Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

There's A Devil in the Dark, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 5

They took Charlie's 4Runner, just because it was roomier and more comfortable than Horace's woodie. Not to mention having a far better heater. The day was nippy, and the sun had disappeared behind some passing clouds.

They loaded Horace's bags into the back of the vehicle next to their own things, and then stood a moment as they tried to sense the location of the phantom.

"I still feel it," Kippy decided. "But it's not trying to come closer now."

Horace grunted. "We have moved outside the house into the open, and away from the core of Gretchen's presence. She still holds sway here, but our guest seems to know we are moving out of her influence."

"Then let's do that," Charlie said, opening the driver's door. "The sooner we get going, the better."

They climbed inside, and Charlie backed the SUV out of the driveway, and headed down the street. Kippy and Adrian were huddled close together in the back seat, their hands gripped together to better share their skwish experience. The two were by far the best detectors of such things as the phantom. Ricky, seated beside Adrian, watched them patiently.

Horace, up front beside Charlie, turned to look back at them. "What do you sense now that we have moved away from the house?"

"Stop a minute, Charlie," Kip said then.

Charlie pulled the SUV to the edge of the road and stopped. "What's happening?" Charlie could still sense the phantom, but now did not feel it's location as precisely as when they had been inside the house. Perhaps because the phantom had totally encircled them then?

"It's moved away from the house and Gretchen," Adrian offered. "But it's not following us."

"Wait," Kippy said then. "Look at that!"

"What do you feel?" Ricky asked, his curiosity evident on his face. "Is it coming now?"

But instead of answering, Kip and Adrian both turned their heads to look into the back of the SUV.

"Let's get out a moment," Kip said, already opening the door. "Everybody! Come see!"

Charlie joined the others as the doors opened and everyone got out. Kippy led the way around to the back of the car, and had Charlie raise the tailgate. "Look there." Kippy pointed to a spot above Horace's suitcase.

Charlie squinted and looked where his boyfriend was pointing, but couldn't see a thing. He was just about to say so when he heard Ricky take a startled breath. So Charlie peered closer, willing himself to see...

And he did. Just above Horace's suitcase, a tiny gray blob appeared, spinning rapidly. It was hardly larger than a quarter, but the animation within it seemed to give it a life all out of proportion to its small size. It wasn't doing anything he could see, just hanging there, spinning about like a top on its axis.

Horace leaned closer. "Is that what I think it is?"

Adrian nodded, and Kippy laughed. "Yes. It's a tiny piece of the phantom." He turned to grin at the ghost hunter. "I think that's how it followed you home. It placed a little piece of itself in your car. Then, when you arrived home, it simply rejoined its little spy."

Ricky rubbed his nose, looking uncertain. "Why not just follow us?"

"It may not be able to do that," Charlie guessed, making a small mental leap. "It may not be able to move like we do. You know, just walk around the world? It may have to transport itself from place to place, sort of like Max does with teleportation. And Max can't go anywhere he's never been before."

"Then why not just stick it's whole self in the back?" Ricky countered. "This seems the long way around to me."

"It may not be able to do that, either. Maybe it has a range of movement." Charlie turned to smile at Horace. "Like a neighborhood block? Or even a small town? Maybe it can't just go off exploring on its own."

"Then why can a little piece of it go with us?" Ricky persisted. "If it can't move like we do, shouldn't that apply to all of it?"

Charlie shrugged. "If you trim your fingernail and drop it in the back of the car, and it goes off with the car, are you going with the car? No. But a part of you is going, nonetheless. Maybe by placing this piece of itself here, it's like a fingernail. Except this critter can somehow follow the pieces it trims from itself." Charlie gave a shrug then. "I'm guessing, Rick. I just don't know."

"I think there's something to what you say, Charlie," Horace said then, sounding fascinated. "Rick, if you concentrate on this little blob, do you feel the phantom?"

