center console, grabbed something, and then was throwing off his seat belt. He pushed his door open and slid out, and raised his arm towards the woods. A bright beam of light flashed out, moved around a moment, then paused.

"Stop right there!" Ricky yelled, his voice sounding amazingly commanding.

Charlie and the others pushed open their doors and got out.

Just then a weak voice, tremulous with terror, called back to them: "Oh, don't shoot! I'm unarmed!"

Ricky started forward, and Charlie hurried after him. He was conscious of Kippy and Adrian close behind him. The four of them advanced along the beam of Ricky's flashlight, and into the edge of the woods.

Charlie did a double take at what he saw next. There, revealed in the beam of the flashlight, stood a short, dumpy man in a khaki-colored business suit, but one that looked two sizes too large for him. A narrow black tie hung outside of the unbuttoned jacket, laying slightly to one side along the curve of the man's paunch. Wide, dark eyes stared at them from beneath the brim of a light gray tweed deerstalker hat. The man's arms were raised, and one hand held a small flashlight, currently unlit.

Charlie found himself smiling at the man's appearance, despite his first thought that they had nabbed themselves a prowler.

"What are you doing here?" Ricky asked.

The man squinted at them, obviously unable to really see who stood behind the bright LED flash. "I was just looking, that's all. I meant no harm! None at all!"

Charlie stepped up beside Ricky. "Is that your Buick Woodie parked down on the road?"

"Yes. Yes, it is. See? I wasn't hiding. Right out in the open, I parked. I had only just walked up here a short time ago, before you came along."

"What are you doing here?" Ricky asked, some of the edge now leaving his voice.

"I just wanted a look at the house at night. I had heard so much about it, you know. But I needed to see it at night."

"This is private property," Ricky continued. "Do you always go prowling around other people's property at night?"

"Well...sometimes I do. But...oh, no! I'm not a prowler! I'm not a burglar, if that's what you're thinking! I just wanted to see the house. At night, I mean."

The man looked on the verge of tears now, and Charlie felt some real sympathy for the guy. Unless every sense he had was wrong, the man really meant no harm. And there was something odd about his insistence on seeing the house at night. A suspicion came over Charlie then.

"Someone told you about this house?"

"Yes. That was it. I received a letter from someone who had worked here."

Then Charlie was certain. "Mrs. Viggerol."

The little man's eyes widened, and hope came onto his face. "Yes! It was her! She had worked here, and she told me some things about the house, and well, I just needed to see it."

"At night," Charlie finished.

"Well, yes. At night."

Charlie extended a hand and deflected Rick's arm down a bit, so that the bright beam was no longer directly in the little man's eyes. "She told you the house was haunted."

The man's mouth dropped open, and then immediately snapped close. " do know!" He held up a hand now and tried to shade his eyes, and peered more closely at them. "You're not the police?"

Kippy laughed, and Charlie heard a distinct snort from Adrian.

Charlie smiled. "No, we're not the police. Why don't you come on over here?"

The man waved the hand holding the flashlight, and then his other hand. "I'm not armed. You've nothing to fear from me, no sir!"

Charlie waved a hand. "Come on over."

The man nodded, and moved carefully forward, one step, then another, watching them the whole time.

"We're not armed, either," Charlie finally said.

The little man's shoulders sagged in relief, and he took a deep breath. And then he was striding towards them. "Now that's good to know. You never know in this day and age who might be carrying a weapon. Can't be too careful, not too careful at all!"

Charlie nodded, and pushed Rick's light down even farther.

"Is this a good idea?" Ricky whispered.

Charlie grinned. "Does he look like he could take all four of us?"

Ricky chuckled. "Not tonight, anyway."

The little man made his way through the underbrush, his shoes crunching in the dead leaves, and arrived before them.

"'re just boys!"

Ricky bristled playfully. "Smile when you say that!"

The little man shook his head, and then blew out a short breath of relief. "You certainly had me scared. Who yelled for me to stop where I was?"

Ricky laid a hand on his chest. "That was me."

The man nodded. "You sounded like you meant business." He sighed, and patted himself carefully. "I think I'm a year older now."

Charlie laughed, unable not to like that man. "I'm Charlie Boone. The guy with the light is Ricky, and these two behind us are Kippy and Adrian."

The little man bobbed his head as each name was offered, and then smiled, put his free hand on his waist, and puffed his chest out proudly. "And I am Horace L. Wingspanner, ghost hunter."

"Of course you are!" Kippy said, the delight quite apparent in his voice. Adrian gave a little clap of his hands, Ricky snorted, and Charlie grinned.

"Nice to meet you, Mr. Wingspanner."

The man beamed at them. "Oh, call me Horace, please."

Kippy came up beside Charlie and leaned against his shoulder. "Maybe we should invite, Horace, up to the house?"

The man's eyes widened again. "Oh...but...oh! You are connected to this house? You live here?"

"The house belongs to my family," Ricky said, vaguely. "We're visiting for a few days."

Horace immediately leaned forward. "And have you witnessed any...manifestations?"

Ricky snorted again. "You mean have we seen any ghosts? Not a one."

"This will be our first night here, though," Charlie said quickly, as a flash of disappointment crossed the ghost hunter's face. "So we haven't been here at night until now."

A new interest displaced the disappointment. "Ah. Now that is important, isn't it?"

Charlie smiled. The man looked to be in his late fifties or early sixties, but Charlie knew he was only middlin' good at guessing ages. But something in Horace's manner suggested more years than that, or even a connection to a different time frame than the current one. The car the man drove, the way he dressed and spoke - anachronism was the word that came to mind.

That...and there was something else. Something odd, yet something familiar. A certain brightness to his eyes, a depth, a sense that there was more there than was visible. Skwish.

Charlie nodded."How long have you been hunting ghosts, Horace?"

The man smiled, and tweaked his chin thoughtfully. "Oh...I don't know, now. Hmm. Oh, it's been a while, surely."

Kippy gave Charlie a careful nudge with his elbow. "Let's go on up to the house."

Ricky sighed, but nodded. "I suppose we owe you a look, after scaring you so much."

"Oh, I'd love to see the interior," Horace said, pressing his hands together eagerly. He blinked, then looked down, and then on the ground around him. "Oh! Wait, wait...where's my bag?"

He turned and hustled back to where he had been standing, while the boys smiled at his uncertain movements. Horace was obviously not a man used to skulking about in the woods at night.

"Guy's an odd fish, isn't he?" Ricky asked in a low voice, leaning close to Charlie. "Are you sure we should take him into the house?"

Charlie laughed. "What's your gut feeling?"

Ricky made an annoyed sound, but then chuckled. "That he's harmless."

"There you go, then."

Horace came back to them, lugging a large, leather-handled carpet bag. The decorative motif of the fabric was of green and yellow flowers, and had been lost in the underbrush until Horace retrieved it.

"Must have the tools of my trade, you know."

Ricky aimed his flashlight at the bag. "Mind if I look inside before we go to the house?"

"Why, not at all, young man. Just be careful not to break anything. But go right ahead."

Horace set the bag at Ricky's feet, stuck a hand down into his pants pocket, and withdrew a small ring of keys. He found a small skeleton key among the others, inserted it into a lock embedded in the wood frame at the top of the bag, and quickly opened it. Ricky leaned forward, shining the light within.

"Huh? Charlie, look at all these gizmos!"

Charlie stepped over and gazed down into the carpet bag. It did seem to be full of largely electronic gear. "Mind if I ask what all this stuff is?"

Horace nodded, closed one eye, and tilted the other one skyward as he did a mental inventory of the bag. "Well, there's a digital voice recorder, a digital camera with night vision, an EMF detector --"

"Electromagnetic field detector?" Charlie asked, surprised.

"Oh, of course. infrared thermometer, motion sensors, vibration sensors, binary response devices, a frequency scanner, night vision optics, light level indicators, static discharge detectors, pens and paper, several different spectrum of flashlights, a small video camera, some extra batteries, and a variety of knickknacks of my own design."

"No garlic?" Adrian asked dryly.

Horace smiled. "No, young man. Garlic is for protection against vampires."

"Yeah," Ricky said, smiling. "One scary thing at a time."

Horace steepled his fingers and tapped the tips lightly together. "I am accustomed to some cynicism from spectators. It doesn't bother me."

"Oh, we're not cynics," Charlie said. "We believe that the dead have rights, too."

Horace stared for a moment at Charlie, and then squeezed his eyes closed and barked out a laugh. All four boys grinned.

"I love a sense of humor in young people!" Horace told them. "You're a card, sir. A card."

"I try." Charlie pointed back at the drive. "Why don't you get your nice old car off the shoulder of the road before something happens to it? Just drive on up to the house. We'll be waiting on the front porch."

"Oh, my, that will work just fine," Horace said, chortling happily. "Yes, yes, I must get my car. See you shortly!"

The little man snatched up his carpet bag and clapped a hand to the top of his deerstalker cap, and started off at a run down the driveway. He got about ten feet past the SUV, and then they could just see him pause. A flashlight came on, and then they could see it swaying back and forth as Horace hastened down the drive.

"I hope you know what you're doing, Charlie," Ricky said, watching as the light disappeared around the curve in the drive. "That one's a character, I do believe."

Charlie smiled at him. "Do you know how many characters we know already? What's one more?"

Kippy hooted, and Adrian put an arm around his boyfriend and smiled. "I think he's right."

Charlie turned to his boyfriend. "The man has a strange feel about him. Did you get it?"

Kippy patted Charlie's arm like it was obvious. "Certainly. He has active skwish, just like Mrs. Viggerol."

"Only stronger," Adrian said. He turned to Rick. "I figured you and Charlie would sense it, too."

Ricky frowned. "You mean how he seemed all bright and eager somehow? But...something more than that?"

Adrian nodded. "Pretty much." He turned to look back down the dark driveway. "He's not as strong as any of us. But considering we haven't really met any other humans with's kind of hard to tell."

Kippy grunted. "Yeah. Two new people with skwish, all in the same day. Maybe three, if you count Annie."

"You really think my cousin has it?" Ricky asked, not looking particularly happy about the idea.

"I do," Kippy replied. "But I think hers is asleep. Dormant. It's never had the right thing happen to wake it up so it could be used." He pointed the way the ghost hunter had gone. "Horace - and Mrs. Viggerol - their skwish is awake."

"This is getting interesting," Charlie decided. "What's your skwish say about Horace, Kip?"

"It likes him. So do I."

That jibed with what Charlie felt about the man. "Yeah. Well, I guess we should get moving."

Ricky nodded. "Come on. Let's head on up to the house."

They were sitting on the veranda with Moped when the woodie came up the drive. Ricky had opened the front door immediately upon arriving, and the dog had been waiting, her tail going, obviously delighted to have company again. She looked in no way frightened or upset, and that put Ricky at ease. They looked inside the house, and listened carefully, but everything seemed normal. So the four of them took an Adirondack chair each and sat, while Moped moved back and forth among them, visiting, seeking rubs and touches and offering licks in return, her tail something of a blur in the glow from the porch light above the door.

The headlights came slowly up the drive, casting what seemed like unusually weak cones of light in the darkness. Older cars didn't have the headlights that modern ones did, Charlie knew. And, he had kind of expected the car to be louder than it was, maybe not like a tank or something, but certainly louder than the soft purr it emitted. Horace pulled the car up behind the SUV and cut off the engine, and then the lights winked out, too. The dome light lit as the man climbed out of the car, and then again as he pulled his carpetbag out of the back seat.

Moped went to stand at the head of the steps, watching, her tail moving, but slowly, not ready to commit to liking anyone she couldn't even see clearly yet. Horace hefted the bag and came around the car, and looked up at them from the bottom of the staircase. His gaze fixed on Moped, and he smiled. "Hello, sweetheart!"

"Aw, and we just met, too!" Ricky called back, kidding.

Horace barked out another laugh, set down his bag, and extended a hand towards the dog. "Please come and say hello."

Moped's tail shifted into high gear, and she bounced down the steps, and submitted to a head rub and a back scratch while Horace cooed at her. Charlie smiled, finalizing his liking for the little man. Any guy that liked dogs - and that dogs liked back - had to be pretty good people.

"Come on up and sit," Charlie called.

Horace nodded, picked up his bag again, and was escorted up the stairs by a happy Moped. The man set down his bag and popped off his hat, revealing a crown of sparse hair that waved about in the bare breeze as if filled with a static charge. Charlie smiled at the eccentric professor look it gave the man as Horace took a seat beside him.

"It's a lovely house," he said, looking around the porch. "Yes, it is. Well-designed, I think. I managed to obtain the plans from the county archive."

Charlie's eyebrows went up. "Really? How long ago did Mrs. Viggerol write to you?"

The man sat back, and tilted his face upwards. "Oh, my - was it a month? That long?" He looked back at Charlie. "Perhaps not. Certainly several weeks. Enough time for me to do some research on the property and its history, certainly."

Charlie and Kippy looked at each other.

"Did you find anything of interest?" Kippy asked.

"Oh, yes, I did." Horace turned to look at the house behind him. "I was hoping to get close enough to take some measurements, and only had they been of interest would I have then contacted the new owner. No use getting people alarmed for no reason."

Charlie sat forward and smiled.. "What sort of measurements?"

Horace looked pleased at the show of interest. "Well, electromagnetic, of course. Those are often a sign of unusual activity in a place." Horace bent down and opened his carpet bag, rummaged around inside, and produced the EMF detector. He held it up and smiled. "An EMF detector measures the local electromagnetic field, and shows any unusual fluctuations or spikes in that field that may indicate unusual activity. Normally I must first get a base reading for an area with no activity, so that unusual changes can be noted after--"

He turned on the device, which immediately squealed alarmingly, and a row of multicolored LEDs on the front panel lit and flickered back and forth across their range. Horace simply gaped at the instrument a moment, before quickly turning down the volume. "My! That's a most unusual reaction!"

Charlie leaned across the gap between chairs to look at the face of the device. "What is it measuring now?"

"This unit detects both ELF and VLF frequencies of EM radiation. That's the 'extremely low frequency' and 'very low frequency' bands. Some radiation in each band is normal around a home...but this is rather extreme." He peered at the device, and nodded. "Note the very regular pulsations, as evidenced by the LED range meter." Horace turned and looked at the house again. "Most extraordinary."

"It's not normal?" Kippy asked.

"It is, and it isn't. Household current and the sort of appliances it runs all broadcast in the 60 hertz range, and occasionally in other ranges, but the field effect falls off very quickly. That means that, just a few feet away from these appliances, the effect diminishes and then vanishes. What we seem to be seeing here is a very strong radiator, very close by."

Ricky looked around the porch, and shook his head. "Only thing electric out here are the porch lights."

"It's not that." Horace handed the EMF detector to Charlie, and went back into his carpetbag. He emerged with a device shaped somewhat like a water pistol, which he turned and aimed at the house. "This is an infrared thermal gauge. It takes the temperature of whatever you aim it at, and can be used to detect sudden changes in ambient temperature." He pressed the trigger, and then squinted at the illuminated readout on the back. "Quite normal."

Charlie was looking at the regular pulsations of the detector in his hand, and wondering. The regularity of the signals suggested machinery, not ghosts. He said as much.

"Quite right, sir." Horace smiled. "You'd probably be good at this. I do believe you may have the right answer here."

"What machine?" Ricky wondered. "I mean, the boiler pumps might be running, and maybe a few clocks, and what not. The house has a security system, but Annie didn't tell us to use it, and didn't give me the code, so that's not even active. I don't know what else there could be."

Charlie looked at the detector again, inched the volume knob up, and listened to the tone it produced. "This sounds like a very large machine, whatever it is."

Horace patted his chin a moment, watching Charlie, and then nodded. "It may be the entire house we are detecting."

