Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

There's A Devil in the Dark, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 4

"You're serious?" Kippy asked, smiling at Horace. "You want to have a seance?"

"He didn't say that, Kip," Charlie said, sighing. "He said an exploratory attempt to investigate the phantom."

But Kippy just grinned and bounced his shoulders up and down a few times. "Isn't that what a seance is? An attempt to contact a spirit?"

It was still mid-morning, two hours before noon The boys had gone back home to get a few things for an overnight stay, and to tell their parents that they would be gone at least for the night. This was a matter of course now.

Since finishing high school, the boys had been busy with their new business, and their parents had gotten over their shock at none of the four proceeding on to college as planned. It had been a good year, though and things had settled down now. The boy's ability to show money building up in the bank had convinced their parents that they were doing something profitable, even if they weren't entirely certain what that was.

"I thought we'd settled the issue of college," Charlie's dad had told him, shortly before Charlie had graduated high school. That had been the previous year, right at the start of summer. Charlie had called a family meeting, to present his ideas to his parents.

"I've changed my mind," Charlie had told him. "Kip, Rick, and Adrian and I have an idea for a business."

His father had looked skeptical. "What sort of business, son?"

"A sort of research business. We had an idea that there were a lot of areas in the application of science and technology where research and investigation is needed, and no one is filling that need. We want to try it out for a year, and see if we can't make a go of it."

His mother had been an easier sell. She had searched Charlie's eyes, seen the dreams there, and found them compelling. It didn't matter at all that they were not exactly the dreams she thought she was seeing. What she had seen had been enough. "We have faith in you, Charlie." She had taken Charlie's dad's hand and held it. "Don't we?"

"Well...yes." His dad had remained calm, but it was clear he didn't think much of the idea. "How do you intend to finance this business, Charlie?"

Charlie had smiled. He couldn't very well say that the boys owned a starship run by alien artificial intelligences, that was handily making them several millions of credits each year in the interstellar transport business. The funds, which were being deposited in several large banks with branches on the dark planet of Engris, were in group accounts to which all four boys had access.

"The guys and I all have a little bit of savings, dad. Enough for a start. And we've been talking to a possible investor, too. Give us a year to make a go of it, and if we can't, we'll all be off to school." He'd smiled then, and placed a hand on his dad's shoulder. "We want to do this."

His dad had eyed him uncertainly.

"It's only a year," his mom had put in quickly after that, by then obviously on Charlie's side. He'd known his mom really could be depended upon to support him if he seemed serious and painted a clear enough vision of his future. His dad, however, sometimes needed some coaxing. "A lot of kids take off a year before going on to college," she added, smiling.

His dad had frowned at that, but also looked like he was wavering.

"Look how much money you'll save if we're successful," Charlie had said then. "No tuition, no boarding. You and mom can retire in style. And the four of us will be doing something we like!"

His dad had raised one eyebrow at that, and Charlie could see by that point that he was going to give in. One thing he did know, almost as well as his mom, was his dad. His parents were fair, and they had always trusted him to be smart with his life. The boys were legal adults at that point, or would be shortly, and didn't really require their parent's permission to go into business. But families worked a certain way, had a certain bond of trust that was important, and agreement was always better than dissension.

Similar conversations had taken place at each of the boy's homes, and after the parents had talked together about it, the end result had been a general if grudging acceptance of the idea, and permission given for them to have a year to prove their concept. Thus, TPI - Third Planet Inquiries - had been born. And in the year since, the boy's savings accounts had grown appreciably, which had both shocked and pleased their parents; and now the boys had a small office suite in the Constantine Building down on main street, in the heart of town, run by a very efficient lady named Amy, who handled all the necessary paperwork and record-keeping for her often absent employers. She had been screened and approved by Max, which was just about as good a recommendation as you could get.

In reality, Nicholaas had helped them turn some of their interstellar credits into US dollars by investing in TPI, with funds the boys had provided to him themselves. Nicholaas owned many businesses around the world, and it had been a simple matter to invest in the boy's new venture under one company name, and then to provide contracts to them for research projects through a number of his other interests. The money involved all came from offworld, from the savings they had accrued on Engris, converted in several ways by Nicholaas through his holdings, and overseen by an elf accountant named Oliver, who had assured them that everything was at least demonstrably legal in the end. It didn't cost Nicholaas anything, and he was glad to provide the cover for them so that they could basically do what they wanted, and still show a profit for their enterprise.