Ricky leaned closer to the blob and stared hard at it for a good ten seconds while the others watched. Then a look of surprise crossed Rick's features, and then he simply looked confused. "No. It feels weird. I feel like it's a piece of the phantom, just as you said. doesn't feel the same as the phantom."

"That's what I sense," Kippy agreed. "I know where it came from, but it's not the same feel as the phantom."

Adrian smiled at Charlie. "Feels like a fingernail to me."

Charlie laughed, and Ricky threw up his hands. "I give up. Okay, it's a fingernail. " Ricky brought one hand back down and stared at his fingertips. "But I'll be damned if I can follow my nails when I cut 'em."

Adrian patted his boyfriend's shoulder. "You're not a dark energy being, either. At least, not the last time I slept with you."

Ricky grinned then, and rolled his eyes. "Okay. Point taken."

Kippy stepped back and waved a hand at the tailgate. "Let's close up and get going, Charlie. We're wasting time gawking."

Horace turned and looked back at his house. He squinted in the sunlight, and then nodded. "It's still there. Gretchen has relaxed some now, but the phantom is still close by."

Charlie closed the tailgate, and waved a hand back towards the front of the SUV. "Let's roll. The sooner we get to Kinniston, the quicker we can start solving this problem."

It took slightly more than an hour to get to Kinniston. The roads that crisscrossed central New York state delivered amazing views at this time of the year, the trees sporting colorful coats of reds, oranges, and browns, shoulder-to-shoulder with the vibrant greens of conifers in the mixed forest setting. The land rose and fell seemingly at whim, the two-lane blacktop roads climbing hills often thick with forest, and then suddenly giving way to rolling valleys filled with small towns that had rambled outwards from their main streets for more than a century of time. The towns often sprang up unexpectedly, first sighted from views upon the hills that would quickly give way to grades sauntering down towards the valley floor, without a bit of haste, nor any respect for the concept of a straight line.

"Looks homey," Charlie said, eyeing the town below as it came into view again at a twist in the road. "And bigger than I thought it would be."

"But still small." Horace laughed. "This area is full of little towns like this, and they're all quite nice. This one is at least as interesting as any other I have visited."

"You've visited a lot of them?" Adrian asked, leaning forward and putting his hand on the back of Horace's seat.

"Oh, my, yes. We live in a very haunted state, you know."

"I don't think our town is haunted," Charlie said, easing the SUV through a tight turn in the road. "Least ways, I've never heard that it is."

"I suspect most places have stories to tell of one sort or another," Horace countered, smiling. "Maybe not ghost tales, but there are tales, and then there are tales. Tales of mysterious past happenings need not be couched in supernatural terms to be just as wonderful to ponder."

"I guess." Charlie cast a quick smile at the ghost hunter. "So how do you go about hearing these tales?"

Horace sat back in his seat and sighed. "Oh, every town has at least one source, and many towns have more than one. The best place to start is the town historical society, if there is one. Otherwise, the library is a good place. Small town libraries are often the home of records that would be in a historical society's archives, if the town had one."

Ricky leaned forward next to Adrian. "Who hired you here in Kinniston?"

"That was the mayor, Jeff Ridge. He brought in Rhea Willman, who his head of both the town library and the town historical society, to assist me."

Charlie laughed. "She was both the best information sources rolled into one, huh?"

"Do they count you as being done with your investigation?" Kippy asked then. "I mean, if they aren't expecting you to come back, won't us showing up now surprise them?"

"No." The ghost hunter gave a firm shake of his head. "Although I have already presented them with my initial report, I was most emphatic to say that it was not my final word on the subject. That I had a feeling there was more to be discovered. They asked how I would handle that, and I said I needed to consider what resources I might be able to muster to further my investigation." He laughed. "I wasn't referring to you boys, but your involvement now is actually better than anything else I might have come up with to draw the phantom out into the open."

"Are you going to tell them it followed you home?" Ricky asked.