"What!" Ricky exclaimed, looking back at the house. "What's that mean?"

Horace frowned, and then sat back in his chair. "I had time enough to make a thorough investigation of this house and its history, as well as the family that built it and occupied it for so long." He smiled, a touch of pride now evident. "I have, over the years, developed quite a number of research resources. Some of the information I found was extremely suggestive...or perhaps 'revealing' would be a better word."

Charlie turned off the EMF detector and handed it back to the little man. "We're listening."

Horace stood and tucked the detector into his jacket pocket, and looked at the house again. Then he clasped his hands behind himself and started a slow pace, back and forth in front of the boys. "I do believe that there is some lost history associated with this most unusual house," he began. "The original Mr. Ravishaw, who designed and built it, was quite an accomplished man." Horace paused and leaned towards them. "He was something of an electrical engineer, at a time when that profession was just getting its feet under itself. He worked for Thomas Edison, in his research laboratory in West Orange, you know."

Charlie gave a little gasp of surprise at the mention of this legend of the electrical world. "No kidding?"

"Oh, I wouldn't," Horace said, waving a hand. "You've been kind enough to ask me to visit. I would never repay that with falsehoods."

Charlie smiled. "Of course not. Go on."

Horace looked pleased. "While in the employ of Mr. Edison, Ravishaw met another man working there, of whom you may also have heard. Nikola Tesla."

"Wow," Ricky said. "Like the electric car that Musk sells?"

Horace blinked at that, but nodded. "It's where the name derives from, yes. Mr. Ravishaw and Mr. Tesla became friendly, and exchanged ideas on many things, even long after Mr. Tesla left Edison's employ. This was what spurred me to come and take a look at the house personally." Horace leaned forward. "Mr. Tesla was known to have had visions of the spirit world, and was interested in its properties."

Charlie sat back in his chair. He had read about the great inventor, but had not come across anything that suggested an interest in the spirit world. "Get outta town!"

Horace looked startled. "You want me to go?"

Kippy giggled, and Adrian gave a soft sigh.

"It's a figure of speech," Ricky said patiently. "Like saying, 'you're kidding!'"

"Oh." Horace barked out another laugh. "I'm afraid I'm not up on all the slang terms of youth these days."

Charlie laughed. "Actually, my dad likes to say that one. Anyway, I'm fascinated by your story. I've read of Tesla, but I had no idea he was interested in spiritualism."

Horace nodded. "Perhaps not in the way you imagine. While still a child, Tesla claimed to see visions after the death of his brother, Daniel. His interest in the afterlife was documented in several places. There is enough information available now to suggest that Tesla may have suffered from several mental disorders, perhaps including OCD, and even a spectrum disorder. Yet his genius seems obvious. So I cannot discount the idea that he also believed that the human spirit was electrical in nature, and that there must be a scientific way to communicate with others after they have passed away."

Charlie was immediately reminded of the unfathomable technology of the dark world of Engris, where the spirit domes allowed for seeing and speaking with those that had passed away. Could hints of such a technology been visible to the great inventor here on earth?

Kippy was obviously thinking the same thing. He looked at Charlie, wide-eyed, and then nodded at Horace. "I don't think that idea is too outlandish."

Horace squinted at him. "Really? I thought the idea of scientific communication with the dead rather unlikely myself, when I first heard it. But my researches have since changed my mind. I now believe that Mr. Tesla shared his ideas with Mr. Ravishaw, and that the two quietly corresponded over several years of time, trying to work this out."

Charlie digested that in silence. What could that have to do with the octagon house?

Kippy must have wondered the same thing. "Why do you feel this house is involved?"

Horace steepled his hands before him and lightly tapped his fingertips together. It appeared to be a habit of the man when he was thinking. "In looking at the plans for this house, I noticed several interesting things. The framework - the substructure - is all of steel, in a time when steel was not generally used for homes. The exterior walls are completely framed with steel, which was apparently covered in a fine steel mesh." Horace took a deep breath, and looked at them excitedly. "The frame of this house may be what we are now detecting. I believe the entire house was constructed to be one of two things. It may be a sort of...a sort of Faraday cage, designed to contain the spirits of the dead!"

Charlie understood what a Faraday cage was: a complete covering of steel mesh, grounded, used to keep out electromagnetic fields. The government put them around their defensive and computer facilities to ward off the effects of an electromagnetic pulse should someone detonate an atomic device in the atmosphere above. A Faraday cage would protect sensitive electronics from the ravages of rampant electromagnetic fields.

But a Faraday cage could also keep electromagnetic fields from leaving the interior. He sat forward and smiled at Horace. "If ghosts are electrical in nature, a Faraday cage would keep them inside, yes; but it would also keep them out, too, wouldn't it?"

Horace looked surprised, and then pleased. "They still teach science in schools today? I'm impressed!" He nodded. "Normally, you would be correct, young man. If the house were truly a Faraday cage, it would prevent electromagnetic fields of all kinds from penetrating or leaving."

Adrian nodded. "So if ghosts are electromagnetic in nature, they wouldn't be able to get inside."

"Yes, yes. That would be true - if the ghosts attempted to enter from the outside."

Kippy pouted thoughtfully. "I see what you're saying. But if ghosts materialize inside the house from some other place, they would also be stuck inside, wouldn't they?"

Charlie grinned at his boyfriend. Kippy was remembering what they had learned of Engris. Spirits of the dead materialized within the strange fields present in the hollow core of the world, and traveled up specially shielded tunnels to the spirit domes, which themselves were shielded to keep the spirits from leaving any other way than they had come.

Horace's eyebrows bounced up and down comically a moment, and the boys all smiled. "Extraordinary! For laypeople you are certainly easy to talk with!" Horace smiled himself, and barked out another laugh. "I was thinking on my drive up here how I was going to explain all of this to the homeowner if I had determined the need to do so. But this has been just wonderfully easy!"

Charlie nodded. "We like to read."

Ricky waved a hand. "You said one of two things." He reached behind his chair and patted the exterior of the house. "If the house isn't a cage, what else could it be?"

Horace bit his lip a moment, and gave the house an appraising look. "Tesla had a project at Wardenclyffe, on Long Island, where he was building the most advanced broadcast system of the time. Tesla developed some very interesting designs for antennas and the amplification of signals. I think the possibility exists that this house is also an antenna, designed to broadcast a certain set of frequencies, that may or may not bring it to the attention of things not of this world." He patted his pocket. "The regular pulsations detected by my EMF device may be a clue that this is actually the correct answer."

The boys sat quietly, thinking. Charlie looked over at Kip, whose eyes were full of questions. Adrian looked similarly occupied, and Ricky's frown indicated he was considering the possibilities.

"Rick?" Charlie asked. "What do you think?"

The other boy's eyes came up, and Charlie could see the worry there. That this worry was for Annie and Moped, he was certain. "I don't know."

Charlie turned back to Horace. "If you had time to look the place over, would you have a better idea what's going on here?"

The man nodded quickly. "If nothing else, I may be able to rule out certain ideas as incorrect. I think we can experiment a bit, and perhaps learn more. But I cannot guarantee anything. You must understand that the shadow world we will be investigating is mostly a mystery."

Charlie certainly knew that to be true!

Ricky cleared his throat. "We have an extra room. Would you like to stay a day or two and help us figure out what's going on here?"

Horace gasped, and clutched his hands together in delight. "Oh, I would love an opportunity to further investigate this very unusual place!" He pulled at his jacket and smiled. "And it is getting a bit nippy out here."

Ricky got to his feet, and Moped stood with him. "Then let's go on inside and get you settled."

Adrian got up,too, and he and Ricky collected the carpetbag and ushered Horace inside, with a small assist from Moped. Charlie got to his feet and extended a hand towards Kippy, who now seemed lost in thought. "Coming?"

His boyfriend looked up, and smiled. "I knew this was going to be interesting. My skwish still isn't saying much about anything."

He took Charlie's hand, and Charlie pulled him to his feet, and pulled him closer. "There's still time."

Kippy nodded, his eyes bright in the glow from the porch light. "I know. I'm counting on it."

And then they followed the others inside.

"Mrs. Viggerol was very specific," Horace told them, as they sat around the kitchen table drinking hot chocolate. "She said she was here several days and only thought she experienced a few odd moments, before she actually saw or heard anything unusual. But then it seemed to all come at one time. She only stayed another day after the first event. The second night, she left."

"And she only saw stuff at night?" Kippy asked.

"That's what she said," Horace agreed. "She thought she might have heard things during the day, but it was her experiences at night that most frightened her."

"Uh, we talked to her today," Charlie volunteered. "In a roundabout way."

Horace gave a nod. "I suspected as much, when you mentioned her by name."

Kippy smiled. "Well, someone in town told us the rumor that the house was haunted. And we sort of learned that the story came from Mrs. Viggerol. So we had a sort of chat with her."

"I see."

Kippy nodded. "We got the impression she didn't think it was ghosts that were visiting this place. She seemed to think it was more like....well, demons."

Horace coughed out a laugh. "Oh. Yes, well. I know there are many names for what people deem to be supernatural forces, but I tend to subscribe to the idea that they are all one in the same, but simply possessing different personalities, just as do people."

Adrian looked amused at that. "So some ghosts are cool, and some are just assholes."

Horace's smile widened. "Eloquently put."

"I have a question," Ricky said, drumming his fingers on the tabletop. "I want to know if the...the radiation you've detected here is strong enough to be unhealthy. I mean, I've read stuff that says that even living too close to power lines can be dangerous."

Horace held up a hand. "Rest assured. Even though what we have detected so far seems enormously powerful, it is only because the experience was amplified by the detector's somewhat showy indicators and sounds. It is designed to detect very tiny amounts of energy. The actual radiation here is quite within safe limits."

Ricky gave a little sigh of relief. "I mean, I can't have my family members living inside a microwave oven, or anything. My cousin would freak if she suddenly had to sell the house right after she just got it."

"Not as much was known about the dangers of electromagnetic radiation at the time this house was built," Horace agreed. "But Mr. Ravishaw - and certainly Mr. Tesla - were at the forefront of the field. If anyone had even a glimpse of the dangers at that point in time, it would have been them."

"Yeah," Adrian said, patting Ricky's hand. "And remember that people have lived here for over a century. Mrs. Ravishaw is almost ninety, right?"

"Oh, yeah." Ricky smiled. "That makes me feel better."

Moped, laying on the floor beside Ricky, picked up her head then and looked around the kitchen. Ricky looked down at her, and went to reach for her. "What's up, girl?"

But the dog suddenly came up off the floor and moved back towards the front of the house, giving every indication that she was on the hunt. The boys looked at each other, and then pushed back their chairs and followed the dog. Horace, looking briefly surprised at the sudden reaction, took another sip of his cocoa before putting it down and going after them.

They found Moped in the living room, hovering intently over Horace's carpetbag. Even as Charlie and the other's arrived beside her, they could all hear a faint chirping sound issuing forth from within.

"That's my vibration sensor!" Horace called, coming into the room. He made it to the bag and bent over the open top, and reached down inside and withdrew another one of his small devices.

"Something's vibrating?" Ricky asked. "I don't feel it."

The device went silent in Horace's hands, but he quickly set it on the floor, where it started chirping again. "Please, no one move."

Moped didn't understand the instruction, and wanted to stick her nose down into the carpetbag to explore. Ricky sank to his knees and pulled the dog close, restraining her. The detector immediately started making an odd little warbling sound, and Horace quickly pointed at the dog. "She's slapping the floor with her tail."

Adrian laughed, and sank down beside his boyfriend, and helped to restrain Moped's tail. The dog thought it was all a game, but after Ricky shushed her a few times, she seemed to understand that they wanted silence.

The detector went back to chirping, sounding like a particularly talkative cricket after a night out on the town. The beat was irregular enough to notice, but very steady.

"What is it?" Kippy asked. "Something making the floor vibrate?"

They listened, but could hear nothing. "The heat isn't running at the moment," Ricky said. "You can hear that when it starts."

"It's an amazingly sensitive device," Horace explained. "My own home is about two hundred yards from the main road, and I've had the detector go off when large trucks go by."

"There are no main roads close to here," Ricky said. "And no traffic. Certainly none that takes this long to go by."

And then, just like that, the detector went silent. Everyone stared at it a moment, but it did not resume it's chirping. Horace bent down to retrieve the device, and just his movements on the floor set it to warbling again. But again it went silent as he picked it up.

"Why does it go quiet when you grab it?" Ricky asked. "I would think picking it up would really make it take off."

"It's basically an accelerometer," Horace explained. "It measures minute changes in the directional movement of its sensor, caused by the vibrations of things like footsteps on the floorboards, or rapping on a wall. But it has range limits, and will ignore anything beyond that. Me picking it up introduced an acceleration far beyond what it's designed to measure, so it just ignores it."

"What made it stop?" Adrian asked.

Horace barked out another laugh. "I don't even know what made it start!"

"Could it have detected us out in the kitchen, just moving at the table?" Charlie asked.

"Oh, I'm quite sure it could. But you don't understand, Charlie. The unit was turned off." He looked around at the boys. "What made it start running?"

Ricky gaped, and then smiled. "Oo-ee-oo-ee-oooh! This is a joke, right? It's on a timer or something?"

Horace offered the device to him. "You can check, if you like. But I assure you, really, I never joke about these sorts of things."

Ricky looked at the proffered device, but shook his head. "No. I believe you. It's's almost Halloween. Kind of convenient for the ghosts to show up now."

Horace turned off the detector and carefully put it back into the bag. "It has a rocker switch set into a guard baffle, which serves to activate it. Nothing can touch the switch, and I have carried it about in my bag for some years now without difficulty. There is just no way it could turn on by itself."

Ricky gave a little shake to his head, and indicated the archway back into the center area. "Might as well get back to our cocoa, before it gets cold."

They returned the way they had come. But they had hardly stepped into the kitchen when a bold, clear note - just one - echoed throughout the house.

They all stopped as if struck, and stared at each other.

"That was the piano!" Kippy said.

They turned as a group and headed back to the library, but all was peaceful when they got there. Nothing looked out of place, and no one was present. They went to the piano, but now all was silent.

Kippy frowned then. "Who put the cover down over the keyboard?" He looked around, but no one said anything. "I played a couple of notes earlier, but I left the cover up."

"It was up when we got here," Ricky said, remembering.

"It was," Adrian confirmed.

Charlie nodded. "I agree."

"Most interesting," Horace said, again steepling his fingers before him. "Most interesting."

"What do you make of that?" Charlie asked him.

"Why, nothing. It appears that we've had two instances of unusual activity, but nothing is as yet conclusive." He smiled. "Until something occurs before my own eyes, I will reserve judgment." He chuckled. "And even then, I will have doubts."

Charlie frowned. "It's almost as if we were being teased."

"That's a very good description," Horace said, nodding. "And it could well be true. A mischievous personality has been observed in paranormal behavior many times before now."

Ricky gave a small laugh at that. "A demon with a sense of humor. That's all we need!"

Charlie had been watching and listening to Horace, and now smiled. "You're an interesting sort of ghost hunter. You aren't as I imagined you would be at all. I sort of expected you to be launching into explanations of spectral whatsits every time someone farted." He laughed at the expression that appeared on the older man's face. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you were a skeptic instead of a believer."

Horace chuckled, and gave a brief nod of his head. "Guilty, as charged."

"You're a ghost hunter, and you don't believe in ghosts?" Kippy asked, sounding almost like he thought the idea sacrilege.

"Actually, I do something. I do believe that there are forces in our world we are not generally aware of. I believe that the end of our physical life may not be the end of our - for want of a better word - spiritual life. But do I believe that every building on the planet that is said to be haunted actually is? No. Do I believe that such events are even remotely commonplace? No. I believe that supernatural phenomena, when they actually exist, are exceedingly rare rather than commonplace."