And the things they did were very much of interest to them. For the most part they had continued as normal, helping Max with his own projects now and then; learning more about skwish from Frit and Pip and Keerby; and exploring Engris with Ragal and Casper and getting to better know the people there, including Eseffa and Jorli, the Madracorn keepers of the artificial planet. They had even made known their interest in participating in some of the sorts of adventures that Pacha and Mike and Bobby and Kontus had, seeking out lost worlds and vanished civilizations, and looking into the mysteries of the universe. Mysteries fascinated all of them, and there were just so many out there to be solved. And it was even more fun, sometimes, when those mysteries were to be found on their own planet, hiding in plain sight, or simply marching in and taking a seat when they were least expected.

Horace was a welcome addition to their group, explaining to them things they had perhaps read about but never really understood; recounting his own adventures seeking out the strange and often miraculous doings of the forces at work in the paranormal world, and just in general providing a sort of locus around which they could congregate to discuss and explore the more shadowy parts of the world not normally visible to the human senses.

As far as their parents were concerned, the boys were off on a new contract just now, and they had by now mostly stopped worrying about where they were and what they were doing. Charlie and Kip had decided that at some point they'd get a place together, and Rick and Adrian had been entertaining a similar idea. But the boys were only nineteen now, and still felt strong ties to their homes. Their parents still enjoyed having them there, they were paying their own way, and their future looked pretty darn good. So far, no one had pressed for a move out on their own.

Charlie buying his new 4Runner SUV had been the most obvious sign of his new prosperity. Charlie's dad had looked the vehicle over with a lot of smiles, clapped his son on the shoulder happily, and allowed that maybe this new profession of the the boys would work out after all. Charlie's were not the first nor the last parents to not fully understand what their kids did for a living. That it seemed exciting and necessary work to Charlie and his partners was all the reassurance that they needed. Charlie felt a little sad at times that he couldn't tell his parents the full nature of what he was doing, but that it was a necessary concession to reality seemed clear.

But someday, I may let them in on the secret, Charlie had decided. Someday when it didn't matter as much whether his parents approved or not. Someday, when they were all a little older. And maybe wiser?

Charlie turned to look at Horace. "Were you really meaning a seance?"

The older man smiled. "Well...maybe not quite like you've seen in the movies,, yes. Any serious attempt to examine the world of the paranormal requires some concentration and deliberate direction. I propose that I try to, um, organize our group in a way that will allow us to maybe find out more about what sort of entities are in our area right now."

"I'm game," Ricky said, rubbing his hands together and looking excited. "So...what? We, like, sit around a table and look into a crystal ball, or something?"

Horace raised an eyebrow at that. "I said it's not like in the movies, Rick."

Ricky grinned, his excitement not tarnished in the least by Horace's denial. "Well, I know it has to be cool somehow!"

Adrian put a hand on his boyfriend's elbow and squeezed it. "Let him explain, Rick."

Ricky raised his arm and draped it around Adrian's shoulder, and pulled him closer. "Shh! Horace is trying to talk!"

Kippy grinned at Charlie, who couldn't help smiling himself. He aimed the smile at Horace, and gave a brief nod towards Rick. "Inquiring minds want to know."

"Indeed, they do!" Horace rose from the sofa before the coffee table in his front room, and waved a hand at them to follow. "Let's get started, then."

They followed the ghost hunter to a short hallway across from the staircase, with doors into rooms on either side. He opened the door to the room at the back of the house, and stood aside so that they could enter. "If you please, guys."

The room had obviously been meant as a sort of a den by the homebuilder. It had a large fireplace on the rear outside wall, with bookcases built into the walls to either side of it. These were of course filled with more of the tomes that Horace seemed to so easily amass. The walls were paneled with real boards in a light-colored wood that Charlie thought to be oak, and were hung with a number of artworks that all portrayed old houses or other structures in an obviously eerie light. That they might be places considered haunted was the first thought that came to mind. The large double-hung windows on either outer wall were framed by thick curtains held back by braided rope ties, and Charlie could see that the lining of each curtain was black. Curtain skirts hung above, ensuring a tight fit all the way around. Once drawn, the curtains would obviously make the room dark, even in full daylight.