"No, I think not. As I was only gone a day, and the phantom did not manifest itself every single night in Kinniston, I doubt they will know it was missing. Somehow I don't think they would like the notion that their phantom latched onto an outsider and left with him."

Charlie found that interesting. "Really? Why not?"

Horace cast an uncertain look his way. "They...maybe not the mayor so much, but others in the town...are very possessive of their phantom. Even jealously protective of it, I might say. I never did quite figure that out. While the mayor seemed most interested in the investigation, Rhea Willman was noticeably less enthusiastic about it. My impression was that she felt that having a ghost hunter around would somehow belittle the phantom's reputation."

"Its reputation!" Kippy snorted. "What reputation? The townsfolk know about it, but no one else does, right? How could some outsider change what they already think about their guest?"

"I think she felt that knowing more about its origins would somehow be less than desirable."

"That sounds a little suspicious," Ricky decided.

Horace turned in the seat to smile at him. "Not really. Most small towns are very protective of their pasts. Their people, their traditions. Their secrets. I don't think Kinniston is any different. And as head of the historical society, I'm sure Rhea Willman wants to be especially careful about what information gets circulated."

"But if there is a truth there--" Adrian began.

Horace barked out a laugh, and then immediately looked sheepish. "Oh, pardon me. I didn't mean to laugh at you. It's just that...well, history is such a flexible thing, you know?"

Adrian frowned around at the others, and then fixed his eye back on Horace. "How do you mean?"

"'ve probably heard that histories of wars are written by the winners, not the losers? That is very much the case. The truth is, all approved histories are written by those that came after the fact. When history is written as it happens, it's often referred to later as a memoir, or even a diary. But seldom as a history. Historians frown upon history written on the fly, feeling it is far too subjective to be totally credible. Histories based on research and the collection of factual data are the preferred way of presenting the past."

Adrian nodded. "What's your point?"

The ghost hunter smiled. "The truth is, it is very hard for history to be entirely objective, because there is still a human or humans in there interpreting the facts. More than one historical account has been called into question over the years, citing unintentional bias, or even a deliberate spin on the facts, by the person or people writing it. History is very hard to pin down sometimes all on its own, because so many people in this world are intent on rewriting it to please their own points of view." He shrugged. "Small town histories are particularly prone to this sort of, um, manipulation over time. Small towns prefer that their histories be presentable. Respectable. Not something they fear to share."

A round of silence followed that statement as everyone considered the implications.

"So you're saying that what is already known about the phantom may not even be true?" Charlie finally ventured to ask.

Horace held up a hand. "Well, the basics are fairly obvious, of course. The movements of material objects, the noises and lights at night, the little glimpses of something that everyone has caught out of the sides of their eyes at times. These are facts that everyone knows about, and which I have witnessed myself." He frowned. "But there is a lot of speculation about the phantom - what it actually is - among the townsfolk, and I heard my share of ideas by simply asking people as I moved about. My profession as a ghost hunter was not widely-known, but the mayor has a weekly virtual town meeting, and stated in the last one before my arrival that I would be there to look at the activities of the phantom, and that people could feel free to talk to me about it."

"And did they?" Kippy asked.

"Well, some did, yes. But while many people were willing to share ideas on what the phantom was, there seemed a general reticence on the part of most of the people I talked with to speculate on the origins of the phantom. Especially among the older townsfolk. The youngsters all had some fairly imaginative theories to share, but most could be discounted as fantasy." The man laughed, his eyes twinkling. "You know how young people are."

Adrian hooted, his eyes bright with humor. "I'd be offended at that, if it wasn't so true!"

Ricky leaned closer to the ghost hunter. "And?"

Horace nodded. "I had already been given an official recounting of the town's history by Rhea Willman. Most people seemed content that I had those facts. But there were some few that called some of the official history into question, and one old fellow who told me flat out it was a blatant lie. When I asked Rhea Willman about some of this conjecture, she seemed on the surface to be very cooperative, but I sensed a distance in her attitude that sometimes led me to believe she was being less than forthright with me."