Kippy grinned. "Well, then, I have to ask you: have you ever seen a ghost?"

Horace looked thoughtful, and then nodded. "I believe I have."

Kippy leaned forward. "What did it look like?"

Horace let his gaze touch each one of the boy's eyes in turn, as if double checking that he wasn't being taunted, and then he nodded. "It looked just like a living person. Except it wasn't."

Charlie and Kippy looked at each other, and Kippy frowned thoughtfully. "I believe him."

Their own experiences with Billy and Will had proven that those two could look very much human if they felt the need. And very much not human, it they felt otherwise. One thing ghosts were, was creative.

Charlie gently rubbed his jaw in thought, then nodded. "I like your approach. We've just witnessed two improbable events, but we still don't know what they are. So we just wait until we witness some events that leave less doubt, correct?"

Horace smiled. "You're a bright young man, sir."

Kippy reached over and gave Charlie an affectionate prod. Horace noted that, and simply smiled. Charlie wondered what the man thought of them. He had to have noticed their closeness, yet he had given no indication that he was put off by it, or even particularly curious about it. The smile seemed to suggest that he was not terribly concerned with the issue at all. Some older people still ranged from uncomfortable to outright hostile when presented with evidence of gay relationships; but Horace seemed not to be in that camp. Or, he simply felt it not a part of what they were doing here just now.

Either way, it was interesting.

Charlie looked around the library one more time, and then shrugged. "I guess we're done here for the moment. And our cocoa is probably cold by now."

Kippy frowned, and lifted the cover of the piano keyboard. Everything looked normal. He took a finger and pressed a key, and another clear note rang out.

"Wonderful sound," Horace said. "And the acoustics of the room are quite interesting, too."

"The lack of furniture gives it a certain resonance," Charlie agreed. "Close it again, will you, Kip?"

His boyfriend nodded and closed the cover. "Any specific reason why?"

"I just want to know the cover is closed in case we hear another note."

They returned to the kitchen, and took turns reheating their cups in the microwave, and then sat at the table again.

"Have you known Mrs. Viggerol a long time?" Charlie asked Horace.

"Oh my, no. I don't know the lady at all. I just got the one letter from her. She must have gotten my name and address from one of the sites online."

Kippy smiled. "You advertise?"

Horace returned the smile. "Not exactly. But I have been mentioned several times in the literature of others." He looked pleased with himself. "I am somewhat known in the field."

"Famous, or infamous?" Ricky asked, the rim of his cup mostly hiding a teasing grin.

Horace barked out another laugh. "I guess it depends on who you ask."

Adrian put his elbows on the tabletop and leaned toward Horace. "What do you feel about this house?"

The man laid a hand against his cheek, considering the question, while letting his eyes move about the kitchen in a very analytical manner. "Well --" His gaze finished its curious circuit of the room, and came back to rest on Adrian. "I feel a definite interest in this place. I feel there is more here than meets the eye."

Adrian nodded, his expression serious. "And what do you feel about us?"

Now the ghost hunter smiled. "You four? Oh, you are at least as interesting as the house."

"We try," Kippy said, offering a toothy smile.

But Horace shook his head. "I am quite serious. You four young men have quite the aura about you. You all exude a sense of experience far beyond your years. And I get the distinct impression that none of you are strangers to mystery or adventure."

Charlie looked over at Kippy, who now looked thoughtful. "We have a sense about you, too," Charlie said, turning back to the ghost hunter. "There is more to you than meets the eye, as well."

Horace looked please, and his chest swelled a bit. "I have the sight, if that's what you mean."

"The sight?" Adrian asked.

"Yes. After years of experience in this field, I have learned that not everyone is in tune with the paranormal. For many - or, rather, most people - it simply doesn't exist at all. They are blind and deaf to it."

"But you're not?" Ricky asked.

"No. Another small percentage of people are subconsciously aware of things beyond the norm. They get impressions, and they sense things, but they are unable to actually interact with the paranormal." He nodded. "And still fewer - a very few, I have found - actually have the sight - the ability to see, hear, and interface with the paranormal. I have that ability." The older man held up his hands. "It's why I find myself mostly playing the role of the skeptic. Ninety-nine percent of the cases I investigate are simply in the imaginations of the people involved. Or, purposeful attempts at fraud."

Horace leaned forward then, and pointed at Kippy. "You have the sight, too. I sense it." He waved a hand around the table. "All of you have it. I find it quite astounding to meet four other people with the sight, all in the same place."

Charlie was a little bit stunned. He was used to the feeling he got around Max and the other elves, and around Pacha'ka, Ragal, Casper, and some other aliens. A sense of awareness that he had never felt around members of his own kind, save for Kip, Rick, and Adrian. It had been enough of a shock to sense it in small doses from Mrs. Viggerol; but now, with Horace, it seemed they had actually found someone with skwish that was more than just in a formative state.

The man was strong enough to sense their own skwish!

"We haven't seen anything in this house," Charlie said. He wasn't sure yet how much he wanted to let on to the older man how aware they were of their own abilities. He certainly wasn't ready to share the fact that they knew elves and other magical beings, or that they had been flitting about the cosmos in alien starships for the last several years.

Horace's eyes narrowed. "But you do sense something unusual here, in this house."

Kippy looked at Charlie, and then nodded. "Yes."

Horace sat back in his chair and smiled. "I don't mean to pry. I feel you have a perfect right to your privacy. I just wanted to place us on an equal footing, if possible. We stand a much better chance of obtaining results here if we work together knowing we are all able to see and hear and experience the same things."

"I think we just proved that, with the piano and your vibration sensor, didn't we?" Ricky asked.

"That is not what I mean," Horace countered. "Not exactly, anyway. The vibration sensor was actually active. We don't know what started it going, but I pressed the switch myself to turn it off again." He frowned. "The piano note may or may not have been real. I tend to think it was real, as I noticed the dog's ears prick up when it occurred."

"I thought animals were even more sensitive to the paranormal than humans," Adrian said.

"I have not found that to be so, other than in the area of normal sight and hearing. Dogs may react to sounds we cannot hear, and their eyes are better at detecting movement than are ours, and in seeing in low-light conditions. But I have yet to find a single animal that truly has the sight. In the few genuine cases of paranormal manifestations I have worked upon, dogs seem unable to see or hear events that are truly not a part of our own world, unless those manifestations actually produce genuine visible or auditory phenomena."

Kippy smiled. "I love your ghost guy talk."

Horace's eyes twinkled. "It goes with the territory. It took me years to get comfortable actually saying things like that without having an urge to laugh."

Charlie felt better about things now. Nothing like knowing where you stood with someone. "Well, we'll have to be thinking about going to bed in a while, if we plan to get up early. Is there anything else you'd like to do before we go up to our rooms?"

The ghost hunter nodded. "I would like to see the entire house, including the cellar."

Ricky looked surprised, and that emotion quickly transferred itself to the face of the other boys.

"Um, we were shown through the entire house when we got here," Charlie said. "We didn't see a cellar."

"You know, there has to be one," Ricky spoke up then, shaking his head. "Even if Annie didn't show it to us. When the heat gets cranking, the pump sounds are obviously beneath us."

Charlie nodded. "Oh, yeah. Well, let's go look around then. There has to be a way to get down there."

"I can tell you about where the doorway is, from the plans," Horace offered. He pulled out his cell phone and drew his finger across the screen a few times, tapped some icons, and then frowned at what was displayed there. "I know I saw that in one of the diagrams---" He moved his finger on the screen several more times, and then nodded. "Here it is." He turned and looked back towards the front of the house. "The doorway is behind the central staircase, in one of the front rooms."

They got up and put their empty mugs in the dishwasher, and started for the front of the house. Moped bounced past them and skittered across the polished floor in a game she had obviously been playing for some time. She got her balance, and looked back at them, her eyes bright. Catch me if you can!

"Ghosts don't seem to bother Moped," Adrian said. "Maybe she feels the good aura this house has."

Horace looked startled at that. "You're aware of that, too? A sense that this is a happy home?"

"Yes." Kippy agreed. "The sense is very strong, and we've all felt it."

"Even my cousin," Ricky admitted. "It's one reason she wanted the house so badly. It seems that a lot of people looked at the place before her, and liked it from the outside, but not after they had been inside."

"Extraordinary." Horace shook his head at the notion. "Does your cousin have the sight as well?"

"We don't think so," Charlie said carefully. "We've gotten to the opinion that people with no, uh, sense of sight seem uncomfortable for some reason once they come inside. Some other people have the sight, but it's quiescent, for want of a better word. Undeveloped. They can sense the happiness of this place, but they can't see or hear any of the, um, phenomena. We think Annie might fit in there. Only people like us, with an active sense of sight, can actually experience whatever is happening in this house."

Horace stopped in his tracks and stared at Charlie, and the others drew to a halt before him.

"What?" Charlie asked.

Horace's gaze traveled among the four boys. "You just sounds as if you are far more experienced with the sight than I supposed."

"We get around," Ricky said, trying to make light of it.

Horace squinted a moment, but then offered them a wan smile. "As I said, I respect your privacy. But, please, if you see or hear things I seem not aware of, let me know."

"I don't think that will happen," Charlie returned. "We sense that your sight is very active."

The older man looked thoughtful then. "You know, I was frightened to death the first time I actually experienced paranormal activity. Oh, my. But I noticed thereafter that the experience seemed to have sharpened my ability to sense such things, and that the few successive experiences that were genuine seemed to hone it even more." He looked around at them. "Perhaps this explains Mrs. Viggerol's slow response to things happening here. She said in her letter that in the first few days she was employed here, she only occasionally thought she heard something at night, or caught motion out of the corner of her eye. But that once she actually saw something, it all came on in a rush thereafter. Perhaps the original experience awakened her sight, just as happened to me?"

Charlie knew that their own skwish had been sharpened over time by their proximity to the elves using magic, but that Max had detected it in them even before that. And, that once it had been brought to their attention and really started to get going, it had picked up steam fairly quickly. It did seem that their abilities were getting stronger with each new adventure that they embarked upon. Could this one be no less an energizer of sorts?

"We feel kind of that way, too," Charlie agreed. "Our own sight has been getting stronger with experience and time."

It was plain that the older man wanted to ask them what experiences they'd had; but instead he simply nodded, and pointed towards the front of the house. "This way."

They passed the grand staircase and entered the front room. The one across the vestibule was outfitted like a living room; but it seemed that Annie had yet to decide on a function for this room, too. Or, to fully furnish it. There were antique-looking tables by the front windows, a couple of nice wing chairs, and a large cabinet next to the fireplace. Probably furniture left behind by Mrs. Ravishaw. But the center of the room was empty, a lavish oriental rug being the only occupant.

"Man! It sure will take a bankroll to furnish this place!" Ricky decided, looking around. "Half the space in this house is probably empty!"

Horace had made his way to the back wall of the room, behind which was the grand staircase leading up to the next floor. Charlie and the others wandered after him, and they walked along the wall together. They were almost to the outside wall of the house when they spotted the door.

It was much smaller than the other doors inside the house, and obviously had been made to be unobtrusive. It was wainscoted, just as the wall to either side, with no trim around the doorway itself. Just a narrow rectangular line in the wall suggested that the panel opened at all.

The knob was small and painted the same color as the wall. Horace grasped it and turned, and the door opened outward easily and silently. Only darkness was revealed within.

But the ghost hunter felt around on the wall inside, there was a soft snap, and a single light came on above. They were presented with a deep space, like a narrow walk-in closet, at the end of which was an opening in the floor occupied by a wrought iron spiral staircase that descended into the area beneath the house.

"Simple enough," Horace decided. "Mind if we look?"

"Nope." Ricky sounded eager to explore, himself. "Let's go." He turned to Moped, who was watching them with interest. "Stay here, girl." He looked at the others. "I don't want her falling down some old staircase. Last one in pull the door closed."

Horace led the way to the stairs and looked down. "Lights on down below, too. No problem seeing. Shall we?"

He started down, and the boys followed. The staircase was narrow, and would have been a tight fit for anyone of serious bulk. But they made it easily enough down to the stone floor at the bottom, and spread out to look around.

There were two furnaces - or boilers, more properly - both large, both looking fairly new, and each the centers of an octopus-like sprout of insulated pipe work that spread across the roof of the basement and vanished upwards into dark chases between the walls. One set of pipes obviously serviced the room above them, while a number disappeared into a stone wall running the length of the room. Charlie spied a wide set of stone steps at the back of the basement, that led up to a steel outer door that apparently led outside on the back side of the rear wing of the house.

"Just as I thought," Horace said, examining the pipe works.

Charlie smiled at the man. "And what did you think?"

Horace beamed at him. "You will notice that this outer wall is circular, but that this back wall is straight. Yes, I do believe...this is only half the basement."

Charlie looked around, and saw now what the man meant. It was easy enough to imagine the bulk of the house overhead, and to see that the long back wall neatly bisected what would be a circular basement...if it existed as such. The outer walls were of rough-hewn but square stone blocks, just as was the center wall. The center wall did not look newer than the foundation wall, not at all an afterthought. At first appraisal it would seem that only enough of a basement had been provided to house the heating equipment. But the way that some of the pipes disappeared into the back wall suggested a space beyond, even if just a crawl space large enough to deploy the heating.

"Do you think it matters?" Charlie asked.

Horace came over to him and held up his phone. "See the drawing here? The basement is depicted just as we see it. This broken line, here, continues the outer wall in a circle behind this center wall, to denote the full foundation of the house. But the other half of the circle is not represented in the drawing as an open space at all, and nowhere in the drawings could I find an entry shown to the other side."

"Maybe there isn't one," Charlie said, passing along his own idea. "Maybe it's just a crawlspace. Enough room to allow the heating system and electrical to service the other side of the house."

"Perhaps. And yet there is still the odd steel framing of this house, and the regular beat of an electromagnetic field of some kind, which we detected. Remember?" Horace looked at the center wall. "If Ravishaw concealed machinery of any kind here, a hidden basement would be just the place."

Ricky moved toward the stone wall. "Let's look for any doors, okay?"

They thoroughly examined the entire center wall, pushing upon it and tapping with their knuckles, until they all felt silly. But the wall was every bit the solid stone it looked to be. They finished, and regrouped by the staircase. Horace looked slightly disappointed, but far from defeated. "We'll need to check the other front room. There could simply be another unobtrusive doorway there."

"Wouldn't it be in the plans?" Ricky asked.

Horace sighed. "One would think. But let's look anyway, shall we?"

They went back up the spiral stairs, turned off the lights, and closed the door. Moped was delighted at their return, and came to Rick for a pat on the head. He obliged, smiling, and she accompanied them to the living room across the vestibule, where the group of them walked all the way around its perimeter. But no door was found. The area of wall equivalent to the location of the door in the other room was simply blank wall here, and nothing else.

Kippy sat in one of the chairs and looked around the room. Moped came over to him and sat, asking with her eyes to be petted. Kippy dropped a hand on her head, and stroked her reassuringly. "No door. And I have to say I'm getting a little tired." He grinned at Charlie. "I hear our bed calling my name."

Charlie smiled himself, knowing exactly what it was that Kippy wanted. Some snuggle time, to relax before going to sleep. "I think I hear the voice, too."

Horace gave a little sigh. "I wonder if we might just check the library before turning in? I would hate to try to sleep thinking an undiscovered doorway to the other cellar might be right there, waiting."

Kippy sighed, but got to his feet. "I'm game. Come on."

They walked around to the library, and inspected that room, too. The walls were plainly not concealing any doors. The ornate hearth, with it's wooden side panels and large bronze ember screen, yielded no clues.

"I have to admit to being disappointed," Horace told them. "I was certain when I first saw the plans that the cellar looked odd. But perhaps it was simply a matter of practicality. I'm sure it was less expensive to have a half basement beneath a house of this size."