At the center of the room was a heavy round table of dark wood, with what looked like a white marble inlay to the tabletop. In the center of the tabletop stood a single brass candle holder, in which the short form of a thick white candle stood, the wick dark from a previous burn. The table was circled by six chairs, one of which was pulled back from the table. It seemed to suggest that Horace used the room mostly by himself.

"Now, this is what I'm talking about!" Ricky said, looking around the room happily. "This is a room that means business!"

Horace laughed at that. "It's mostly a place I use to sit and share some personal time with Gretchen. But it will work just as well to explore other avenues, I'm sure."

"Gretchen doesn't actually speak to you, though?" Charlie asked again. Horace had already said that his communication with the genius loci was not by language, but now Charlie wanted to be certain.

"No. But in a place like this, quiet, and with a focus for concentration, she and I have a much closer bond. I would say it is on an emotional level, mostly. " Horace pointed at the candle in the center of the table, and smiled at Rick. "Not a crystal ball, but you will see it works just as well."

"Where did that crystal ball thing come from, anyway?" Adrian asked. "So many movies have used them for seances."

"And they're usually lit, too, and the only light in the room," Horace returned. "A dark room with a single light to act as a focus is all that is really required. I guess the crystal ball is just more dramatic for movie audiences."

"It goes back further than the movies, though, doesn't it?" Charlie asked.

"Oh, yes. The crystal ball is a very old device for concentrating mental and paranormal energies. It's first recorded use was by ancient Celtic tribes, who used crystal balls in conjunction with specific runes to divine the past, the future, and individual fortunes. Those ancient crystal balls were not illuminated - that is a more modern convenience, as much for drama as anything. The use of a single light - almost always a candle, but sometimes a central torch or campfire - as the focus, was once in addition to the crystal ball. Some enterprising psychics simply combined the two once the electrical age was upon us."

The ghost hunter went to the mantel above the fireplace and withdrew a long wooden match from a holder there. He struck it against a brick, and it ignited with an audible snap. He turned and lit the candle, killed the match, and dropped it into a brass bowl on the hearth.

"Would you get that other curtain, Charlie? Just untie the curtain tiebacks and let them drop. They're anchored to the wall."

Charlie did that, and pulled the curtains across the window. Just as he had assumed, they blotted out the outside light completely. Horace finished drawing the other curtains, and turned to smile at them. "If everyone would sit, please."

"Do we get to hold hands?" Ricky asked, as he and Adrian pulled out chairs next to each other.

Horace chuckled. "No. But we'll pull out this extra chair and move the others a bit, so that we can form a true circle."

That done, they all sat down. Ricky patted the tabletop, and grinned around the circle. "This is so cool! Now what?"

Adrian sighed, and smiled at Kippy and Charlie. "I feel like a babysitter, sometimes."

Ricky laughed. "I just love cool stuff." He turned to look pointedly at his boyfriend. "Don't you think this is cool?"

Adrian looked surprised; then like he was thinking about it some, and then he nodded and smiled at Horace. " is pretty exciting, I guess."

"See?" Ricky dropped his hand on Adrian's, turned it over, and grasped it tightly. "It won't hurt if Adrian and I hold hands, will it?"

Horace shook his head, his eyes twinkling in the candlelight. "Not one bit."

Kippy reached over and took Charlie's hand, and then beamed at him when Charlie looked that way. "Well, why should Rick and Adrian have all the fun?"

Charlie smiled, and gave his boyfriend's hand a squeeze.

For a moment after that nothing else was said. Horace smiled around at them, relaxed his shoulders, seemed to collect himself, and sighed. "Candlelight is so much easier on the eyes than an electric light," he said quietly, his eyes fixed upon the flame. "You can examine it without harm, without the fear of being dazzled. A flame is one of nature's lights, the one we came to know after the sun and the stars and the lightning in the darkened sky. It has been both our friend and our foe throughout the ages; and yet most of us find its light charming and restful. Don't you think it's restful?"