"Lying, huh?" Ricky said, shaking his head. "Oh, I know how it is. Probably half the town is boinking the other half, and they don't want anyone to know about it."

Horace's eyes widened at that.

Adrian snorted in amazement, and slapped his boyfriend's arm with the back of his hand. "He's kidding, Horace. Ricky, tell him you're kidding."

Ricky grinned. "Am I? You know how these little burgs are."

Adrian sighed patiently. "No, I don't. I have never lived in a smaller town than ours, which is a heck of a lot bigger than Kinniston."

Ricky shrugged. "Well, you watch TV, don't you? In shows set in small towns, everyone is boinking everyone else."

Kippy slapped his hands against his knees and rolled his eyes at Ricky. "Can't you ever stay on point?"

Ricky held up a hand and waved it in a calming manner. "Pull your claws in, Kip. I don't literally mean everyone is in bed together. I just meant that in small towns you never really see what is going on. People are related in ways that aren't always obvious. There are things happening behind the scenes, you know?" His eyes moved to Horace. "I didn't mean to be offensive."

The ghost hunter smiled. "I'm a grown up lad. And I see your point, really. But it's not just a small town frame of mind, Rick. People are protective of the things they hold dear no matter where they happen to be. I think television just tends to exaggerate the small town angle. A little."

"A little," Kippy agreed. He sighed, and then favored Ricky with one more ill glance before smiling at Horace again. "So you think they're covering up something?"

The ghost hunter debated that question internally a moment, and then sighed. "I think it's very important to say right away that I don't have any real reason to feel that anyone is lying. I did feel that some few people had more information than they were willing to share. The few who spoke to me in contradictory terms about the official town history seemed adamant that a great deal had been left unsaid. And, as I mentioned already, Ms. Willman, especially, gave me the impression that she was overly protective of the town's past."

Ricky grinned. "So she's lying, huh?" He patted Horace's shoulder. "But I've never heard the accusation more nicely said."

The ghost hunter chuckled. "Okay, I do feel there is more here than meets the eye. But I am not about to point and call anyone a liar. Neither should you, Rick."

"Yeah, control your caveman urges," Kippy said, smiling this time. He thrust out his chest and adopted a belligerent look. "Me see fire! Fire burn! Not burn, not fire! Someone lie!"

Ricky and Adrian both laughed, and Charlie couldn't help smiling, himself. If there was anyone among their group that could sometimes trip over the art of tact, it was Ricky.

"Be nice, Rick," Charlie added. "We'll be guests here, remember."

"Oh, sure. I'll be good. I'm just trying to get the lay of the land before we start falling over things."

Horace let his gaze move to each face in the back seat. "Let me lay this out more clearly, then. The town of Kinniston has a mysterious force present, which has been affecting life there for well over one-hundred years. The people of the town are protective of this spirit, for reasons that are not always entirely clear to me. There is an official history of the town, that some few citizens are at odds with, and I have the impression that there is a lot that has not been said about the entire situation. The mayor of the town is one of the few people that seems insensitive to - unaware of is a better description - the discord among the population regarding the phantom. He hired me to look into what the phantom is, not specifically to determine where it came from or why it is still there after so long a time. And the one person he brought in to assist me seems quite willing to leave me in the dark about some of the most important historical aspects of the phantom."

Charlie nodded, without taking his eyes off the road. "Makes it a challenge, doesn't it?"

"Yes." The ghost hunter nodded. "But not one I am unaccustomed to dealing with at all. Most hauntings and possessions are attended by facts that remain murky until the very end. Most hauntings and possessions are the result of events that have never been properly resolved. And their opaqueness to investigation often stems from the resistance the living have to confronting perhaps uncomfortable truths about the dead."