"We could look outside," Ricky suggested. "Maybe there's a way down from out back."

Horace brightened a little, and smiled. "You're tempting me, but not tonight. I, too, have grown weary." He leaned forward. "Besides, the exterior entry that we saw in the part of the basement we entered was clearly drawn in the plans. There is no such entry shown to the other side."

Ricky threw up his hands. "Well, that just sucks!"

Everyone laughed.

They headed for the staircase to the second floor, Moped tagging along behind Ricky, obviously aware of where they were going and that it was time to settle down. She had a bed in the room with Rick and Adrian, and would presumably stay there for the night. They turned out the lights downstairs, and headed up to their rooms. They said their good nights to Rick and Adrian at the stairs, and Charlie and Kip and Horace proceeded up to the third floor.

"So much space here," Horace said, as they paused in the central area before heading off to their rooms. "I cannot imagine taking care of a house this size." He smiled at them. "Good night. If you hear or see anything, please wake me."

They parted, and Charlie and Kip went to their room and shut the door. Charlie locked it, just for good measure.

They cleaned up in the bathroom, and then got into bed. The room was chill, though not cold enough to be uncomfortable. It made snuggling together beneath the covers very nice, indeed.

"So, what do you think?" Kippy asked, as he made himself at home in Charlie's embrace. Just for good measure, he kissed him.

Charlie smiled. "Mmm. I'd give that kiss a nine. Not bad, but you've done better."

Kippy sighed. "About the house, dummy."

"Oh. Well, so far it's been interesting."

Kippy touched the tip of his nose to Charlie's, and stuck out his tongue and gently swiped it along Charlie's lips. "You think it's haunted?"

Charlie considered that, then shook his head. "No. At least, not the way that Billy haunted the house he lived in." Charlie frowned. "My gut tells me we're dealing with something different here. Just what...I have no idea."

"My skwish is not saying much. But I agree with you that something unusual is going on here."

As if by unspoken agreement they both paused, listening. Far below them, they could hear the boiler pumps start up, and soon soft ticking sounds emanated from the radiators underneath the windows as they heated. But otherwise the house was quiet.

Kippy arranged himself against Charlie then, and sighed. "I'm tired. Wake me, if the ghosts come in."

Charlie laughed. "I was going to ask you to do the same thing." They settled back and closed their eyes.

Charlie mulled over the many interesting things he had learned that day. It was exciting to think they were possibly on the trail of some arcane electrical experiment even partially conducted by someone like Nikola Tesla. That some little bit of history so far unreported might be hiding in this house was a thrilling idea to consider.

He thought about the activation of Horace's vibration sensor, but was even more captured by what had happened with the piano. Electronics could be testy at times, but Charlie could see no way the piano could have played a note on its own. That required the application of force, by depressing a key so that the hammer would strike a string.

But, then again...they hadn't really looked that closely at the piano's guts, had they? Maybe he should do that tomorrow, just to cover all the bases.

Charlie opened one eye as he felt Kippy slide into sleep. Some small amount of light reached up from the outdoor illumination on the veranda, which they had left on. Enough to frame the bedroom's windows in a soft glow from without. The room was not totally dark. He surveyed it one more time, found everything in its place.

If whatever was in this house was going to visit them tonight, it would need to wake them to do it. Charlie closed his eye again, nuzzled Kippy gently, and turned out his own inner light for the night.

Charlie awoke to darkness. No...not total darkness. He could see the windows, still only illuminated by the porch lights below. It was still night, obviously.

His awareness firmed, and concentrated on what had pulled him from slumber. A sound...a buzzing sound, much like the one made by a bumble bee, or one of those huge horseflies. He sighed, not particularly thrilled at the idea of something landing on him in the middle of a dream. He raised his head then, trying to home in on the sound...

Something passed between Charlie and the first window, blotting it out. Something huge. It wasn't flying, it was walking across the floor. Underneath the buzzing sound now he heard the groan of floorboards, as they took the weight of something unusually heavy. A faint vibration came to him through the mattress beneath him. Charlie's breath caught. The windows were tall, almost to the high ceiling. For something to blot them out like that, it had to be very big.

His eyes moved to the other window, just as whatever it was passed in front of that one. Charlie's eyes, attuned to the darkness now, could just make out a large shape moving in the room. The bedroom was sizeable, just like all the rooms in the octagon house, and an easy twenty feet lay between the end of the bed and the windows. The shadowy figure turned, and started back the way it had come, occluding first one window, and then the other.

Charlie felt Kippy tense beside him, and then heard the whisper of his voice. "What is that?"

Again, the huge figure turned, and crossed the room once more, passing in front of the windows. Again, the floorboards creaked as if an elephant stood upon them. The figure passed the second window, and then Charlie was certain that it turned their way. And started to come closer.

"Charlie!" Kippy hissed.

Charlie sat bolt upright. The lamp was on his side of the bed, and he lunged for it, fumbled momentarily with the switch...and then light filled the room.

Nothing was there.

The buzzing sound vanished with the light, and only a faint tick-tick-tick from the radiators under the windows could be heard.

"What the hell...?" Charlie began.

A yell reached his ears from downstairs, and then the sound of Moped barking. Charlie turned and looked at his boyfriend, whose eyes were large with amazement. And then both of them were scrambling from the bed. Charlie grabbed his sweatpants off the chair by the bed and stepped into them on the run, even as Kip was doing the same thing. Kippy reached the bedroom door first, grabbed at the knob, realized it was locked, and frantically twisted the latch for the bolt.

Moped was still barking, and Charlie could hear voices downstairs. Kippy yanked the door open and the two of them raced for the stairs. These were never dark, having small foot lamps set into the wall every third step to keep the staircase lit, and the boys took them two at a time going down. They reached the next floor, and almost ran into Horace, who was standing by the door to the bedroom that Rick and Adrian had been using. Those two boys stood outside it, only partially dressed themselves. Moped was still excited, but quieted when Charlie and Kippy arrived, and ran to meet them, her tail wagging.

"What happened?" Kippy demanded, his eyes moving quickly between the three. "Is everyone okay?"

Horace put out a hand and pushed his fingertips against Kippy's arm. "Relax, young man. Everyone is fine."

Charlie took a deep breath and let it out slowly, waiting for his racing heart to slow down. "Holy crap! What was all the yelling about?"

Adrian and Ricky looked at each other, and then Adrian gave a little shrug. "I woke up, and thought something was in our room."

"Something was in our room," Ricky said, with much more assurance. "Something big, too."

Kippy's eyes widened. "Did you hear a sound like a big bee flying around?"

Adrian sucked in his breath, and then he and Rick exchanged glances. "How did you know? "Adrian asked.

"We had a visitor, too," Charlie said. "It must have been at the same time as yours." He looked at Horace. "How about you?"

The man was wearing an old flannel robe and leather moccasin slippers. Charlie briefly wondered at that, now imagining the bottom of the man's old carpet bag to be even deeper than he'd first suspected.

"I was asleep, I heard a yell, and I jumped up and came right down."

"You had time to put on your robe," Kippy observed. "You didn't hear any buzzing in your room?"

Horace barked out a laugh. "I had the robe on. I fell asleep reading, apparently."

"You didn't see anything in the dark of your room?" Charlie asked.

"My room wasn't dark. I was sitting in the chair by the bed, reading. The light was on, naturally. I simply heard the noise, and came right down."

Kippy let out an exaggerated sigh. "They like the dark, it seems."

Horace leaned closer, looking fascinated. "What did you experience?"

Charlie recounted being awakened by the buzzing sound, and then seeing the huge figure passing back and forth in front of the windows. He mentioned the floor creaking, as if under a great weight. And then how, when it seemed to be turning to come towards them, Charlie had turned on the light, causing the thing to vanish.

Adrian nodded that whole time, looking wide-eyed. "That's exactly how it was for us."

"I'll say," Ricky agreed. "What do you think is going on?"

As if by common consent, everyone turned to look at Horace. The older man blinked, and then smiled. "Oh, my, I have no idea what you saw."

Kippy snorted. "You're the ghost hunter."

"Yes, I am. But I've already mentioned that these sort of phenomena are rare. I've simply never experienced anything quite like this before."

Kippy turned and gently smacked Charlie's arm. "Don't lock the door again. For a moment I though we were trapped."

Charlie nodded apologetically. "Just making sure we had some privacy, is all."

Horace's head bobbed up and down. "Oh, my. It's never wise to close the door in a situation like this. I always leave mine open." He looked around at them with a knowing smile. "Not only that, but I place a doorstop under the edge of it to make sure it stays open. I have some extras, if you'd like to use them."

Charlie frowned at that. "You think that's really necessary?"

"Oh, Charlie," Kippy said testily, "you know how it is in the movies. The ghost slams the door and the people are trapped in the room with it. I should have thought of that one."

Horace nodded. "It would seem to be a recurring theme in many of the hauntings I've investigated."

"I thought you said real hauntings were rare?" Ricky reminded.

"They are. Quite so. And yet, that particular happening is one of the most frequently reported. Apparently, people are quite frightened by the idea of being trapped inside a room with a malevolent spirit."

Moped had come to stand beside Kippy, and now she nuzzled his hand for attention. Kippy smiled absently at the dog, and began to rub the top of her head.

Charlie felt an uncharacteristic aggravation at the idea that Horace had not experienced what they had. It seemed like the man went out of his way to avoid the very things he was supposed to be investigating. "Next you'll be telling me you sleep with the light on."

"I do. Anytime I am in a situation like this, I leave the lights on."

Charlie squinted at the older man. "How do you expect to experience anything if you avoid leaving any openings for them to occur?"

A patient look came onto the man's face. "A true haunting does not need a set up, Charlie. I have had some very sophisticated tricks played on me in the dark." He sighed. "I believe I have witnessed genuine paranormal phenomena just five times in thirty years of seeking them out. Every one of these instances have been in broad daylight. Darkness is the refuge of horror writers and B-movie thrillsters. True hauntings do not run by the clock."

Charlie and Kippy looked at each other. "So you think this is some elaborate trick?" Kippy asked.

Horace looked around at the boys, and then slowly shook his head. "No. I'll admit I was made immediately suspicious by Mrs. Viggerol's claim that she only saw things happening at night. Tricksters most often hide in darkness. But...the fact that all of you plainly have the sight, and the things I also feel inside this, I don't think this is a trick."

"So you're saying that darkness is not a factor here," Ricky said. "So how come the whatsit disappeared the moment I turned the light on?"

"Did it?" Horace countered. "Or did turning the light on change the conditions by which your senses could interpret whatever it was you experienced? Or your mind, for that matter?"

Charlie narrowed his eyes at the idea. "You think we didn't actually see these things? Or hear them? That it all occurred somehow in our minds?"

"I do not discard the possibility." The ghost hunter smiled. "When I was a lad, and my mother would put me to bed at night, she would always remind me that there was nothing in the dark that was not there when the light was turned on. And I have found that to be true, for most times and most places." The man gently shook his head then. "But not all times, and not all places. Sometimes, there are things in the dark that were not there when the light was on. And sometimes, we only think there are, because we have been made to see or hear them."

Charlie thought that one over, not even sure it made sense to him. He opened his mouth to say so, when there was a sudden crash from downstairs, and then, immediately after, another note from the piano. For a second no one moved; and then they were all running for the first floor.

They found the source of the noise immediately. All the artwork hanging on the walls of the living room had fallen to the floor. Each framed piece had a wire that stretched across the back, which was hung over a hook on the wall. The hooks were undamaged, and the wires were still firmly connected. It looked as if each piece had been lifted from the hook and unceremoniously dropped to the floor.

Several of the frames had cracked on impact, and some must have had older glass in them, which had shattered on impact and now lay in hundreds of pieces strewn about the floor. Ricky swore when he saw that, and shook his fist at whatever invisible spirits might be lurking around the ceiling. "That's just crappy! Breaking other people's stuff is crappy!"

Adrian grabbed his boyfriend's arm and started hauling him back towards the archway. "The piano sounded again, remember? Let's go see!"

The five of them hurried around to the library, and found the keyboard cover still down on the grand piano, just as they had left it. Charlie frowned at that. "I want to see the guts of this thing."

Ricky helped him raise the lid, and they peered within. Charlie frowned at the shadows inside the case, and was just about to say he really couldn't see very well when Horace removed a small flashlight from the pocket of his robe, turned it on, and shined the beam into the soundboard case. "A good ghost hunter should always be prepared."

The boys all smiled at that, and then all eyes turned to examine the guts of the piano. Charlie couldn't claim great knowledge of the subject, but certainly felt he'd be able to spot any covert remote-control devices which might serve to activate the hammers. There were none. The soundboard was clean of any foreign attachments.

"Nothing," Kippy said at last. "It's just a piano, Charlie."

Charlie nodded. "The only weird thing is the way its attached to the floor. Maybe they had a problem with it rolling or something." He got down on his knees and examined the thick legs. Where most pianos had wheels under them, the legs of this piano seemed to fit into cups sunk directly into the boards of the floor. "That's kind of weird."

"Perhaps not," Horace offered then. "The position of a piano within a room is important. Perhaps this particular spot makes best use of the acoustics of this room. Very serious players are conscious of where they place their instruments, as it can drastically affect sound quality." He pointed to the windows. "Changes in both temperature and humidity can affect a piano's sound quality. Even seasonal changes in temperature and humidity can make a piano go out of tune. I suggest that this spot was possibly selected for its thermal constancy, and perhaps for its acoustical properties, too."

The boys all exchanged glances, and Kippy looked delighted. "I think we have just discovered the father of all Britannica Brains."

Ricky playfully patted Charlie's arm. "There, there. We still love you and hold you in high regard."

Charlie laughed. "Thanks."

Horace looked briefly confused. "Something I said?"

"No. You just keep surprising us," Charlie told him. "In a good way, so relax."

Horace nodded, still looking uncertain that he wasn't being kidded.

"So this thing will just keep playing the same note, over and over?" Adrian asked.

"But it was not the same note," Horace said then.

The four boys stared at him, and the man looked mildly taken aback. "Well, it wasn't."

Charlie smiled. "Can you explain?"

"Certainly." Horace dropped a hand on the piano. "This is a beautiful instrument. It was produced by Paul Mehlin and Sons, probably about 1895. The style is Victorian Empire. The cabinet is ribbon mahogany. The soundboard will reproduce notes across seven and a quarter octaves." He leaned down and raised the fall - the keyboard cover - and gently depressed a key. A clear note rang out from the soundboard. "This is the second C. It lies exactly one octave up from the first C note this instrument can reproduce. It has a frequency of slightly more than sixty-five Hertz."

He moved his finger to the right, and depressed another key. "This is the third C, another whole octave up from the note I just played. It has a frequency exactly twice that of the second C, or approximately 130 Hertz and some change. Notice how similar they sound?"

Charlie nodded. "Very."

Horace looked pleased. "The note we heard in the kitchen last night was the second C. The one we just heard a few minutes ago was the third C."

Kippy sighed. "I couldn't tell the difference."

Horace smiled at him. "I'm sure you would have noticed the difference had they been played consecutively."

"You have perfect pitch?" Charlie asked, by this point not surprised by anything this odd little man might know.

The ghost hunter looked slightly embarrassed. "Yes. I also love pianos. I've played since I was a boy."

"Perhaps not just you," Charlie returned.

Horace blinked at him. "I'm not sure I understand."

Charlie patted the piano. "If these two notes were actually an octave apart, as you say, wouldn't that imply that our ghost understands music, as well?"

Horace stared at him a long moment, and then slowly smiled. "You are refreshingly bright for a young man."

Ricky snickered. "Watch out. His head will get bigger."