Everyone nodded. Charlie allowed himself to relax then, which is what he felt Horace was suggesting to them. That communing with the spirits required a calm mind was something he had encountered in his reading far too often to ignore.

Horace gave another little sigh, and resumed speaking. "I usually do this at night. Most of the things that travel outside of our normal experiences seem most active in the night, perhaps because humans themselves sleep then, and there is less mental energy afoot in the world, less disturbances to interfere with concentration. But it really doesn't matter for some things, when you do them. The darkness of the room in this instance is to relax us, to make us more receptive to what is out there. The flame is to focus upon, and to keep the darkness at bay so as not to arouse our fears. Fears act as a barrier to the things we wish to learn. This balance of light and darkness is the perfect environment for making inquiries into the unknown."

The ghost hunter closed his eyes and was silent a moment, before they reopened, accompanied by a surprised look. "Well. It seems it might be better if we held hands after all."

"Something?" Charlie asked, though he extended a hand in the older man's direction. Kippy turned to take Rick's free hand, and Adrian extended his free hand towards Horace. The ghost hunter took them both in his own hands, and held them gently.

"I don't know. As many times as I have done this with others, I have never felt a need to touch. But somehow, I do now."

"It's skwish," Kip said then. "We already know that sharing it works best when people touch."

"Maybe." Horace nodded, and closed his eyes again. "The world beyond is different than the world we know. The things we do in our daily lives matter little to those that inhabit these other places. We view the world a certain way, but it is a distinctly human view, which does not carry far beyond our own human world. So the more you clear your minds of your own needs, the easier it becomes to appreciate other viewpoints."

"Other viewpoints?" Kippy asked.

"Yes. That really is what this is all about. Allowing us to see through the eyes of another, sense the world through other senses - become attuned...even open - to other ways of appreciating the world."

Kippy nodded. "I'm relaxing and clearing my mind."

"Me, too," Adrian said, just as softly. "I'm thinking skwish thoughts."

Skwish thoughts? Actually, Charlie could get that. He already knew there was a place inside him where his second presence was rooted, as well as other things not yet quite born. It was a peaceful place, one that he had visited often since first discovering it, and which he knew was pleasant and relaxing for him to inhabit. He tried to make his way there now, and was surprised then to feel Kip beside him, as if in the same place. And then Adrian, and Ricky...and Horace too.

"I think we're there," Charlie said quietly, though he knew he was speaking within. He could see the faces of the others now, there in his mind.

Horace chuckled. A slow smile spread across his face then, and then the man closed his eyes. "Wonderful! Hello, Gretchen!"

Charlie closed his own inner eyes, prompted by the ghost hunter's cue. Just in time to feel a sense of whiteness settle around them...or, maybe it had been there all along, and only now he as truly aware of it. Yes, that was it. The sense of whiteness, which he now deemed a soft light, pervaded the place within his mind, and spread outward to encompass the entire house, which Charlie could also sense quite clearly now. And not just the house, but the land around it.

"Oh!" Kippy breathed. "Feel that!"

The house stood strong around them, the stones and the wood and the steel of the nails, all somehow joined as one. A unique imprint of the house in its prime, new, shining in the morning sun, pervaded every atom of its structure, unchanging - not allowed to change - bound in time by the energy of the will that possessed it. And not a human will, not one that understood the house as a construction, not as a built thing at all. One, rather, that viewed it as a place composed of natural elements, an extension of the very earth itself. The stones in its foundation born of the ground, the wood of its frame born of the trees, the iron in the nails and braces - all creations of the very earth around it. Natural, elemental things. Not made at all, or not made by people; and the refashioning of them from their original forms by humans not considered at all. The house was one with the land, one with the world. Of the earth, and the same as its nature.

To Gretchen, the house was just another part of her world.

In Charlie's mind, that world drew suddenly nearer. He felt the grass as it grew, the leaves as they waved upon the trees in the breeze. The so-light footsteps of squirrels as they scampered along branches, and the micro-currents in the air as birds and butterflies moved about on their missions. Thousands, if not millions, of dots of life, wending their way across, above, and beneath the earth that was her domain. And the warmth and light of the sun was everywhere, invigorating, adding energy to the life that abounded everywhere.

