Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

There's A Devil in the Dark, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 6

"We weren't sure you guys were coming," Kippy said, around a bite of his burger. "We weren't sure anyone was coming."

The eight of them were seated around a large table at Costigan's, a pub and restaurant that Horace had discovered near the center of town. He'd pronounced the food good, and the boys were finding it a just recommendation. It was too late for lunch and too early for dinner, and the place was fairly empty at this hour. Their table to one side of the room gave them a fair amount of privacy, and the staff had been content to bring them their orders and then to leave them mostly alone.

"Just wave if you need something, honey," their server, one Moira, had offered to Charlie.

The boys had explained their business in Kinniston to the three elves, who had listened with obvious fascination.

"We got here as soon as we could," Pip replied, smiling at Keerby. "A certain someone held us up while he finished a new project he was doing."

Keerby grinned. "Aw, you guys didn't have to wait on me. I told you so!"

"Someone had to hold that hernacki while you stuffed it with flum," Frit said, looking amused.

Kippy stared from one elf to the other. "What the devil is a hernacki?'

"And flum?" Adrian added, wide-eyed, pausing with a forkful of his salad halfway to his mouth.

Frit smiled at them, quite willing to share. "Hernacki are these big elemental beings that live in the impervious zone. Flum is the bioenergy they live on."

Charlie eyed the elves. "You were feeding something?"

"Sure." Pip nodded. "Keerby tamed one of them. Don't ask me how, because they don't like elves much. But Keerby did it. He was rewarding Ethelbert for showing him how chrono-cores are put together."

"Ethelbert?" Kippy repeated, grinning at Charlie.

"Sheeria named him," Keerby said, looking embarrassed. "Girls!"

"That's your girlfriend, right?" Ricky asked.

"Don't remind me," Keerby groaned, rolling his eyes.

Kippy beamed. "There's always the other side, sweetie."

Keerby's face reddened this time, but he grinned at Frit and Pip. "How well I know!"

"He's not coming over!" Pip said, shaking his head.

"We've tried!" Frit agreed, winking mischievously.

Kippy sighed, and smiled at Charlie. "It was just an errant thought."

"I'm sure." Charlie grinned at his boyfriend, to let him know there were no hard feelings about it. If you couldn't dream a little now and then, what good was life?

"What are chrono-cores?" Ricky asked. "And why did you need to know how they were put together?"

Keerby's expression grew more interested. "Oh, they're really cool! See, time is naturally able to move in just one direction, from the past to the present to the future. That's because it's tied to the laws of thermodynamcs in our universe, one of which says that in a closed system, the entropy of the system remains constant or increases, but can never decrease. In order for time to move backwards, the entropy of the system would need to decrease, because the universe would be returning to a previous state, which is impossible."

"I'm following you," Charlie said, nodding. "In order for time to go backwards, the universe would need to return to state of less entropy, which it cannot do."

Kippy smiled at him. "You told me what entropy was once, but I forgot."

Charlie nodded. "It's the measure of randomness or disorder in a system. Complex systems are continually evolving towards a state of less complexity, naturally tending to less order until they eventually approach a kind of equilibrium. The term varies in usage depending on what you're talking about, but I'm assuming that Keerby is using it in the cosmological sense."

"I am." The elf smiled at Charlie. "But the progression of entropy is only valid in a closed system, and the universe is not an entirely closed system. Or, rather, it is a closed system, per se, but it allows for the possibility of subsystems, each of which can vary from the main one while still interacting with the base reality."

Charlie laughed. "Now you've gone beyond me."

Keerby just shrugged. "It doesn't matter. For an elf to be good with time, he or she simply needs to understand the concept of subsets. Entropy is only relevant to each closed system like our universe. Manipulating time requires the ability to manufacture closed subsystems to the main system, which employ different rules for entropy, but which freely interact with the main system as if all one reality. That's why elves like me and Max can manipulate time, even when the general universe doesn't respect such actions entropically."

For a moment no one said anything. Then Ricky laughed and smiled at Charlie. "Did you get that?"

Charlie considered what the elf had said, and then nodded. "Sort of. I think he's saying that when he manipulates time, he's not manipulating the overall time of the universe, which is in a closed state and can only progress forward. Instead, he's creating a subset of the universe, in which he can state his own rules for the flow of time, while keeping it somehow in step with what goes on outside the subset in the real universe."

Keerby's eyes lit up with pleasure. "That's exactly right, Charlie! You're good at this!"