Horace waved a hand at him. "Oh, go on. All you young men are cheerfully pleasant to be around." He made a face then. "My sister's grandchildren are teenagers, and they are simply difficult to get along with. The girl doesn't even speak English."

The boys laughed. "We know a few like that."

Horace frowned then. "You make an interesting point, Charlie. May I call you Charlie?"

"Please, do."

The man smiled. "But it could be even simpler than an understanding of music." Horace looked at the piano as if considering it in a different light. "It may be more an understanding of frequencies."

Charlie thought he might know where the ghost hunter was heading with that, but didn't want to steal his thunder. "Meaning?"

Horace bit his lip a moment, and then nodded. "If you take a violin and play it near a piano, the strings of the piano that correspond to the frequency of the notes being played on the violin will vibrate, and produce a sound of their own. If I were a ghost with a knack for frequencies, and wished to cause a piano to play a note, all I would need do is cause the air around a piano string to vibrate at the frequency of the string, thus causing it to sound."

"Whoa," Ricky said, understanding appearing on his face. "So our spooky guy doesn't have to touch the keys at all. He can make the piano play just by vibrating the air."

"An interesting possibility, anyway," Horace confirmed. "My, my. This just keeps getting more and more fascinating."

It made sense to Charlie, too. Beings composed of energy might very well be able to manipulate some things like stringed instruments, simply by causing them to vibrate. One thing they had learned about magic users was that what they did was all firmly grounded in science. Weird science, maybe; but science nonetheless.

"Any suggestions about how all those pictures in the front room were made to fall?"

Horace scratched his head. "Not off the top of my head. Perhaps we can go back and examine them for clues."

"At least clean up the mess," Ricky fumed. "Annie will think we had a thumpin' party in her house!"

They returned to the living room, and were presented with a new puzzle.

"What the hell?" Ricky said, staring around at the walls.

The artwork, which had been on the floor only minutes ago, was once again hanging in place. There were no cracked frames, no broken glass to be seen. The frames where the glass had shattered had full, clean sheets of glass in them again.

Horace scratched his chin as he looked around. "Now I do suspect we have been made to see and hear things that are not real." He nodded at Charlie. "See what I mean?"

Charlie nodded. "It's a lot easier to think we were made to see this room a shambles than to believe it was all put back together again." He sighed in exasperation. "I'm not sure what to believe now."

Kippy made a grumbling sound. "I know I'm tired. Do you think it's safe to go back to bed?"

Horace steepled his hands before him, tapped his fingertips together a moment, and nodded. "I think so. But this time, I suggest you boys leave a light on in your room, and the door wide open. The first so that you actually get some sleep, and the second to prevent you being trapped should our...guest...become playful again."

Adrian shook his head. "Couldn't our spook friend just make the lights go out?"

"Possibly." Horace nodded. "Very possibly. Or, even make us think they had gone out. We are entering a very dangerous area here in supposing anything, however."

Ricky leaned toward the ghost hunter. "This all has something to do with that weird field you detected when we were out on the veranda earlier. I feel it."

Charlie nodded. "I'm beginning to suspect Horace was on the right track suggesting that there is some sort of hidden machine in this house." He turned to the man. "Do you think, if we used your EMF detector, we might better be able to track it down?"

"Possibly." Horace looked uncertain about the idea. "Although, if I am right about the structure of this house, the machine in question simply energizes the frame to perform its function. Tracking down the machine itself might be harder than you think."

"I was just thinking about how regular the pulses were, when we heard them on the detector. That thought refuses to go away."

"What would you do with the machine if you found it?" Ricky asked.

Charlie looked about the room, and shrugged. "If it's attracting whatever is here, maybe shutting it down would end all this spookiness."

Kippy gasped then, and Charlie felt a sudden bout of unease steal over him, as if a sudden chill breeze had blown across the room.

Adrian released a held breath. "That was pretty weird."

"For a moment, I felt quite ill at ease," Horace said, nodding in agreement. "Most unusual."

"It felt like a wave of fear to me," Kippy said. He looked around, but couldn't spy anything out of order. Still--

"Something has changed." Kippy frowned, and turned to Adrian. "What do you feel? Do you still get the sense that this is a happy home?"

Adrian closed his eyes, and then nodded. "Yes. But I feel some fear here, too."

Kippy turned back to Charlie. "That came in direct response your suggestion that we turn off the machine."

Charlie nodded. He felt the same way. "Okay, we won't make any decision about turning anything off. But that response suggests we're right to assume that there is a hidden machine here."

Ricky released an irritated grunt. "I just want to know that my cousin is safe here. And that her investment is safe. If she suddenly starts having spirits playing tricks on her, and has to sell, I'm going to be more than a little mad."

Horace raised his hands then. "Please. Everyone calm down. Don't say anything else for a moment. Please."

Charlie nodded, and he and the others stood silently. The only sound was the ticking of an antique clock on the mantel, and a faint tick-tick-tick from the radiators. And Moped, who considered the sudden silence an invitation to speak. She barked, looking up at them as if to ask what was going on. The boys laughed, and Charlie took a deep breath, feeling a definite release of tension.

"Thank you," Horace said. He looked at them pointedly. "I feel it might be detrimental to our cause to continue to say things we have not clearly thought out. I suggest we get back to sleep, and talk again in the morning."

"Well, I'm leaving our door open," Ricky said. He grinned then, and put an arm around Adrian's shoulders. "Although I can think of a lot of things that are worse than being locked in a haunted house with you."

Adrian smiled, and let out a comfortable sigh. Kippy smiled at them, and then turned the smile on Charlie. "Door open, lights on?"

"I guess." Charlie sighed. "Hell of a world when you have to have the lights on and the door open just to get some rest."

Kippy nodded. "I was thinking, Charlie. Maybe we should talk to the one person that might know more about this than we do. Mrs. Ravishaw."

"There's an idea," Adrian agreed.

"It may assist our investigations greatly," Horace agreed.

"We'll talk about it in the morning," Charlie decided. "Now let's try to get some sleep, or we'll be too tired to do anything."

They returned to their rooms. Horace came by a few minutes later and gave Charlie a doorstop, which he wedged underneath the open door to keep it in place. Although he thought, even as he was doing it, that any force that could make them think the living room had been trashed could probably also make them think the door was closed and would not open. There was something weird about that whole incident with the artwork, but he couldn't put his finger on it.

Kippy welcomed him into bed, and snuggled up close to him. "I hate sleeping in the light, but I'm tired enough now to do it."

Charlie shook his head. "This whole thing is weird. It's not going at all like I'd expect a situation to go if we were dealing with spirits like Billy and Will. This is something totally different."

"I think so, too. My skwish has loosened up enough to tell me that much." Kippy smiled. "It seems also to have decided that this will all work out somehow."

Charlie was surprised to hear that, but found the notion comforting. "I don't suppose your skwish told you where we could find Mrs. Ravishaw, did it?"

His boyfriend laughed. "Annie said Mrs. Ravishaw went into a retirement community here in town. As small a place as this is, how many can there be?"

Charlie laughed. "Oh. Yeah, that's true." He made himself comfortable, and sighed. "Love you, Kip."

"I know, Charlie." Kippy sighed and snuggled closer. "I love you, too. I can't imagine anyplace I'd rather be than right here with you."

They kissed, and Charlie closed his eyes, and just savored the closeness to Kip. He lay still then, listening, as the house occasionally creaked, and the radiators occasionally ticked, and the wind outside kicked up softly against the side of the house. The sense of a happy home was still all around them; but now he could feel a small bit of darkness mixed with it, like an uncomfortable silence that had invaded an otherwise joyous conversation.

Whatever was going on here, it needed fixing. And tomorrow, they would get down to doing just that.

"Wake up, Charlie Boone. It's Halloween!"

Charlie opened his eyes. Sunlight was streaming into the right-hand window, and the room was cheery and bright. Kippy's face hovered above him, smiling.

Charlie grinned, raised his head and kissed his boyfriend. "What a gorgeous sight to awaken to!"

Kippy laughed into their kiss, and Charlie tasted toothpaste. It immediately made him conscious of dragon breath, and he closed his mouth and lay back against the pillow. "You've been up. I haven't had time to brush my teeth yet."

Kippy shook his head. "Oh, Charlie. Stop worrying. I've had my nose by your butt. You think I'm going to worry what your breath smells like?"

Charlie burst into laughter, but still brought up a hand to cover his mouth. "My butt was clean from the shower. Let me go brush my teeth, please."

Kippy sighed, but backed away. "Go. Hurry back."

Charlie wiggled out from under Kip and out of bed, and dashed for the bathroom. They'd left their toothbrushes in the little plastic storage tubes they used when they traveled, but they were easy to tell apart. Charlie's was blue, and Kip's was pink. It was a joke between them, that only Ricky and Adrian were in on.

Charlie brushed his teeth, watching himself in the mirror. He turned his face one way, and then the other, scanning his cheeks. Shaving had become a routine with him, but he'd found he didn't need to do it every day. I tiny bit of stubble was kind of cool - well, until Kip complained about it, anyway. His boyfriend's face was still as smooth as a baby's, and Kippy disliked anything that was scratchy.

But, he'd shaved just yesterday, and his face looked okay. Charlie squinted, because the light in the bathroom seemed awfully dim. He leaned closer to the mirror, trying to see if his eyebrows were okay...but...what the hell was wrong with that light? He looked up at it just as it seemed to dim out. At the same moment he spied movement in the mirror...behind him.

Without warning, Charlie felt himself swimming in a dark sea. It flowed around him, caressing him, but it was not wet, and left no mark upon him. He knew immediately that he had slipped into a state of split presence, and that his other self was on its way...somewhere.

But how?

He had not initiated the move. Charlie had grown able at focusing on where he wished his other self to go, and getting that part of his inner being to its intended destination. But this felt more like the first time Charlie's presence had split, in response to the destruction of Pacha'ka's ship on the far distant world of Antariluma. Pacha, and Mike, Bobby, and Kontus, had planeted the ship there in order to explore the ancient, sealed city of Taraqua. A planetquake had dislodged a tremendous glacier from the mountain above the ship, raining millions of tons of ice upon the unlucky vessel. Pacha had thrown out a protective field at the final instant and prevented that last tiny space in which the survivors huddled from being crushed, and their dire situation has somehow drawn the attention of Charlie's nascent talent, and awakened it. That first time, Charlie had been totally unprepared for what had happened.

Just like now.

A blob of light formed ahead of him, grew wildly in size as he approached it at tremendous speed, until he was hovering just beyond the invisible membrane that separated him from this other place. And then he pierced it, and the world beyond came fully into view.

He was standing on a rust-colored plain, beneath a sky that was incredibly dark, without even a single star to mark it. But there was a light - an eerie glow that seemed to dance around the distant horizons. Even as he watched, a fierce, crooked yellow bolt, like lightning, flashed across the sky in the nearer distance, and then another. Charlie squinted at the horizon, and imagined that what he was seeing was a virtual barrage of the things. They provided scant illumination at a distance, but the sandy ground beneath his feet was not dark. He looked around, and was able to see huge, even mounds of sand all around him, and what looked like mountains in the distance. But that this was a dim and eerie place seemed evident.

He saw motion then, far off, and somehow his other self moved closer. One of the sand mounds was suddenly flying apart, creating a thin cloud of slowly dissipating dust in the air above. And then something emerged from the dust, and then something else, and then a line of creatures came into view, shuffling slowly across the sands. Charlie stared in wonder at what he was seeing. These creatures were like none he had ever encountered before!

They were in a way manlike, but their bodies were squarish, as were their arms and their legs. Even their heads seemed square, and set directly upon the shoulders with no neck between. There was no face on the front of the head, no ears, no hair. How the things could see where they were going was a mystery.

Charlie could feel slight vibrations in the earth beneath his feet now, and realized that these creatures must be very heavy for their movements to be felt this way. He lifted, and floated along beside the line now, watching as it moved along. He counted twenty-two of the creatures, all taller than he was by several feet, all shuffling along at a ponderous walking speed. They didn't speak, or communicate in any way that Charlie could see, yet their unity was obvious to him, their sense of shared purpose, clear.

He turned then, and looked in the direction the line of creatures was heading. In the distance was a jagged slit, a break in the very image of the world around them, that seemed to hang in the air itself, a hand's breadth above the sands. A faint glow emanated from the edges of the ragged break, but the heart of the thing held only darkness. Charlie looked back at the line of creatures, determined their direction, and felt certain then that this strange rent in reality was their final destination.

He sensed motion out of the corner of his eye then, and turned to look as something else came into view. Charlie's first impression was of a flying craft of some kind, but the longer he looked the more convinced he became that it was actually a living thing. It was huge, dwarfing the block creatures, and somehow hard to look at, having curves that seemed to double back upon themselves, and lines that went nowhere. It's complete alienness was upsetting, and its plainly malevolent intent frightening. It drew nearer with alarming speed, making no sound as it swooped above the sands, plainly focused on the line of hurrying block creatures. The sand beneath it roiled as if swept with currents of some kind, but the absolute silence was unnerving as it closed in on its prey.

The last block creature in line, as if sensing the approach of the thing, turned and seemed to spy it. And then it plunged ahead, bumping into the creature ahead of it. That one bumped into the next in line, and so on, and the entire line sped up then, and as they neared the ragged cut in reality, Charlie suddenly understood that for the line to reach it meant some form of escape. He found himself looking back at the enormous thing bearing down upon them, as it swooped ever lower above the sands, and rooting for the blocky creatures to make it to the break first.

The first member of the line reached the cut, and did not even slow, plunging into it and disappearing. Then the second, and the third--

But it was quickly clear that not all would make it before the devil in the air reached them. The last member of the line seemed to realize that, and suddenly turned and charged back along the path the line had made in the sand, waving its squarish arms. The thing in the air seemed to falter just a moment, and then settled lower, plainly going now for the block creature running towards it. Charlie cringed, figuring that even creatures as massive as these seemed to be would be no match for the creature of the air.

The line continued to disappear into the rent in reality. The air beast was scarcely above the sands at all now, bearing down on the block creature running at it with unerring precision. Something like a claw descended from beneath the thing, and flexed menacingly, obviously preparing to grab the block creature as it swept overhead. Charlie drew his shoulders up, waiting for the inevitable crash...

At what seemed the last possible second, the block creature threw itself prone and seemed to melt down into the sand. A violent, angry surge of purples and reds flared all along the odd length of the flying thing as it was suddenly deprived of its victim, and the claw grabbed only empty air instead. The beast in the air surged forward now, going for the end of the line of block creatures; but the delay had been just enough that the last one in line was able to throw itself into the dark break just as the vicious claw swept overhead.

For a brief second the sharp ends of that claw brushed against the glowing edge of the rent, and a violent crackle of white lightning surged up and along the body of the thing. Charlie did hear a cry then: enormous and full of rage, a sound so large that he felt his ear drums flex painfully in reaction. He clapped his hands over his ears, but it seemed to do nothing to lessen the sound.

The flying thing gained altitude now, trailing small white trails of static discharge, until it was high in the air; and then it wheeled and plunged in a long descending arc back towards the break in reality. The block creature that had sunk into the sand reappeared then, managed to propel itself upright, and took off at a slow run towards the rent. Again Charlie watched, his throat tight with fear, as the race played out a second time.

It was close, but the block creature managed to make the break and plunge into its depths seconds before the claw arrived above it. This time, the flying creature stayed high enough not to contact the edges of the rent, sailed past it, and gained altitude once more, again cloaked in angry colors of red and orange. It circled, as if inspecting the sands below for other victims, and then wheeled slowly about and headed off into the dark sky.

Charlie watched it go, and only then became aware of other dots in the skies, slowly moving back and forth along the horizon. Other predators, seeking prey?