Beneath the house, within the earth, he felt ancient dirt, and minerals settled from long vanished seas; rocks embedded deep, their forms damp from the clay around them, and the moisture of the water table, awash with the elements of time. The house was rooted, just as the grass and the trees, a part of the landscape, a part of the home of the force that was Gretchen. She - and Charlie did somehow feel some feminine aspect to the entity, though sex could not possibly enter into its make up - was one with the land and the environment, a part of the place, inseparable, indivisible, and as natural as the earth she protected. Horace's home was her home, because the house had been built in her place, and she had accepted it as just one more change in the earth, and occupied it as she did every other part of her domain.

"Wow," Adrian said softly. "Now, that is cool!"

Some part of the white light took notice of that, it seemed, and the light and the warmth intensified pleasantly.

"I think she liked the compliment," Kippy said.

"She did," Horace agreed, chuckling.

Charlie felt the light and warmth examining them, and smiled as a sense of delight came their way. "She seems to like our skwish."

"Of course," Kippy replied. "It's a natural force, just like she is."

The light and warmth circulated freely around them, and both Kip and Adrian laughed. "That tickles," Adrian said.

"She's exploring," Horace decided. "You are a new force to her. She is used to me, and I have long known that she interacts with something inside me--"

"You have skwish," Kippy said quickly.

"--but she senses a different form of it in the four of you," the ghost hunter finished, a smile in the sound of his voice.

Charlie smiled at the touch he felt. It was within, with him there in the place he understood as where his magic - if it could be called that - lived. His skwish. The place his second presence emanated from, and the place where he had felt other things stirring themselves towards life of late. Things he had no name for, but which would certainly be coming along eventually.

Welcome! He tried to broadcast that, and felt the white light about him pulse with pleasure.

The touch was pleasant, and pleased, both. Light, and unthreatening. Companionable, in a way he could not describe. If this was what Horace felt when he communed with Gretchen, Charlie could well understand why the man liked the genius loci as he did. Why he loved the house as did. This place was home to the both of them.

"I think she has accepted the four of you as a part of this place," Horace said then. "That's the first time I have had visitors so quickly, um, adopted." He laughed. "Gretchen seems to at least tolerate everyone that I have brought here, and she does like some few of them. But her quick acceptance of the four of you says a lot about what is inside of you boys."

"We're sweet," Kippy said, matter-of-factly. "Just ask any of us."

That brought a round of chuckles, but Horace nodded enthusiastically along with it. "I think you're closer to the truth than you know, Kip. Gretchen views the four of you as a natural addition to her place. A welcome addition. That says to me that she finds nothing threatening about any of you, and in fact, that you all blend well with what she considers the natural world. I have found that to be true on my own."

"She likes you, too," Ricky pointed out. "Says something about you, also."

Horace sighed, but it sounded very contented to Charlie. "She knows I love this place as much as she does."

Charlie smiled, and gave a little sigh, enjoying the feeling of being liked by Gretchen.

"Wait a minute," Adrian said then, sounding startled.

Kippy gave out a low hiss, full of alarm. "What is that?"

And the sense of Gretchen changed then, a new, added interest and excitement coming forth. It filled the air, and his inner senses, with an implicit welcome, yet there was also some small reserve there, a wariness, that seemed out of tune with that acceptance. And then he understood. Gretchen was being welcoming, but cautiously.

Then Charlie felt the new presence too, like a darkness settling over the world. His inner sense of the sun dimmed, and the life moving about Horace's yard on its fairly carefree business paused. It was as if all the space that Gretchen called home took a collective intake of breath and froze in midstep.

The darkness continued to settle around the place that was Gretchen's, until it seemed completely walled in. There was no gap, no opening, anywhere to be seen now. Charlie frowned at that, at what he felt was a liberty unjustly taken. It seemed too confining now.