Kippy leaned sideways against Charlie's shoulder and smiled. "Of course!"

"I kind of get it myself," Ricky admitted. "It's a cheat. A way to get things done when the law says you can't do it that way. You just make yourself a little pocket universe where the laws are what you say they are, and leave a window open somehow so that it never loses its view of the real world."

Keerby gaped a second, and then clapped a hand down on the tabletop. "I'm impressed, guys!"

Ricky looked pleased with himself. "Elf academy, here I come!"

Adrian laughed, and patted his boyfriend's arm. "Yeah, but how you do all that is the hard part!"

Keerby nodded. "Elves learned from hernacki. These are elemental beings of the universe that live in the impervious zone - where the structure of the universe has zero random elements - but who can go anywhere they want, and anywhen, and do it by manipulating chrono-cores, or these little pocket universe subsystems of the main one. We learned how to do it from them."

"But you already know how to manipulate time," Kip said. "What did you need to learn this time?"

Keerby nodded. "It's one thing to create a chrono-core, and another to know how it's put together. I have a knack for making them and manipulating them, but I never really knew how they were put together. Even Max could only guess. The only one who really knows is Nicholaas, and he said explaining it wasn't really possible, that you had to see it to get it. But that's why he's the best there is with time. He got a hernacki to show him how the subsets go together. And he's the one that got me tracking down hernacki and chasing them around until I found one I could get to like me, and show me."

"So Nicholaas has a pet hernacki, too?"

"Sure, about a dozen! And now that I have one, I'm sure that Max will be looking to get his own, too." Keerby smiled. "He's better with time than I am now, but I'm going to catch up fast now that I know how chrono-cores are made."

Charlie laughed. "Do I detect a little competition between you and Max?"

Keerby's eyes were bright. "Max is awesome. Who wouldn't want to be as good as he is?"

"Keerby studies hard!" Pip said, grinning.

Frit thrust his chest out a little bit. "He wants to be like my grandpa!"

Kippy sighed, and reached for his glass of water. "That made me tired, just listening. Being an elf sure is hard work!"

"But we like it!" Frit said, smiling.

"It's super!" Pip agreed. He shrugged. "You have to study a lot, but it's fun in the end."

"So what's this phantom you have here?" Keerby asked, obviously wanting to change the subject.

The boys took turns describing the legend of the phantom, and Horace added his own observations. Charlie wound up the story with what they had learned since discovering that the phantom had followed Horace home, recounted their mini-seance during which they had briefly interacted with the phantom, and explained that it had come back with them to Kinniston by hiding a tiny piece of it self in the car. The expressions that Frit and Pip wore grew gradually more serious, while Keerby shook his head slowly and glanced around the room.

The three elves looked at each other when Charlie had finished, and then Pip closed his eyes and seemed to be concentrating a moment. "Maybe. I feel something lurking about."

Frit placed a hand on his boyfriend's shoulder. "You think?"

Pip nodded. "Could well be." He looked around the restaurant dining room, a note of apprehension in his eyes. "Sorta feels like one."

Kippy leaned forward, peering at Keerby. "What are they talking about?"

Keerby frowned, looking around the room himself. "Boojum. And I think they're right."

Charlie sat back in his chair, the word familiar somehow. And then he had it. "You mean like Lewis Carroll wrote about? The snark that turned out to be a boojum?"

"Carroll knew," Pip said, nodding. "He had skwish!"

"What do you mean?" Kippy asked. He turned to Charlie. "What are you all talking about? You mean the Lewis Carroll that wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland?"

Charlie nodded. "Yeah. But not that story. Carroll wrote about the boojum in a poem called The Hunting of the Snark."

Kippy blinked, and then grinned. "Snark? You mean like snarky?"

Charlie gave a brief shake of his head. "I don't think snarky comes from Carroll's poem, no. He coined the word as a noun for a critter. The snarks were portrayed as kind of contrary beasts."

"And this boojum?"

"It was a kind of a nonsense verse, Kip. Long, though, and it told a story. A bunch of oddball characters sail to to a mysterious island to hunt the snark, which comes in several versions, apparently, some with feathers, some with fur, some nicer than others, some fairly unfriendly. But the snarks were not terribly dangerous on their own, unless...sometimes a snark would also be a boojum - a different sort of snark, that was also a, well---"

Kippy let Charlie's silence go on for several seconds before prodding him with a finger. "A what?"