He turned to look at the amazing break in the world around him, and moved closer to it. That it must lead somewhere away from this awful place seemed clear. Perhaps if he took a look--?

But even as he took a step, the menacing world began to fade away. Quite suddenly, he was in a dim but vaguely familiar place.


Charlie turned to find Ricky beside him. "Rick?"

"Come back, Charlie. Come home." The worry in the other boy's voice was plain.

Charlie nodded. "Okay. Let's go."

They started walking, and after a moment of no-time, the world lightened around them.

"Are you okay?" a voice called to him.

Hands touched him then, gently reassuring, transferring love and comfort and caring. Charlie blinked, and turned to find Kippy beside him, staring at him, fear plain in his eyes. Behind him stood Rick and Adrian and Horace, all looking concerned. Charlie moved his mouth, found something blocking his tongue, and turned back to the bathroom mirror. His toothbrush hung out of his mouth, and a white stream of toothpaste had run down his chin and dripped onto his bare chest.

"Oh, Charlie, are you okay?" Kippy repeated. The relief in his boyfriend's voice was plain.

Charlie blinked at himself in the mirror, then raised his hand and pulled the toothbrush from his mouth. "I think so."

He bent down, ran the water, and rinsed his mouth and cleaned off his chin, then swiped his wet hand over the dribble of paste on his chest to remove it. He grabbed a towel, and dried himself, and turned back to the others.

Kippy immediately pulled Charlie close, and wrapped his arms around him in a powerful hug. "I thought I'd lost you," he whispered.

Rick and Adrian moved close on either side, and put their arms around Charlie and Kippy, and for a moment the four of them stood in silence. Charlie could feel the power of their emotions, all directed at him. He tried to give that back, seeing now they had been worried about him.

"Worried?" Ricky said then. "You scared the crap out of us!" But he followed that with a laugh, and squeezed everyone even harder. "I came to find you. I'm so glad I did."

Charlie looked at the other boy. "Did you see it? That place?"

"What place? I found you in that weird tunnel, like the one we took to rescue Pacha and Mike and the others. But I didn't see any place."

"My presence split," Charlie offered, remembering. "My other self took a trip. I went to this weird place."

Kippy pulled back far enough to look at him, and Rick and Adrian allowed them some space. "I know," Kippy said. "But where did you go?"

Charlie was stunned to see tears on his boyfriend's face. "It's okay. I'm back."

Kippy smiled, sniffed, and wiped at his eyes. "You scared me, Charlie."

Charlie hugged him, and kissed his cheek. "I'm not leaving you, Kip. I love you too much to ever go away. Okay?"

He felt the other boy nod, and pulled back. Charlie reached down and took Kippy's hands, and squeezed them comfortingly. "We all need to talk."

His eyes touched upon Horace then, standing just outside the doorway, watching them intently. "All five of us," Charlie added.

The older man nodded, and offered a smile. "I think that would be a good thing."

Ricky stepped back, drawing Adrian with him. Both boys smiled, and Charlie smiled back at them. "Get dressed, and we'll meet in the kitchen?"

The group split up, and Kippy and Charlie were left alone. Kippy pulled Charlie into another hug, and kissed him. "If you ever do that again, you'll be in trouble!"

Charlie smiled at the warmth and closeness of his boyfriend's face, and had to kiss it several times. But then he shook his head. "I'm not even sure how it happened. One second I'm brushing my teeth, the next I'm...somewhere else."

"But where?" Kippy asked softly.

Charlie shrugged. "I don't know." He smiled again. "Can you wait a minute? Wait until we all get to the kitchen? Then I'll tell you what happened."

Kippy nodded, but wrapped his fingers around Charlie's wrist and squeezed it. "When you've gone off like this before, I could still always sense you, Charlie. Even when you went to rescue Pacha and the others, and that was such a long way off." He shook his head. "Wherever you went this time, it was beyond far. It was was like there was nothing left behind. I couldn't sense you at all. You were stiff as a board and...and--"

Kippy gulped, and more tears ran out of his eyes. He wiped at them hastily, and tried to smile. "I'm just glad you're back."

Charlie smiled, blinking his own eyes, and nodded, and pulled his boyfriend close. Kippy needed a moment, and Charlie wanted to give it to him. The others wouldn't mind waiting, just a little longer.

He knew they would understand.

"That's an amazing tale," Horace said, watching Charlie closely as he finished recounting his trip. "I would even say an unbelievable one, if I didn't sense otherwise."

"I have no proof," Charlie said. He looked at his friends, and smiled, and then let his gaze go back to Horace. "Fortunately, you're the only one I have to convince."

"Oh, my, but you have." The ghost hunter gave a gentle nod of his head. "I have learned to trust the sight, Charlie. I am listening to it now, and it is telling me you speak the truth."

Charlie smiled. "Well, that helps."

Ricky frowned at him. "I felt you go. Me and Adrian came right upstairs. Kip is right, it's like you were all the way gone."

"Wherever it was you went, it was an awfully long way off," Kippy reiterated. "Next time, take a bus instead."

Charlie smiled at his boyfriend, and squeezed his hand under the table.

"The link I sense between the four of you is quite amazing," Horace said, smiling. "Strong. It doesn't surprise me now that you all work so well together." He sighed. "I'd ask how the four of you came by such closeness, but I'm certain it would be quite rude of me."

Charlie laughed at that. "Maybe we'll tell you. Someday."

The ghost hunter's eyes circled the table, and he smiled. "I think maybe you might. I'll be satisfied with that, for now." He leaned forward in his chair. "But for our next step, I think we need to try to understand the reason for your journey. The meaning of it, as I'm sure there was one."

Charlie shrugged. "I know the reason. Someone was showing me something. But, you're right. Now we just need to figure out what it all means."

"Have you any ideas?"

"A few. It's a little early for guessing, though." Charlie turned to Kippy. "I'm thinking now that your idea from last night needs to be our next step. We should talk to Mrs. Ravishaw."

Ricky grunted. "Yeah. But will she tell us anything?"

"We won't know unless we ask," Adrian supplied.

Kippy made an irritated sound. "But no more sneaking around the subject, like we did with Mrs. Viggerol. That made me feel like I was dirty or something."

Horace laughed at that. "Oh, I'm afraid you'd better get used to that, Kippy. Investigating things that people do not wish to acknowledge, let alone talk about, would be nearly impossible without the occasional subterfuge."

Charlie smiled at the irritated expression that flitted across Kippy's face, and then the look of resigned acceptance. "Well, then I'll never make a great ghost hunter, let me say that."

They got some breakfast, and talked, and fed Moped, who seemed to know something was up, and insisted on laying on the floor with her muzzle right atop Ricky's shoe, as if showing her desire to be supportive. Ricky kept bending down and rubbing her head, which seemed to make her more relaxed, until she finally rolled onto her side and went to sleep.

"Now we just need to find where Mrs. Ravishaw is living," Kippy said.

Horace cleared his throat, as if a prelude to speaking, and Charlie favored him with a smile. "Let me guess. Your research sources?"

The ghost hunter looked pleased with himself. "Well...they are rather good at this point." He laughed. "Actually, she was not at all hard to find. A place like Norwich does not exactly have retirement facilities on every corner. They have one, in fact, and it is a loose community living in a very relaxed setting comprised of apartments and bungalows. Mrs. Ravishaw has a bungalow at Millcrest Farm."

"I don't suppose you have a phone number?" Charlie asked.

"Well, as a matter of fact..."

Ricky made the call. He explained that he was Annie's cousin, and that he was staying at the octagon house, and that he was enthralled with the place, and that he wondered if he could come by with a few friends to talk to her about the history of the house. It was not an outright deception, as they really did want to learn more of the house's history. But they thought it best not to announce right over the phone that that wanted to talk about mysterious entities that might be residing at the house.

Mrs. Ravishaw, for her part, seemed eager to speak on the subject, and invited them to come over at eleven. They got directions, and said they would be there.

Ricky frowned when he hung up the phone. "I think I know what Kip means now." He looked around the table at the others. "She seems like a really nice lady. I felt like I was lying to her."

"You didn't lie about anything," Horace said. "You simply did not mention one part of our reason for visiting."

Ricky raised one eyebrow. "Yeah? Sometimes, not saying something is a lie, too."

Horace sighed, but smiled at them. "Young people with morals. Whatever is this world coming to?"

Kippy hooted, and Charlie smiled. Adrian looked pleased and patted his boyfriend's arm. Ricky just sighed, and shook his head. "Well, anyway, we have an invitation."

They took Moped outside for a short walk before going. She romped about in the leaves, and dared them all to chase her. Ricky and Adrian obliged, while Charlie stood with his arm around Kippy and watched. Horace stood nearby, seeming to enjoy the moment.

It was a cool day, and breezy, and the multicolored trees waved gently back and forth while leaves rained down from their thinning tops. The sun was here and there, peeking out from behind a line of passing clouds, obviously challenged, but never gone for long. The rest of the sky was blue and friendly, and Charlie could almost imagine living in a place like this forever.

The octagon house towered behind them, looking something like a lighthouse of old, between its unusual shape and its glass-encrusted cupola soaring so high above the ground. Beyond the house, and all around it, stood forest, save for the one open area that gave a view of the town of Norwich in the valley beyond. The land held some stunning places, and Charlie could almost picture the first time the original Mr. Ravishaw had stood here and imagined a home in this wonderful place.

Life, Charlie was finding out, was composed of a multitude of outstanding moments, coupled together by the joys and sometimes pitfalls of daily living. Memories were defined by the outstanding moments, mostly, which were etched into the mind by the hand of a much finer engraver than were those moments that simply constituted life in general. Here, he knew, was just such a moment, one he would remember forever.

"It's so beautiful here," Kippy said softly. "I can't imagine there being anything ugly hiding inside that house."

Charlie nodded, and pulled Kippy against him. "We've come to think of Halloween as a time to be scared. Even when it's all in fun. But I'm seeing now that it's a time of wonders of all kinds, not just scary ones." He turned his head and smiled at the house. "There's something here, and it seems a little scary, but I think it's because we don't understand it yet."

"I want to know," Kippy said.

Charlie nodded. "So do I."

Finally, it came time to go to their meeting with Mrs. Ravishaw. Horace insisted on driving, saying he was sure his car would have more room. They climbed into it and headed down the drive. Charlie was actually amazed at how smoothly the car ran, though he did think the suspension was a little mushy compared to what he was used to. The interior was spotless, but the seats a little slippery, and there were no seat belts in the car. Who ever heard of that!

They found the retirement village easily enough, and the bungalow belonging to Mrs. Ravishaw. Another, somewhat more elegant older car stood out in front of it, a Cadillac, Charlie thought, though it was hard to tell under all the chrome and fins.

"Yes, that's what it is," Horace agreed. "A fifty-nine. And in beautiful condition!"

Ricky smiled at that. "Just think, Charlie. Someday we can get older and drive around in cars we bought next year, too."

They laughed at that, though Horace's eyes twinkled with merriment over their joking. "Now, now. A love for things of the past does not mean one cannot enjoy the present, or the future."

"I want an electric car," Adrian countered. "Or hydrogen powered, or whatever comes after gas. Something that doesn't pollute like the cars we have now."

"I would say you will get your wish," Horace offered. "All it takes is demand."

They eyed the house, and Charlie had to smile. "This is a bungalow? You could house a family of four here, no problem."

"Shh," Horace said, smiling. "Let us all be polite to the lady, shall we?"

They approached the front door, which opened as they reached it. An older woman leaning on a cane stood behind it, dressed in comfortable looking brown slacks and top. Charlie had sort of expected a dress, and an expensive, maybe even exotic one. The woman's hair was gray, with what looked like blonde accents, and done nicely in a curly perm. Her face had indeed once been beautiful; that was certain, and was still lovely, and made even more so by the pleasant smile she wore as she greeted them.


Ricky stepped forward and gave a nervous little bob of his head. "Uh, that's me. " He smiled. "It was awfully nice of you to see us."

Mrs. Ravishaw's green eyes looked him over, and Charlie felt like she was one that didn't miss much. She nodded. "I can tell you're related to Annie." She smiled at all of them. "Come inside, and we'll make our introductions."

They were ushered into a comfortably large front living room, and Charlie could immediately see where the furniture from the octagon house had wound up. It was pleasant and old fashioned, and had all the marks of home. A large black cat sat atop the back of the sofa, and waved its tail at them while examining them with fierce yellow eyes.

"Behave now, Matilda," Mrs. Ravishaw scolded the animal, as she told everyone to be seated. She smiled at them. "I have a live-in assistant, but this is Neve's day off, and she went off to see her mother. If anyone is hungry or would like a drink, I'll show you to the kitchen, as I am not so good with carrying things these days."

"We're fine," Charlie said, smiling as Kippy headed straight to an upholstered love seat and plopped down into it. He went and sat next to his boyfriend. "We had breakfast only a short time ago."

Introductions were made all around, with Horace offering up a real bow as he was presented, which brought a pleased smile to the older woman's face. Once they were all seated. Mrs. Ravishaw set her cane to one side and leaned against the armrest of the high back chair she had seated herself in. "Now, tell me all about the house. How is Annie doing there? Is she happy?"

It seemed a little bit of an odd first question, but Charlie was feeling like he understood the house somewhat better now.

Ricky nodded. "She loves the house. So does Moped."

"That's her dog?" Mrs. Ravishaw smiled. "Matilda loved it, too, so that doesn't surprise me at all." She leaned forward a bit. " do all of you like it?"

Kippy spoke up first. "We all love the house. It's beautiful, and you can tell that there were many happy years spent in it by a lot of people."

The woman digested that with a smile, her eyes moving about from one of her male guests to the next. Charlie felt a familiar tingle as she made eye contact with him, and knew for certain then that one of the things they had guessed at was now true. Mrs. Ravishaw had skwish, though it seemed very weak, even weaker than Mrs. Viggerol's had been.

But the woman took a breath, and let it back out in a contented fashion. "Yes. I can see that all of you really do like the house."

"We were wondering a little about it's history," Ricky offered. "About the man that built the house, in particular."

"That would be my grandfather, Charles Ravishaw. He designed the house, though of course he didn't build it with his own two hands."

Kippy smiled at that, and looked at Charlie. "Charles is a popular name with me."

Charlie laughed, and bumped his shoulder gently against his boyfriend's.

Mrs. Ravishaw seemed not to notice. She tilted her head slightly back, and smiled. "I grew up in that house, went off to see the world, and returned to it later in life. But I was never far away for very long." She nodded. "I have always loved that house, too."

Charlie leaned forward. "An octagon plan is such a unique design. What made him decide on that?"

She smiled. "Well, it was a friend of his that suggested the design, actually. But my grandfather loved it right away, it seems." She sighed. "It is a very unique place."

Ricky looked over at Charlie briefly, and then licked his lips a little nervously. "My cousin got a great deal on the place. We were amazed she got it for the price she did."

Mrs. Ravishaw raised a shoulder and lowered it. "Oh, I was not so concerned with that, as I was making sure that house went to someone who would love it and take care of it."

Ricky looked at Charlie again, and Charlie could see that his friend didn't know quite how to broach the subject that interested them.

Charlie nodded, and sat forward some more. "Mrs. Ravishaw? What is in that house?"

The woman stared at him for a moment, and then looked around at each one of them. "I'm not sure what you mean."

"You never saw anything unusual when you lived there?" Horace asked. "In all those years?"

Mrs. Ravishaw gave a small gasp, and her eyes widened, and she looked back at Ricky. "Is Annie having problems? Has she seen anything unusual?"

"No," Ricky said evenly. "She hasn't."

It took a moment for that to sink in, and then a look of surprise appeared on Mrs. Ravishaw's face. "Oh. You can see them?" She looked around the arc of faces before her. "All of you?"

Charlie nodded. "Yes. And hear them, too."