Charlie felt Gretchen herself turn her attention away from him, and a sense of bristling, like the fur rising on the back of a cat. The darkness had pushed close now, right up against the boundaries of the genius loci's domain. It felt rather like the curious faces of a group of children, pressed up against the sides of a large fishbowl, gazing intently at what lived within. It was not hostile, yet neither was it accommodating. It respected Gretchen's borders, but not her view of the world outside. It did not come into the yard, or the house, or take a single step across the boundary that Charlie sensed was the limit of Gretchen's domain. But it's insistence was clear.

"We have a visitor," Horace said then, his voice quiet, but with a noticeable element of strain to it.

"The phantom," Kip said then, sounding very sure of himself. "It's come to look us over."

Adrian gently cleared his throat. "It's watching us. Trying to figure us out."

Charlie felt that dark glance touch Horace, and then a new wave of emotion washed over him, unmistakable in its flavor. Curiosity.

"It's wondering about you, Horace," Kip said. "It followed you because it was curious about you."

"About your skwish," Adrian added.

That dark attention now turned to each boy in turn, and Charlie felt another wash of emotion, one of surprise - and then the feeling of curiosity vastly intensified.

"Even I can feel that," Horace said. "It wants to know about all of us. It wants to understand us."

Ricky made a grunting sound. "Hard to believe that skwish is totally new to this thing. There had to be someone in Kinniston that had some."

"Maybe," Charlie agreed. "But maybe not. And, as we all know now, skwish is different for each person. Even Kip and Adrian, who share a lot of things in common regarding their skwish, have clear differences in their make up."

Ricky closed his eyes again and frowned. "Man. I can really feel this thing. It's strong. But--" His frown deepened, and his eyes reopened. "It's not like us. It's not a person."

"Not human," Kippy agreed. "Not even close."

"A genius loci, like Gretchen?" Adrian asked.

"No," Horace said immediately, shaking his head. "Not like Gretchen. This entity is not bound to any location, for one thing. But...I sense it is also not bound to nature like Gretchen is. She is a part of this world. She is of the earth itself. Our guest here...I don't get the same feeling."

"You mean it's not from earth?" Ricky asked, his eyes widening.

Horace gave his head another small shake. "No, I don't mean that. I just mean...Gretchen is bound to this spot, this place. She is a spirit of the world. She belongs here. Our new friend here is something different entirely. I don't get any sense of it being bound to the earth. That doesn't mean it didn't originate here, it just means that the earth cannot hold it like it can Gretchen."

The dark form tried to move closer then, as if to get a better look at them. White light immediately flared up around them, and Charlie was shocked to sense a roar like an enraged mother lion. The blackness danced back then, repulsed, and Gretchen's boundaries firmed again as a sense of protection came to them.

"Wow!" Kippy said, staring at Charlie. "She sure didn't like that!"

Horace looked alarmed now. "It tried to come closer, and the only way it can seem to do that is to displace Gretchen somehow. That cannot be done, to my knowledge. She is bound to this spot. Even if our visitor is more powerful than she, Gretchen's bond to this place will be too strong to break."

Again the darkness surged closer, as if trying the defenses again. Once more, Gretchen pulsed with a detectable fury, and repulsed the dark mass even more quickly. Her sense of welcome faded, while the level of caution ramped upwards.

"If it can't come onto the property, how did it move those cars to the driveway?" Ricky asked.

"It wouldn't have to actually come here," Charlie decided quickly. "Max can transport stuff places without going himself." He smiled. "And even Kip can move things at a distance now."

Again the dark entity tried to come closer, and again Gretchen slapped it back vigorously. Her output of curiosity and welcome had vanished now, replaced in large part by an aura that made Charlie think of a dog camped out on the front step of a chicken house, eying the woods for foxes.

He frowned. "I think we had better try to defuse this situation. I don't get that the phantom is being aggressive, or even ill-intentioned. It just wants to get closer to look us over. But Gretchen definitely doesn't like that."

"It's a territorial response as much as anything," Horace decided. "Not that Gretchen is fiercely territorial. But this is her place, and the only way the phantom can get closer to us is to sort of push her out of the way. That simply isn't possible, and she is acting accordingly."

"Well, if it can't get to us, won't it try something else?" Adrian asked.

"I think it's just curious about us," Horace answered. "That's why it followed me here."