Charlie grimaced. "Well...a monster."

Kippy's mouth dropped open, and then slowly closed. He turned to Keerby then. "This thing is a monster?"

The elf shrugged. "Not necessarily.":

"But maybe," Pip said.

"Possibly," Frit agreed. "Not something you want to play around with."

"Make you disappear," Pip added, shaking his head. "If you cross them."

Charlie froze, feeling a tingle of alarm course throughout his body. The memory of Carroll's long verse came back to him then, especially the lines in one chapter, where one of the characters was warned about snarks by his well-traveled uncle:

But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
If your snark be a boojum! for then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again!

Jeff Ridge was a big bear of a man, with a full head of curly brown hair, just starting to gray at the temples. His smile of welcome seemed genuine to Charlie, and Kippy's own ready smile seemed to indicate that he liked the man on sight, too. They were in a small conference room at the town courthouse, one with just a single large window, where Jeff directed them to take seats at a long wooden table. Introductions had been made all around, and their meeting was ready to begin.

"I'm sorry for this somewhat spartan reception, but my office doesn't have enough seating for such a large group," the mayor told them, as he pulled out the chair at the head of the table and sat down. "Please - make yourselves comfortable."

The man waited until everyone was seated, and then leaned forward informally on his elbows and smiled at Horace. "Quite a large cavalry you brought back with you."

The ghost hunter laughed. "Don't let their youth fool you, Jeff. These fellows are top-notch investigators already."

The mayor waved a hand dismissively. "I'm not fooled by much. I was twenty-four when I got this job. I've had it for seventeen years now. So I kind of started young, myself."

"Good. I was lucky to get them all to come here on such short notice. I'm hoping they'll be able to help me further investigate the phantom of Kinniston."

"It sounds like a pretty fascinating tale, Mayor Ridge," Charlie added. "We're all interested, I can assure you."

"Call me Jeff, please. Everyone does." The mayor surveyed the faces around the table, and Charlie was impressed by what he saw in the man's eyes. That Jeff Ridge could be unaware of the dissent in his town over what the phantom might be seemed fairly implausible now. It was more likely that the man simply wasn't prepared to take any sides in the muted tug-of-war happening between the townsfolk.

"Rhea said she would come over as soon as she could," Jeff went on, his gaze returning to Horace. "I know she wants to be in on any further deliberations on the phantom."

"Her input is always welcome," Horace returned, no trace of his doubt about the town's historian apparent in his voice.

The mayor nodded, his eyes coming back to Charlie. "You've all been filled in on what we know so far?"

Charlie nodded. "Pretty much. I mean, we've been told the history of the phantom, how your visitor manifests itself, and what opinions of these movements have been shared with Horace thus far."

The mayor laughed. "It's a bit of a convoluted tale. I'm sure you all will keep what you learn here to yourselves."

Horace smiled. "They are aware of the binding nature of the privacy clause in my contract, and have agreed to it. No problems there."

"We want to help, not make things worse," Kip said patiently.

"Thank you. Having the town overrun by gawkers, or being made a laughingstock in the media, is not our wish for the outcome of this investigation. All we want to know is more about what the phantom is, and why it remains here."

"That's our goal," Charlie confirmed. "We're hoping to learn more tonight. We've been told that the phantom mostly manifests itself after dark."

Jeff smiled. "Well, that's when some of the biggest events have taken place, yes. But the phantom is active pretty much twenty-four-seven, in reality."

Charlie and Kip exchanged glances. "You mean things happen during the day, too?" Kippy asked.

"All the time," the mayor confirmed. "You must have noticed how clean the town is, for one thing. How well-kept it looks?"

Charlie smiled. "We just thought it was efficient government."

"Ha! I wish I could take the credit for that. But it isn't anything we are doing. The phantom keeps the place looking up, in fact."

Charlie leaned forward on the tabletop. "How?"

"Beats me. Drop a candy wrapper at the curb and watch it, and it will stay there for hours. Look away for just a second and look back, and it's gone. Day or night. Our town sanitation service keeps the trash bins from overflowing, but if they miss one and it fills up, the stuff will just disappear." The mayor shrugged. "Notice how nice the buildings look? They haven't been painted in my lifetime. The paint just doesn't weather. Sun, rain, snow - nothing bother's it. Oh, sure, we've had a few paint jobs here and there as people decide on new colors. But most of the business district looks like it did in 1950. I have color photos in my family albums to prove it."