That resulted in a moment of silence. The road had reached the valley floor now, and was winding around to a view of the town a head. Already, the trees had receded from the two-lane blacktop on both sides to reveal properties that were obviously once small farms, many of which had their original outbuildings intact. That soon gave way to homes along the route, set on land that had once been part of the very same farms. None of the architecture Charlie observed seemed much newer than the 1960s or maybe the 1970s, though, indicating that the division of the land was not a recent accomplishment. And many of the homes were of designs popular even forty years before that. Kinniston's age was no secret here.

All the homes looked well-maintained, yet with that comfortable and lived-in individual look that homes in the country tended to acquire. The street that Charlie lived on was more uniform, the houses all one of just a few designs favored by the developers back in the day, and landscaped in a similar motif that had only slowly been altered by time. The street that Kip lived on was even newer, and even more uniform in appearance.

The homes here looked carved out of the land and the trees, set there by people who were not looking at a neighbors house only an arm's length away. The rural landscape accepted people willing to share space, but seldom granted them dominance of any kind. A house without trees nearby was a rare occurrence here.

"Reminds me a little of Norwich, where your cousin lives," Adrian said to Rick. "But maybe a little smaller?"

"Definitely smaller," Ricky agreed. He smiled. "Pretty, though, isn't it?"

It was. The land was carpeted with autumn leaves, beneath trees that swayed gently in the afternoon breeze, generating small flurries that added to the accumulation below. Most of the homes had cars or trucks in the drives, even though many of the properties had stand-alone garages beside or behind the house. The feeling was one of old prosperity, little tarnished by the changes of time.

They soon encountered their first businesses beside the road, and then quickly found themselves on main street, long and straight, wider than the road they had been driving on due to the parking afforded before the shops on each side of the street. People strolled up and down the sidewalks, while a minimum of auto traffic moved in both directions. A church steeple loomed in the distance to one side, while several taller buildings could be seen on the other.

The center of town was a large circle, where the road split into two arcs that encompassed a small central park, with a few large shade trees, some benches, and enough shrubs to give it the proper feel. People were making use of that area, relaxing in the warmth of the sun while the cool autumn air moved slowly around them. A small fountain sent three sparkling streams a dozen feet into the sky, which then curled under gracefully to fall back into a circular pool around which pigeons scrounged for tidbits tossed by a number of locals seated nearby.

The town seemed occupied without appearing busy; lively without seeming crowded. Everything was clean and orderly, even remarkably so. Charlie could close one eye and almost see that this town had changed little in the last fifty years. There were no vacant shops, no buildings with boarded up fronts. Kinniston seemed not to be undergoing the slow death that had afflicted so many small towns over time. The upkeep of the place was noticeable, and suggested a town not in financial hardship, not one step away from becoming just a memory, as so many small towns in other areas of the country displayed.

There was a sense of timelessness about Kinniston that immediately pricked Charlie's interest. The place was alive. That here was a town in which the people loved to live seemed apparent.

"Wow," Kippy said softly, his eyes hastening everywhere at once. "I like this place. It's very welcoming."

Horace smiled. "I had the same impression my first time here. If nothing else, this town offers an extremely good first impression."

"It does that," Adrian agreed. His eyes searched out Charlie's in the rear view mirror. "Don't you think, Charlie?"

"Yes. Almost unnaturally so,"

Adrian nodded. "That's what I was feeling."

Kippy turned to stare at his friend. "Well, sure. The town is possessed, remember?" He closed his eyes a moment, and then opened them and frowned. "Though at the moment, all I feel is that little dark whirl of energy in the back of the car, and not the phantom at all."

Charlie glanced at Horace. "Where were you staying here? We might as well set up camp."

Horace pointed ahead, around the circle. "There's no hotel here, not even a motel nearby. Jeff Ridge set me up in a boarding house over that way. They said they'd hold my room." He scratched his chin thoughtfully. "I just hope they have a couple more rooms available. I know there were two full-time residents there already."