Charlie nodded. "Then maybe it will follow us back to Kinniston. I say we head there now. I don't want this thing to keep prowling around your Gretchen's defenses. It might set her off in a way we don't understand."

"I don't want anything to happen to her, definitely," Horace agreed. He smiled. "Fortunately, I keep a suitcase packed just for such occasions as this."

Ricky laughed. "You have dark energy beings prowling around here often?"

"Oh, no, not that. But some jobs require haste, and I hate to be held up by an empty suitcase."

Horace released Charlie's hand and sat back in his chair, and Charlie felt the presence of both Gretchen and the phantom recede from him. But neither went away entirely. He could still feel both of them, was still aware of their closeness.

Kippy released Charlie's hand and stood up from the table. "Then let's go. The sooner we get this critter back where it belongs, the sooner we can enjoy our Halloween."

"Anybody ever tell you you have one-track mind, Kip?" Ricky kidded.

Kippy beamed at him. "No one that really mattered, no."

Charlie stood up and raised his hands. "Okay, okay. One crazed skwish entity is enough, don't you think?"

Kippy stuck his tongue out at Ricky, who just laughed.

Horace asked them to wait there a moment, left the room, and then came back carrying his suitcase. Miraculously, he was also now wearing one of his overlarge suits, and the deerstalker hat was once again perched upon his head.

Kippy gazed owlishly at Charlie, who just shrugged and grinned. "I never ask a magician how he does his tricks!"

"Shall we go?" Horace asked, looking pleased at their expressions. He quickly opened one of the curtains, and then snuffed out the candle on the table before heading towards the door.

"You going to tell us how you changed your clothes so fast?" Ricky asked.

The ghost hunter grinned. "Are you saying you won't go unless I do?"

Adrian leaned against Rick's shoulder, and gave him a gentle poke with his elbow.

Ricky blinked, and then laughed. "Not at all. Can I carry that suitcase for you? It looks heavy!"

"Oh, it is. Thank you, Rick. That will allow me to collect my carpet bag as we leave. All my devices, you know."

The exchange was made, and they headed for the front door, with Horace collecting his carpet bag of investigative gear along the way.

"Charlie," Kippy said then. "I can still feel Gretchen, and our new friend. Even without the candle."

"You're attuned now," Horace said cheerfully. "I haven't needed the candle to sense Gretchen since I was a boy, either. The flame of the candle now is just a relaxing circle of soft light to sit within and commune with her. "

Kippy stared at him. "It really wasn't much of a seance."

"No. That suggestion was simply to open your minds to the idea of contact. I was hoping your...well, your skwish...was enough like mine that that was all that would be needed. Gretchen was able to do the rest on her own."

Charlie frowned at that. "Really? What about the phantom? We seem able to sense, um, him now, just as well. Are you saying that he made that possible?"

"In a way, yes. All of us have natural barriers to the intrusion of such entities into our lives, Charlie. We still sense their presence on rare occasions, but for the most part those barriers are there to protect us. Until I sat with all of you at the table, I only vaguely sensed the presence of the phantom. Our group worked together to relax the natural barriers we have to the intrusion of such entities as these. Normally, we only sense something different when we encounter one, but that's as far as it goes. It's just a feeling we have. You know, the sense of disquiet, or wonder, that comes upon us now and then? And for no seeming reason? Or sometimes brought on by a particular place - a place inhabited by things we cannot see, but still can sense."

"Like a haunted house," Kippy asked, smiling.

"Or a special spot in the woods," Charlie added, nodding.

"Certainly. But really, any place where our senses seem to be telling us that we are not alone, when our eyes and our ears are plainly saying that we are."

"And that's changed?" Rick asked.

"Yes. Now we have gone and looked as a group, met these entities halfway, as it were. And our ability to see them more closely has been awakened. Mine has long been aware of Gretchen. Now it is also aware of the phantom. As are your inner senses now, too."

"Happy Halloween," Kip said brightly, smiling around at everyone. "Nothing like ghosts and spirits to make the day a happy one!"

Charlie dropped an arm around Kippy's shoulders and gave him a brief hug as they exited the house, and Horace locked up behind them.

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