Charlie immediately thought of Horace's house, insulated from the ravages of time by Gretchen. Did that mean that the phantom had similar powers? Charlie glanced at the ghost hunter, and could see him considering the very same thoughts.

"What about the insides of the buildings?" Kippy asked. "Are they kept in shape, too?"

The mayor looked briefly startled by the question, but then shook his head. "No. We do that ourselves. But, believe me, only being required to keep the inside of one's house in shape is a lot easier on the budget for everyone."

"Interesting," Horace said then, smiling sideways at Charlie's inquisitive glance. "I've actually encountered this particular phenomenon before." The ghost hunter's gaze shifted back to Mayor Ridge. "There are certain elemental earth forces out there, termed genius loci, that manifest the very same care on the locations they inhabit. That makes me wonder if your phantom is not a related force of some sort."

In any other setting, Charlie would have expected a tolerant if amused smile as a response. But the mayor had grown up with the town's phantom, and was in no way an unbeliever in the less well-known forces of nature. "I believe I've read about these forces, Horace. Aren't they rooted to certain locations?" He smiled. "That might explain why our phantom has never left us."

Horace gave a slow shake of his head. "We may be dealing with a similar force here, but not one that I'd term a genius loci. My experience with such forces is that the areas they are bound to are considerably smaller than this town in size. That doesn't mean we rule out the nature of your phantom as one of these manifestations, but we should be very careful not to automatically accept it, either. No, indeed."

"You're the expert," Jeff returned, nodding.

"Yet you seem well informed on these things, too," Ricky noted, smiling at Jeff.

The mayor laughed. "I doubt there is a person in Kinniston that hasn't burned up the Internet at some point or another, trying to figure this thing out. I'd be willing to bet we have the most learned population on the supernatural of any town in the country!"

"Oh, I know if I lived here, I'd be curious," Adrian said.

"I don't live here, and I'm still fascinated," Keerby added.

Frit raised a hand to get the mayor's attention. "Just so we know...has anyone ever gone missing in your town? Not just recently, but in the past?"

"Disappeared, without a trace?" Pip followed with, watching the man intently.

Jeff's eyebrows drew together a moment in a frown as he surveyed the two elves, and then he slowly moved his head side to side. "Not to my knowledge. Not in my lifetime, anyway. I'm fairly up on the history of Kinniston, but I certainly don't know it all. Rhea would be the one to ask. She'd better know what went on here years ago." But it was clear that the mayor had been unsettled by the question. "May I inquire why you would ask such a thing?"

Frit smiled. "It's nothing to worry about. We're just trying to narrow down the parameters a little. Supernatural manifestations come in all shapes and sizes. Some have been accompanied by disappearances. It's good to know that's not the case here."

Charlie smiled, always impressed when the two elves spoke in anything other than the playful manner he was used to. That Frit and Pip were smart and well-educated elves possessing amazing powers got lost sometimes in their natural inclination to play the clowns.

Kippy smiled, too, apparently thinking along the same lines. "They're just curious."

Jeff's own smile returned. "I shouldn't be surprised. Horace's own curiosity and knowledge of these things was apparent to me the moment I first spoke with him."

"Curiosity is an important part of the whole thing," the ghost hunter replied. "Most people simply are not curious about the supernatural other than as entertainment. Ghost movies and monsterfests, you know?"

"I do know. Halloween is usually quite a busy evening around here."

Adrian squinted at the mayor. "Really? I didn't notice that the town was even decorated for the holiday."

Jeff laughed. "It's not. That stuff's for amateurs! When you have your very own phantom in residence, you don't waste time with jack 'o lanterns and skeletons. On Halloween eve, which is tonight, you'll see a lot more people out than normal, all night long. People that want to catch a glimpse of the phantom's doings. And on Halloween night itself...well, the trick-or-treaters will be everywhere, dressed in their very best scare outfits, and everyone that was out the previous evening, and then some, will be out again, trying to catch a glimpse of phantom activity."

Kippy shook his head. "What about the day after Halloween? If everyone was out all night the night before, how does anyone sleep?"

Jeff Ridge laughed. "When the day after the holiday falls on a weekday, it's a town holiday. The schools are closed, and any business that wants to be closed is closed. People catch up then. This year the holiday falls on a Sunday night, so Monday will be a town holiday."

"I'll bet the kids love that!" Kippy exclaimed, his eyes shining at the idea.

"I would!" Adrian confirmed, sighing happily. "It's nice to know the holiday is taken seriously somewhere!"