"But not Annie?"

"No. Not Annie. At least, not that we know of."

A look of relief replaced the look of surprise on the old woman's face. "Oh, you had me frightened there for a moment."

Charlie had to laugh at that. "What does that mean?"

Mrs. Ravishaw beamed at them. "I could feel from the moment I met her that she had the ability to sense the happiness for life that house holds. I knew she would love living there, and be happy. I did not sense that she might be able to see her houseguests, however."

Charlie and Kippy looked at each other.

"Houseguests?" Adrian asked.

Mrs. Ravishaw leaned forward in her seat. "I must know that Annie will not be told of this before I say anything further. She will be happy in that house, and the house will be happy with her. That's all either of them need. You must not spoil it for either of them."

Ricky shook his head. "I have to know she's safe there."

"She is." The old woman smiled, nodding emphatically. "I lived there for a half a century of my life, and was always happy. Annie is in no danger, I assure you."

Ricky looked over at Charlie, and shrugged. Now what?

Charlie cleared his throat. "Mrs. Ravishaw, did your grandfather and Nikola Tesla build something extra into that house?"

Again, surprise appeared on the old woman's face. "Well, you certainly have done your homework, haven't you?" But she seemed relieved rather than annoyed. She settled back into her chair and gazed at them reflectively. "Mr. Tesla believed in an afterlife, just as did my grandfather. They had a plan for...for signaling somehow to the spirits of the dead. The house is a sort of...well, I don't know. A generator, I suppose you might call it. It creates a field with very unique properties, one that Mr. Tesla, especially, thought would attract the spirits of the dead."

Charlie nodded. "And did it work?"

"No. Instead, it attracted...something else."

Charlie frowned. "What, exactly?"

The old woman smiled. "I don't know."

Kippy shook his head. "You lived there for fifty years with something...ghostly in the house, and you don't know what it is?"

Mrs. Ravishaw nodded. "Tell me - you've felt happiness being in that house? A sense of peace and contentment?"

Kippy nodded.

So did Mrs. Ravishaw. "It's not your own sense of peace you feel. Not your own happiness. It's theirs."

That was enough to make even Charlie gasp. "Theirs?"

"Yes. But they share it quite freely. The entire time I lived there, I felt happy and content."

"But you never saw or heard anything unusual?" Horace asked.

Mrs. Ravishaw closed her eyes a moment. "Never. But I did feel, ever now and then, that I was not alone there."

Charlie could understand the way the woman felt. The house had made her happy and content. She knew that something unusual was also living there with her, but as she had never experienced any of the strange phenomena one might normally associate with hauntings, she had never had reason to be alarmed.

"I grew up there," Mrs. Ravishaw repeated. "From birth to adulthood. I always felt I was surrounded by friends."

Charlie nodded. "So your grandfather built something extra into the house? The steel framework, energized in some way by a machine of some sort hidden in the other half of the basement?"

The woman gasped. "You must never touch that machine. You must never turn it off!" She looked terrified a moment. "To do so would be to send our guests back to wherever it was that they fled from." She shook her head. "Don't you understand? The house is a refuge for them. A place of safety. If you send them back to where they came from, they will perish!"

"They told you this?" Ricky asked, sounding as if he didn't quite believe it.

"No." Mrs. Ravishaw looked upset now. "I could never see them or hear them. But my grandfather could. He spent the latter years of his life trying to understand them."

"He could talk to them?" Kippy asked.

"No. No, not talk, like we talk. He said they were simply too different than us for speech to pass between our kind and theirs. But he did come to understand them, and they him. They can understand us. He pledged them a safe haven for as long as the house continued to stand. For their part, our guests have worked to ensure that the house resisted some of the efforts of time and weather to tear it down. It's scarcely in worse shape now than it was 120 years ago when it was built."

"How do they do it?" Horace asked. "What do they do?"

"I don't know. It doesn't matter. That house will outlast us all, many times over."

"And when it was for sale?" Ricky asked. "These...guests...they kept those that could not sense their presence from buying it?"

Mrs. Ravishaw smiled. "Not even that." She looked from one face to another. "You have the gift. All of you. I can sense it. Much stronger than I do. Maybe even more strongly than my grandfather had it."

Charlie nodded. "We know about that."

"Then you know that very few people have it." Mrs. Ravishaw sighed. "Those without it get a sort of empty feeling inside the house. It's not the fault of the guests. It's like a negative reflection of the happiness that's there for you and I. People without the gift feel, well, nothing about the house once they go in. They are not impressed. It is not beautiful to them. It is simply...well, boring is the word."

Kippy gasped. "I find that hard to believe! It's a wonderful house!'

Mrs. Ravishaw smiled. "Because you can sense the...the magic, for want of a better word."

Charlie smiled at that. "We have a passing acquaintance with magic." He nodded. "I think I get what you mean. For most people, the house seems bland once they go inside it."

"Exactly. That was why it was so hard to sell. I had to find someone that could sense the happiness, but who was not strong enough to, well, see the guests." She laughed. "I never considered that Annie's family might contain people who were stronger than she was."

"That's why you sold it so cheaply," Ricky said.

"Yes. It wasn't about the money. I just wanted enough for my great-grandchildren. It was much more important to find someone who would be happy with the house, and love it, and take care of it, than it was to make money. I simply offered Annie a price I felt she might be able to afford."

Ricky stood up. "You promise to me that Annie will be okay there."

Mrs. Ravishaw nodded. "It's an easy promise to make. So I do."

Charlie felt the truth of it. Or, at least, that Mrs. Ravishaw truly believed that the house was safe.

"Charlie," Kippy said quietly.

Charlie turned to his boyfriend.

Kippy gave him a pleading look. "We haven't been hurt at all. We got scared a couple of times. But not hurt. I think what we experienced was just the...the guests, trying to communicate with us. They must sense somehow that we're aware of them."

"What about the broken pictures" Ricky asked. "Well, broken, and then not broken."

"Just another attempt to get our attention, I think," Charlie guessed. "They are aware of us, just like we are aware of them. But I think they also know we can see them."

"They would know," Mrs. Ravishaw agreed. She seemed happy now, and Charlie was not sure why.

She smiled at him. "You're wondering what I'm so pleased about."

Charlie laughed, surprised that she could read him so easily. "Yes."

Mrs. Ravishaw leaned back in her chair and laid her arms upon the armrests. "I have come to the conclusion that you will care for the house. And the guests inside of it."

"We don't own the house," Charlie pointed out.

"That's true. But you are close to it, and Annie will trust you and tell you things she might not tell others. Especially you, Richard."

Adrian smiled. "Oh, yes, Richard."

Ricky made a face at his boyfriend, but smiled.

"And," Mrs. Ravishaw continued, " I sense only good things about all of you. You will consider the safety of our guests in your decisions. That's all that's important to me."

Charlie was thinking back now, to when his presence had split, and he had traveled to the odd place he had been. It was starting to make sense to him now.

"There's a way into the other half of the basement?" Charlie asked.

A moment of hesitation appeared in the old woman's eyes. "You must never turn it off, Charles."

Kippy grinned, and leaned heavily against Charlie. But the affection in the action was plain, and Charlie just smiled. "I don't plan to turn it off. I'm just curious about it. And if it's that important, it should be looked at from time to time."

Mrs. Ravishaw considered that, and then nodded. "Go to the fireplace in the piano room. On the left side panel you will find a knob engraved with a star. Pull it out to open the door."

Horace chuckled. "We examined those panels. I didn't think to pull rather than push."

Mrs. Ravishaw shook her head. "There are no moving parts to the machine. It is a unique construction, powered in some marvelous way by the Earth's magnetic field." She sighed. "Mr. Tesla was quite the inventive mind."

"Your grandfather, too, apparently," Charlie said.

Mrs. Ravishaw nodded. "Yes. Do any of you play the piano?"

Horace raised a hand and gently waved it. "I do."

The old woman looked delighted. "My grandfather did, too. The instrument in the house is a marvelous example." She smiled, and briefly closed her eyes. "As a child I used to lay in my bed at night and listen to him play. He loved music. did our guests."

Horace looked astounded. "They understand our music?"

"Yes. Tell you know any Beethoven? Mozart?"

Horace smiled. "Of course."

The old woman nodded. "Tonight, after the sun goes down, sit at the piano and play Beethoven or Mozart. They like that. They will come to listen."

Charlie narrowed his eyes. "Why after sundown?"

Mrs. Ravishaw rubbed her hands together. "I never exactly understood that part. There is something about the sun's field - solar wind, I think it's called - that interacts with the earth's magnetic field, maybe? When our side of the planet faces the sun during the daytime, this wind compresses the planet's magnetic field, and this somehow limits the operation of the field in the house. Our guests are still there, they just cannot show themselves so easily. When our side of the planet is in darkness, the earth's magnetic field stretches out into space, and the field of the house is much stronger. Does that make sense?"

Actually, it did, and Charlie nodded. "It does to me."

The old woman smiled. "You're very easy to talk to, you know. Anyway, the daytime influence of the sun fluctuates, and there are periods where the guests are better able to show themselves. But at night, it is quite easy for them to appear."

Charlie smiled. "I think that's true, too."

Kippy sighed and bumped against Charlie again, and Horace laughed.

Mrs. Ravishaw clapped her hands together. "You've made me very happy."

Kippy smiled at her. "You're very trusting."

The woman nodded. "I have always known when to trust others. I feel it now."

Charlie stood up. "We've taken enough of your time, Mrs. Ravishaw. It was nice of you to see us, and explain so much. I think...I think I feel a lot better about this, too."

The old woman stood, and leaned on her came. "You will come back and see me, I hope?"

Kippy nodded vigorously. "If that's an invitation, we will!"

"It is. And please, do not worry about the house. Or its guests. They will take care of themselves. All they have ever wanted was a safe place to be. They have it there."

"One question," Horace asked. "Are they actually within the house?"

Mrs. Ravishaw frowned. "That was never really determined by my grandfather, or Mr. Tesla. The guests are within the field of the house, but what else that field encompasses, they never did really know. My grandfather always suspected that the field created a much large place - at least for the guests - than just the confines of the house."

"So we will likely never know," Horace finished.

"No. The only two people that even remotely understood this whole thing are now gone."

Kippy touched Charlie's wrist. "And we won't tell anyone else about this, will we?"

Charlie shook his head. "No."

Mrs. Ravishaw closed her eyes a moment, and smiled. "What will you tell Annie?"

"Nothing," Ricky said. "Why spoil it for her?"


The rest of the group got to their feet, and Mrs. Ravishaw showed them to the door. "It was so very nice to meet you all. Please...come again."

"Oh," Kippy said, turning at the last moment. "I have to ask you...did you ever get trick-or-treaters on Halloween?"

Mrs. Ravishaw smiled. "Of course, my dear. There are children everywhere in this world."

Kippy looked delighted. "So we should have some candy ready, huh?"

"I would. Goodbye for now."

And then they were outside in the sunlight, and getting into Horace's car. Mrs. Ravishaw stood in the door way and watched them, and waved one last time before they were gone.

"I think I understand now where my other self went," Charlie said, on the drive back. Everyone had been silent, reviewing the things they had learned.

"You went to see where the guests came from," Ricky said, from the back seat. "To see what they escaped from. At least, that's what I'm thinking now."

Charlie nodded. "My first guess was another planet, but now I don't think that. My other self has a good feel for going, if that means anything to you."

Horace glanced at him. "Going?"

"Yes. I don't actually travel through space, for instance. I go through something else, and re-emerge where I want to be. This time was different from anything I've experienced. "Charlie sighed. "I think now that, wherever the guests came from, it is not a part of our universe at all."

"Where else is there?" Adrian asked.

"I don't know. Some other universe? Some other universe in some other time? Some other dimension? I can only guess."

Ricky gnawed briefly on a knuckle, and then frowned. "We'll probably never know. Do you think it matters?"

Charlie shook his head. "No. I think that, when Mr. Ravishaw and Mr. Tesla started their device in the hopes of drawing in the spirits of the dead, they instead opened a doorway to some other place. That was the strange rift I saw the block people go into on their world. Wherever they were, they suddenly had a route away from their adversaries. They lived in the sand, somehow, but surely they couldn't always stay there. And when they came out, something was waiting to get them."

"It's frightening," Kippy said, glancing out the side window at the sky. "Scary to imagine something diving out of the sky to attack you just because you came outdoors."

Charlie nodded. "I counted 22 of the block people that came out of one mound of sand. And there were mounds of sand as far as the eye could see, all around the rift. I suspect the block people were coming at great risk from all corners of their world to be close to the doorway. For a chance to escape to something better."

Kippy took Charlie's hand in his and lowered his head onto Charlie's shoulder. "There is so much strife, everywhere. Even in the little corners of eternity that we'll never know by name."

Adrian looked at Charlie. "It's important that the machine in the house keep running."

"I agree. Mrs. Ravishaw said it has no moving parts. And that it is powered in some way by the planet's magnetic field. If that's so, it may simply run for a very long time."

"But the house needs to be there to shield it," Horace said. He shook his head. "This has been an amazing adventure. Do you boys do these sorts of things often?"

"Once or twice," Ricky said, smiling. "We get around."

The ghost hunter smiled. "So you have said before."

"I want to look at this machine when we get back," Charlie said. "I want to know it will be safe."

"I think that's a very good idea," Horace agreed. He sighed. "I guess you don't need a ghost hunter now."

Charlie laughed. "That doesn't mean you can't stick around. Besides, we do need you."

The older man cast him a quizzical glance. "What for?"

Charlie smiled. "None of us play the piano. Remember?"

"Ah." The ghost hunter relaxed in his seat, and looked happy for the rest of the drive home.

Moped was delighted to see them when they got back. Ricky and Adrian took her out for a quick romp in the grass, while the others prepared lunch. Charlie could tell it was everything Kippy could do not to rush into the library and find the hidden door to the basement. Patience had been one thing they had all developed in the past few years, but Kippy was often the most impulsive of their group. But he seemed willing to wait for the right time, this time.

They had sandwiches, while Moped happily tore up a leather chew nearby. The talk was still about the house, though.

"What do you think happened with Mrs. Viggerol?" Ricky asked. "She thought demons were hiding here."

"I think she experienced what she saw and heard in the light of her own fears," Kippy said. He smiled at the ghost hunter. "Like Horace said, all ghosts are basically the same thing, but some are nice, and others are jerks. That goes for people, too."

Adrian made a face. "You think Mrs. Viggerol is a jerk?"

Kippy laughed. "No. But people must see supernatural stuff in different ways, too. One guy's goblin is another guy's angel, you know?"

"I think that's a very astute observation, Kippy," Horace said, smiling.

Charlie nodded, and kept a straight face. "That's our Kip. Astute, all the way."

Kippy turned and stuck out his tongue, but the bright sparkles in his eyes clearly told that he was having fun. "Just keep it up, Charlie Boone. See what it gets you!"

"Oops." Ricky said, grinning around his sandwich. "No nookie for you!"

"Now, now," Horace said, holding up a hand. "Don't you boys squabble." He smiled at Charlie, and then Kip. "You two are quite complementary, actually." He sighed. "It would have been wonderful to be part of a group of friends such as this when I was your age."

Charlie looked around at the others, and saw agreement there. He smiled. "We like it."

They finished their lunch, and then it was time for the big moment. They went to the library, found the knob with the star on it, and stood looking at it a moment in silence.

"There it is," Ricky said.

"Uh huh." Charlie examined the knob. It was one of several, part of the ornate engraving and inlays on the panel. The other knobs had different designs on them, and there was nothing to suggest that the knob with the starburst engraved on it was special.

Finally, Charlie turned to Horace. "Why don't you give it a pull?"

The man smiled, and briefly steepled his hands and tapped his fingertips together rapidly in excitement. "May I?"