Charlie laughed. "If we have to, we'll sleep in chairs in your room. It's probably just for one night."

"Or not," Kippy muttered, drawing Charlie's eyes to the rear view mirror. His boyfriend stared back a moment, but then smiled. "We'll be okay."

Charlie had Horace direct him to the boarding house. It was the last building in the line of shops on the left side of the road after the center circle, one story taller than the average two, and one of the tallest buildings around. On the far side of it was a small parking lot, after which a line of stately-looking homes marched away around a bend in the road. These homes looked Victorian in nature, and Charlie figured they were original to Kinniston's initial build-up as a town. All looked well-kept, as did the entire town, and Charlie had to admit that someone was on the ball here, keeping things neat and clean.

"What's this mayor like?" Charlie asked, as he parked the 4Runner in an empty space in the little lot. "Looks like he's serious about keeping the business district tidy."

"I like him," Horace returned. "Very dedicated to the town, very much on top of things. One reason why I was surprised that he seems so unaware of the differences of opinion among the locals on the phantom and the town's history."

"Maybe he's not," Charlie pointed out. "Oblivious, I mean. Maybe he's just, um, neutral."

Horace pursed his lips a moment in thought, but then nodded. "That's possible, too, I guess. He's no dummy, that's for certain."

Charlie shut off the engine and opened his door. "Shall we?"

They climbed out, and went around to the back of the SUV, where Charlie raised the tailgate. They all paused then, tuning their gazes until they could see the little swirl of energy that had accompanied them from Horace's house.

"Still there, I see," Ricky said.

Charlie was watching the thing, and so flinched when it suddenly darted forward, passed between him and Kip, and spun away into the center of the parking lot, where it hung in the sunlight, barely visible.

"That was weird," Adrian said, after they had all turned to follow it.

What came next was even stranger. The tiny swirl suddenly grew more agitated, and then expanded rapidly, seeming to dissipate - become more tenuous - as it did so. At the same time, the by now familiar sense of the phantom seemed to grow all around them. It filled with surprise, and then pleasure, and then, after briefly examining them again, seemed to scamper off into the day without so much as a glance backwards. With its departure came a sense of further expansion, as if it was growing to permeate the entire town with its presence.

"Honey, I'm home!" Ricky called then.

Charlie laughed at that, because that was exactly the sense he had gotten from the phantom. The feeling of surprise and delight that it was back in its normal habitat. Something else became clear then.

"I see now how it gets around," Charlie said. "It attaches a tiny bit of itself to something, like a car, and that bit goes where the car does. Then, when it senses it's arrived, the phantom expands itself back into the tiny bit, growing back into its normal self. It's some sort of instantaneous travel, like teleportation."

"So it can't go places on its own?" Ricky asked.

"Maybe not."

Ricky turned to Horace. "Didn't we determine that the phantom was not like Gretchen, in that it was not bound to one place?"

"Yes. But that does not mean it can travel at will, Rick. It just means it isn't attached to any specific location."

"Maybe if it just transports itself somewhere random, it gets lost," Kippy theorized. "You know - can't find its way home? That sure would keep me at my house if it was a problem I had."

The ghost hunter help up his hands in a helpless gesture. "I just don't know."

Ricky stared after the vanished phantom. "Well, if it can move this way, like teleportation, then why did it never leave here before?"

Charlie considered that. "We don't actually know it that it's never left here, Rick. But...maybe it never had a reason. I think it was interested in Horace this time. Enough to put a tail on him and follow him back to where he came from."

"I think you're right, Charlie," Kip said. "I don't sense much in the way of skwish here at the moment. Maybe Horace was a new experience for your friend."

Horace laughed. "Well, this experience has to use the bathroom. I suggest we get our bags and go into the house. I'm willing to bet that Mrs. Dancy will be happy to see us."