"Yes. Step right up."

Charlie moved over, and the ghost hunter took his place before the knob. Horace examined it a moment, and nodded. "Beautiful work." He extended a hand, grasped the knob, and gave it a pull. It came out slowly, plainly attached to a steel rod of some sort then. They heard the click of a latch releasing, and the entire side panel of the fireplace opened outward on hidden hinges.

Inside was a spiral staircase, just like the one on the other side of the house. Horace felt around inside the panel, found a switch, and flicked it on. A light came on above the stairs, and they could see light coming up from below.

Something blew through the room then, like a cool breeze, and a single note sounded from the piano. They felt a wave of fear then, stronger than before, muting the happiness the house normally held.

"We're not going to turn it off!" Kippy quickly called, looking around the room. "You're safe here!"

"You think they understand?" Charlie asked.

"Yes. Mrs. Ravishaw said they did." Kippy pointed at the stairs. "All they know is that we're going down to where the machine is."

Charlie turned then to look around the room. He could still feel the disquiet here, though it seemed to have lessened some after Kippy's reassurances.

"It's true," Charlie said quietly. "You're safe here. We will honor the pledge that Mr. Ravishaw made to you." He pointed at the stairs. "But I want to see this machine. I need to know it will not need maintenance, or that it can break down over time. Once I know that - once I am reassured - we will leave it, and close this panel again. No one will know of it, okay?"

The sense of fear lessened, and again a note sounded from the piano. Charlie was looking right at the instrument when it happened. The cover was still down over the keyboard. There was no way a key could be depressed. "Frequencies," he whispered, smiling.

"What?" Kippy asked.

"Nothing. Horace? You want to lead the way?"

"It would be my honor, Charlie."

The ghost hunter turned and stepped within the panel, and the others lined up to follow him down.

Here was the other side of the basement they had investigated earlier. Pipes and conduit came in above the center wall, and dispersed to various parts of the house, just as they had imagined. There were no boilers, nothing else in the room. Except for one thing, sitting squarely in the center by the middle wall.

Everyone stopped to stare at it.

A sense of time came over Charlie then, a sense of history, as he gazed at the device. Over one hundred years before, two men had worked together to create this thing, in an attempt to explore a region of science still untouched today. One man would go on to become a legend of sorts, and the man behind electric power in the world today; while the other would quietly fade away, remaining only in the minds and affections of one family's history.

Together, the two men had accomplished something neither had ever dreamed of: the creation of a pathway between their own world and some other, adrift in a reality far removed from the one they were familiar with. And in that creation, they had thrown a lifeline to a species in peril, and created a haven in which they could live in peace and happiness. Probably, no one would ever understand this. No one would ever know about it at all. This could not be shared with even the most careful of scientific minds, lest in the analyses of how it worked, that very lifeline be interrupted, or even destroyed. This was the secret a family had kept for over a century of time, and Charlie fully understood the reasoning for that now.

Lives were at stake.

"There is greatness here," Horace said, softly. "And treasure. I've never been on a treasure hunt before."

Charlie smiled. "We'll trust you to keep this quiet." He already knew that the man would never say a word to anyone.

The ghost hunter turned to gaze at him. "I realize the importance of this fully, Charlie. Mum's the word, I assure you."

Charlie nodded, smiling.

"It's amazing," Ricky said, shaking his head. "No moving parts. It doesn't even make a sound."

"Its not what I imagined at all," Adrian said. "Not that I could have imagined this."

The device was perhaps eight feet tall, its spire just beneath the joists of the flooring above. A large latticed dome of polished steel hung above an intricate center support, looking a bit like an umbrella. The center support spread as it descended, to end in eight steel legs splayed out to the exact dimension of the dome above. Those steel legs appeared to be sunk into the cement of the floor, giving the structure a solid stance that would resist all efforts to topple it.

Within the latticed dome were a myriad of steel projections, supported on what looked like ceramic insulators, each wound with complex patterns of copper wiring. Thick copper lines descended from each winding to an insulated circle midway down on the center support, and then back up to the next winding, linking them all together. There were no power supplies, no lines running anywhere to or away from the thing. There was no sound, not a murmur, and no movement.

Charlie smiled. "I wouldn't know how to turn it off, even if I wanted to."

"We're not going to, so it doesn't matter," Kippy said firmly. "Now we've had our look. Let's go."

Charlie nodded. There was nothing here that looked like it needed maintenance. Everything was steel and copper and thick, sturdy ceramic. Nothing to wear out, nothing to break. Not without great effort to do so, anyway.

Still --

"Nothing lasts forever," Charlie said. "If this is as important as it seems to be, we must ensure that it stays safe and healthy." He nodded. "But for now, it looks fine."

He turned, and the others turned with him, and Horace led the way back upstairs. They emerged, and closed the panel, which latched with a solid click.

Horace turned, and put his back to it. "I never imagined when I came to this house to look at it, what I would find here. I halfway expected Mrs. Viggerol's letter to be yet another hoax."

Kippy laughed. "Kind of nice it wasn't, huh?"

Horace looked about the room, perhaps feeling the intensified sense of peace and happiness that Charlie was now feeling. The guest's fears had been allayed. They knew they were safe now.

"Yes. In all my years of supernatural investigation, I do believe this has been the most satisfying venture yet."

"We aim to please," Ricky said, smiling. "When we have a party, you never know who you'll meet."

Horace looked delighted at that. "Perhaps you'll invite me again? You never know when you'll need a ghost hunter."

Kippy turned and cast a pleading look at Charlie, who smiled. "We'll see what we can do, Horace."

They sat and talked for hours after that, wondering, imagining, and marveling over the things they had learned. And all the while, a fervent sense of peace and happiness accompanied their speculations, diluting the passage of time into one long, pleasing moment spent with friends. Even Moped enjoyed it, laying on the floor nearby, her head on her paws, her eyes moving back and forth as her humans talked animatedly. What could be better than this?

"I know Annie's gonna be happy here now," Ricky said, smiling. "I know I'm going to be a frequent visitor, too!"

"If she'll have you," Adrian said, his eyes smiling. "And me. Because where you go, I go, too."

Horace smiled at that. "I envy you boys."

"No need for that," Charlie said. "Just think: there's seldom one of anything in this world. If you can find an otherworldly event here, think how many are still out there, waiting to be discovered!"

The ghost hunter looked delighted at the idea. "I didn't think of it that way. But I'm sure you're right."

Dinnertime approached, and they ordered a couple of pizzas to be delivered. A little exploring with the wall switches in the kitchen produced a variety of outdoor lighting, including a string of lights along the driveway. That would certainly let any would-be trick-or-treaters know they were welcome.

The pizzas arrived, and - surprise of surprises - Kippy allowed that they were almost as good as Irving's, if lesser by just a hair. "But maybe it's just a little bias on my part," he admitted, smiling.

Darkness descended, and they stood out on the veranda in the chill evening and looked at the stars, and the wondrous way the outdoor lighting lit the house and the yard. There were luminous stretches accompanied by eerie outer regions where the lights faded into darkness so deep that nearly anything could be hiding there, and the lights along the drive looked like lantern-carrying souls marching in a line into the woods. It was wonderfully, tingly, Halloweeny.

"This has been everything I could have wanted in a holiday," Kippy said quietly. They were standing with the others on the veranda. Charlie had his arm around Kip, and now he squeezed him closer.

"Happy Halloween, Kip. I love you."

"Oh, Charlie, I love you, too. There is nothing I want more than to be by your side."

"Keep it down over there," Ricky said, but the tone of his voice let everyone know he was kidding. "You'll scare away the ghosts."

Adrian laughed, and Horace, sitting in one of the Adirondack chairs, smiled.

"You know, I feel a little music coming on?" the man said. "Piano, anyone?"

"Me, me!" Kippy called, raising a hand and bouncing up and down several times within Charlie's circling arm. Charlie nodded, and turned them towards the front door.

"I have a feeling Horace is good at this, too."

"Oh, I'm quite average, let me assure you, Charlie." But the man's eyes twinkled in the light from the porch lamp, and he extended his hands before himself and made a show of flexing his fingers. "Shall we adjourn to the parlor, gentlemen?"

"The library will have to do," Ricky said, opening the front door. "We don't know where Annie keeps the parlor."

Moped, who had been laying quietly on the porch, just happy to be part of the group, bounced to her feet and rocketed past Ricky, and turned inside the vestibule, her tail wagging, and looked back at them as if to say, I won!

They went to the kitchen and pulled chairs from the table there, and carried them back to the library. The only seat in the room was before the piano, and Horace sat himself there and lifted the lid over the keys. The boys arrayed their chairs behind him, so that they could watch as well as listen.

"What shall I play?" the ghost hunter asked, peering back at them over their shoulder.

Charlie grinned. "Beethoven or Mozart, remember?"

"Ah, yes." The man turned back to the keyboard, raised his hands, and began to play.

The acoustics of the room were amazing. Horace moved delicately into Für Elise, the simple, six note opening phrase instantly recognizable. Charlie closed his eyes, listening, immediately recognizing the timing and talent of the man playing. Here was someone that loved and understood music, and loved to play the piano.

They passed from that piece to a Mozart sonata, his most famous, probably, No. 15 in C. This was a light and lively piece that Charlie had heard many times before. Classical music amazed him, as much for the creativity that went into as the mathematical precision of sound it often represented...

"Charlie," Kippy whispered, interrupting his thoughts.

Charlie opened his eyes.

On the other side of the piano, they had visitors. Rank after rank of the tall, blocky creatures stood, stretching away into an enormous distance, certainly beyond the confines of the room, to a bright horizon far to the rear. If there had been any doubt in Charlie's mind that his other self had visited any other place than the origin of their guests, it was laid to rest now. Here they stood, in numbers hardly imaginable, unmoving, quiet, certainly listening, obviously enjoying the music that Horace was playing.

The ghost hunter looked up and spied his watchers, and if anything, it added greater energy and finesse to what he was playing. Ricky and Adrian were sitting side by side next to Charlie and Kip, Ricky with his arm around his boyfriend, the two of them looking completely enraptured by what they were seeing and hearing. The happiness and contentment that seemed to fill the room was enormous, almost a living thing now, and Charlie fully understood why Charles Ravishaw and his family had found it so important to keep this place as a haven for creatures they would never even fully understand.

Happiness, apparently, was a universal state of mind.

Horace played for an hour, before the sound of the doorbell broke the fragile glass that was the moment. The man stopped in mid-stream, and the music died away. He looked back at Charlie and the others, and then stood, and bowed in the direction of the massed guests.

"It was my honor to play for you. I hope we can do this again."

A brief wave of happiness filled the room, and then the ranks began to disappear from the rear, moving forward one by one, until only the front line of the blocky creatures remained. The sense of peace swelled one more time, and then they, too, disappeared.

Horace sighed. "The performance of my life, I am certain."

Kippy bounced to his feet, delight upon his face. "We have trick-or-treaters!"

They moved to the front doors as a group, and opened them to find a small witch and an alien, accompanied by a smiling woman in a long overcoat.

"Trick or treat!" The small ones yelled, holding up bags.

Kippy picked up the bowl they had placed by the door and extended it. "Help yourselves. I trust you not to be too greedy."

The kids examined the contents of the bowl and happily selected their treats.

"I'm so glad you're home," the woman said, as the kids trotted back down the steps, laughing. "It's such a long walk up here. I'd have hated to waste the time."

Charlie smiled. "We're happy you came. It wouldn't seem like Halloween without some visitors."

The woman smiled. "I heard the house had been sold. Nice to have such pleasant neighbors."

"We're just visiting," Ricky said. "But you'll like my cousin. She's good people."

Moped, standing just inside the door, barked once, as if in agreement.

The woman thanked them, and then hurried after her charges.

Kippy turned to Charlie and beamed. "Even if no one else comes, that made me happy. Happy Halloween, everybody."

The others returned the wishes, and they went back inside and closed the door.

"Well," Horace said, a trace of sadness in his voice, "maybe I should be going. Yes, maybe I should. There are no more ghosts here to hunt."

Ricky looked disappointed. "You have to be somewhere?"

The older man looked briefly startled. ""

"Stay another night," Adrian said quickly. "We can still talk, and I would love to hear more piano later, after the trick-or-treaters are done."

"I have a feeling some others might like that, too," Charlie agreed, smiling.

Ricky nodded. "Annie won't be back until late Monday. No reason you can't stay another night. I mean, it's Halloween!"

The ghost hunter looked from one face to another, and smiled. "I would like that very much."

They adjourned to the kitchen for hot cocoa, and discussed the earlier piano performance and the amazing turnout of listeners.

"There's a lot more of them than I ever imagined," Charlie said.

Horace set down his cup and smiled at them. "I have to ask - but you do not have to answer - is this your first adventure like this? Or have there been more?'

Everybody looked at Charlie, who laughed. "Would you like to hear that we've had other, um, interesting moments?"

"I certainly would. You have no idea how much these few hours here have encouraged me that my explorations are not in vain."

"They're not," Kippy said, looking serious. "There's a lot out there, just waiting to be explored, just waiting to be discovered. It's fun for us."

"I can imagine. As I said once before, please feel free to call me if you have need of a ghost hunter again. Here - I'll give you my number."

Kippy turned and gave Charlie a pleading look, and when Charlie glanced at Ricky and Adrian, they seemed to be doing the same thing. Horace seemed oblivious to the exchange, digging in his pocket for his phone. Charlie smiled at the man, recognizing a kindred spirit when he saw one.

Ghost hunting was not unlike any other stab at exploring, at learning, at trying to discover the many wonders that made the universe tick. That the man had a fervent desire to know and understand things seemed clear. And, his honesty and dependability were verified by skwish, which could not be fooled when it came to revealing a person's heart of hearts. Horace's compassion was evident, in the joy he had displayed in the simple play of music for those he scarcely knew, but whom he did know loved to be cheered by the vibrations of creative minds.

Horace was like Charlie and the other boys. He was one of them.

Charlie sighed, and nodded at Kip, and then at Rick and Adrian. Those three looked delighted, and so when Horace finally found his phone and looked up again, it was to find four smiling faces aimed his way.

"Ah, here it is. I'll give you --" He broke off, his eyes widening at the smiles he saw before him. "Oh, my. Was it something I said?"

Charlie gave Kip a squeeze, and laughed. "We've decided to adopt you."

The ghost hunter blinked. "Adopt? Me?"

Charlie nodded. "You'll be expected to be circumspect with anything you learn as a result, okay?"

The man's mouth opened as he looked from smiling face to smiling face. "Um...I promise." He smiled then, and laid his cell phone on the table. "Just what is it I will be learning?"

"Oh, lots of things." Kippy said, smiling, and squeezing Charlie happily.

"Amazing things," Adrian said, his face all a great smile.

"Some pretty strange stuff," Ricky agreed, his eyes twinkling.

The ghost hunter looked baffled, and then interested, and then enchanted with the idea. "Go on."

Charlie nodded, and leaned closer to the man."So, um, Horace. May I call you Horace?"

"You already have. I mean, please, do."

"Oh, just ask him, Charlie," Kippy said.

"Yeah, ask him," Ricky and Adrian chimed in.

Charlie waved his hands, not to be hurried. This moment would be another one of the outstanding variety, one they would all remember forever.

The older man looked totally mesmerized now. "Ask me what?"

Charlie smiled. "Well, you see, there's this little get together we're planning, and some of our friends will be there, and I thought...we thought...that you might like to go along."

Horace stared at them owlishly. "Get together?"

Charlie's smile widened. "Yes. It's the perfect occasion for an explorer like yourself. Ghost hunter, and delver into the unknown, and all that." Kindred spirit.

He leaned forward, just that last inch, and raised his eyebrows expectantly. "So...what are you doing for Christmas?"

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