"Better to be accepted then rejected," Kippy quipped, grabbing up his little overnight bag. Charlie retrieved his own, then closed the tailgate after everyone had their bags. Once again, Ricky took charge of Horace's large suitcase while the man carried his bag of investigative ghost gear. They walked around to the front of the building, climbed the wide front steps to the porch, and entered through the large front door.

Charlie immediately thought of an old-fashioned inn. The inside of the place had a certain luxurious look to it the bespoke of past glory, but one that had faded just the littlest bit over time. Yet everything was bright and cheerful and clean, and though the furniture in the front parlor looked older then Charlie's grandparents, it was all in wonderful condition and still looked solid and comfortable. The light fixtures were antique, the paintings on the walls a little obscure, and the carpet underfoot just the tiniest bit faded in spots; but overall, the place had the same feel of upkeep that the town displayed. Someone put effort into keeping the old boarding house nice, and it seemed clear that it was a labor of love over utilitarian necessity, all day long.

A counter projected into the room beside the entry, which Charlie took to be the front desk. He squinted at it, and realized from its design that it might have started life as something else then its current occupation. But it seemed to fit right in with the other furniture, and the big old registry book atop it looked right at home next to the ornate brass bell used to let the management know when someone had arrived.

Horace grinned at Charlie, and brought his hand down atop the bell, causing it to ding in a note very pleasing to the ear.

A woman's voice floated down the nearby staircase in response, sounding pleased and hurried all at the same time. "Be right there!"

In a moment they heard footsteps on the staircase, and then a woman breezed into the room. She was about seventy, Charlie guessed, and still had an aura of beauty about her that time would never fade. Her eyes were green and bright, her smile warm and genuine. Her eyes moved among their group, found Horace, and the delight already in her eyes multiplied twofold. "Mr. Wingspanner! You've returned!"

Horace's face briefly warmed to a gentle red, but he managed to keep his embarrassment under control, and nodded. "Yes. And I brought friends with me this time. I hope you have rooms for all of us." He turned to the boys then, and used a hand to indicate the newcomer. "This is Miss Abigail Dancy. This is her boarding house."

"Call me Abby, please," the woman said immediately, raising her hands and bringing them together as she surveyed them. "Oh, my! I haven't had this many guests all at once in quite some time." Her eyes moved among them again, appraising. "Will you each require a room, or do you want to share?"

Kippy waved a hand. "Two rooms should be enough. Charlie and I can bunk together."

"Yeah, Adrian and I can share a room," Ricky added.

The slightest bit of disappointment arrived in Abby's eyes at that, but was immediately swept away by her enthusiasm. "That will be just fine." She circled around behind the front desk and spun the registry on its little Lazy Susan, and held out a pen to Charlie. "Would you sign in, please?"

Charlie smiled and took the pen, and looked down at the open page. Horace was the last one to have signed the registry several days earlier, though it did look like the boarding house had some on-again, off-again traffic. Charlie signed his name and hometown, and handed the pen to Kippy. After they had all signed, Abby turned the book back and looked down at the signatures and smiled. "I've never had guests from your neck of the woods before. I certainly hope you enjoy your stay here." She looked up at them, her eyes bright. "I don't keep the beds made, because the linens get dusty, and I so hate dusty linens! But I run the vacuum over the mattresses every few days, so I can assure you they are clean. If you'll just wait here moment, I'll get fresh linens, and then show you to your rooms."

Abby hurried off again, once more combining an air of delight and haste, and Charlie turned to look at Horace, who smiled and briefly examined the ceiling.

"Did I get the impression that she liked you?"

Horace sighed, and met Charlie's eyes. "Maybe a little. I would sometimes sit in the parlor with her in the evenings and talk. I think she's a little lonely here, all by herself."

Ricky gave a low whistle. "She runs all this by herself?"

"Yes. She has eight rooms here, and two permanent borders on the second floor. I thinks she spends most of her days keeping the place clean."

"I like her," Kippy said, smiling. "She has a lot of energy."

That had been so apparent to them all that everyone grinned.

Kippy sighed, looking around the parlor. "If this place wasn't so clean and tidy, it could be a little creepy. Everything's so old." He looked around some more, and smiled. "Not at all a bad place to spend a Halloween, if need be."

"I hope some of the others get here," Adrian replied. "It wouldn't be the same, doing Halloween with just us."

Kippy nodded, looking slightly disgusted. "Where's an elf when you really need him?"

There was a large popping sound just then, and Frit and Pip and Keerby appeared next to them. Charlie couldn't help it: he jumped at the suddenness of it.

"Someone call?" Pip said, laughing.

"Happy Halloween!" Frit added, looking utterly pleased with himself. "Scare you?"

"Sorry," Keerby immediately added, shaking his head. "We didn't mean to startle you."

"I did!" Frit countered. "It's almost Halloween!"

"You made it!" Kippy said, looking delighted. His eyes swung to Keerby, and Charlie laughed at the somewhat dreamy expression that crept onto his boyfriend's face. "Hi, Keerby!"

Keerby looked embarrassed, but happy to see them all. There was an immediate exchange of hugs and pats on the back, interrupted as Abby returned, her arms laden with linens for the bed. She looked startled by the extra faces, and set the linens on the desktop to look around at the suddenly crowded parlor.

"I'm sorry, Abby," Horace said, stepping forward. "We've had a few last minute arrivals. Could we possibly get a couple more rooms?'

The speed with which the woman spun the registry and offered a pen to Frit was evidence of her delight. "Oh, that will only leave one room vacant! I haven't had so many guests in just about forever! "

And of course she had to get more linens for the beds, and she talked happily the whole time as she led them up the steps to the third floor. "I'll put you boys up here, where you can all be together. How is that?"

It was fine with the boys. Horace had a room on the second floor, along with Mr. Hurley and Mr. Dennis, Abby's two regular boarders. That put Charlie and Kip together, Rick and Adrian together, and Frit and Pip together, with Keerby getting a room of his own.

"And feel free to use the back parlor, if you all need to talk together," Abby told them, after they had gotten settled into their rooms. "That will give you some privacy, I think. And please call me if you need anything." She held up her hands again and clasped them together, and smiled around at them once more. "Seven rooms rented! I can scarcely believe it!"

She turned then, and headed for the stairs.

"Is she always that way?" Kippy whispered, after Abby had had time to get back to the first floor. "So...bubbly?"

"Always," Horace agreed, smiling. "She's very sweet, very bright, and quite fun to talk to. And she has a few ideas of her own on the phantom."

"So what are you guys up to here?" Frit asked, looking curiously around the hallway.

"Something fun, I'll bet!" Pip put in, excitedly.

"I just hope we can help," Keerby added, smiling.

Charlie laughed. "It's great to have you with us. Now if we can just find a place to sit and talk some--"

"I'm hungry," Ricky said then, patting his belly. "I haven't eaten since we left home, and that was just a quick sandwich."

"There are a number of good places to eat in town," Horace offered, nodding.

"Then let's do that first," Charlie agreed. He was hungry, too. "We can talk a bit. And then we can get down to looking over the town and seeing what there is to see. I'd like to do that before dark."

Frit linked his arm with Pip's, and motioned towards the stairway. "Shall we?"

Pip chuckled. "Yes, we shall. Come on, guys."

Kippy grinned at Charlie, and took hold of his hand. "Shall we, too?"

"I suppose." Charlie looked around quickly to make sure they were alone, and then quickly kissed his boyfriend's cheek.

"What was that for?" Kippy asked, looking pleased.

Charlie shrugged, smiled Keerby's way a moment, and pulled his boyfriend towards the stairs. "Do I need a reason? Come on. I'm hungry."

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