The mayor nodded. "How could it not be taken seriously here? Especially as Halloween seems to be the night when the phantom most interacts with the people that live here."

Kippy leaned forward. "How do you mean?"

The mayor pursed his lips a moment, and then gave a little shrug. "We don't see much of the phantom most of the year. We just see all the stuff that gets moved around. We just get those little, nagging glimpses of something out of the sides of our eyes. There are lights some nights, and sounds - weird stuff, certainly. But no one ever claims to see the phantom, except on Halloween."

Horace sat forward in his chair. "You never told me that!"

The mayor looked a little defensive. "Because there's not that much to tell. People never agree on what they see, never agree on what happened. They can't even accurately describe what they saw. Just that they saw something."

"The phantom?" Charlie asked.

"Yes. Or, at least, anyone that sees something strange is convinced they have seen the phantom. It's quite a big deal around here."

Charlie frowned. "But people don't agree on what they see?"

The mayor held up a hand. "Never. Even people standing right next to each other. One year we had a crowd of nine people all in the same place, who saw the phantom. No two stories were the same."

"Subjective experience," Horace said softly. "How very interesting."

The mayor turned his way. "Sorry?"

Horace nodded, and cleared his throat. "The phantom manifests uniquely to each individual, even when he or she is among a group. No two people experience the same thing because the interaction is with the mind, and only seems to be an interaction with the physical senses."

"I sort of suspected something like that, myself." The mayor grunted. "You can see why we need help with this."

"Of course." Horace sat back in his seat and gently rubbed his eyebrows with thumb and forefinger, thinking. "We have a very unique opportunity here, I think. I wish you had told me sooner about the Halloween manifestation. It was only chance that brought me back here in time for that."

The mayor looked briefly embarrassed. "I just didn't think of it, I'm afraid. You have to understand how used to this we are here. It's second nature to all of us. We almost never talk about the phantom among ourselves, unless to share experiences of some new event. I think most people in the town feel that to talk about the phantom might be to draw its attention in some way."

Kippy looked curious at that. "Are people afraid?"

Jeff smiled at that. "No, it's not that. But when you've had to go looking for your car a few times, you choose to not draw attention to yourself if you can help it. Most people feel that talking too much about the phantom tends to increase their exposure to its activities."

"Does that actually happen?" Frit asked, eyeing the mayor curiously.

"Not in my experience. Since Horace has been here, both myself and Rhea Willman have talked about the phantom quite a bit. I haven't had anything moved at my house in response to that."

They heard the sound of footsteps out in the hallway then, and in a moment the door to the room opened and a woman came in. She closed the door and turned to face them, and as her eyes took in the boys at the table she suddenly froze. Her own eyes widened then, and a small look of shock briefly flitted over her features.

She was in her fifties, Charlie guessed, with dark hair and gray eyes, attractive features, and looked fit in the gray pant suit she was wearing. But all of that receded in the brief instant that the women gazed at them, the look of pure shock etched into her features.

Kippy leaned close to Charlie then, and whispered into his ear. "She has skwish!"

Adrian put his hand on Ricky's wrist, and Charlie noticed that both Frit and Pip had narrowed their eyes at the new arrival. Only Keerby looked unfazed, but something in his expression suggested a poker face, and that he, too, had detected the unusual force within the woman.

What's more, Charlie was certain that the women's own expression reflected the fact that she had detected the skwish in the people at the table. For a long second no one moved; and then, as if a switch had been thrown, the woman's face relaxed into a smile. "Oh, Jeff, I'm sorry I'm late."

The mayor stood, and the rest of them joined him. "It's fine, Rhea. We'd only just begun. Won't you have a seat?"

If the mayor had noticed anything odd, he certainly didn't let on about it. He introduced everyone, and Rhea Willman smiled as her eyes met each of theirs. In the brief instant that the woman's gaze met Charlie's, he also felt her skwish. Felt the power of it. This was no dormant thing, waiting to bloom. This was an active force within the woman's mind!

But Rhea Willman was all smiles now, placing her purse on the table in front of her and folding her hands atop it. "Now, where were we?"

"I was just filling the team in on Halloween night," Jeff continued. "They seem to feel it presents a unique opportunity."

"Really? How so?"

The mayor frowned a second, but then smiled again. "You know - how so many people actually see the phantom then."

Rhea's eyes circled the table, examining each face, before coming back to the mayor's. "Well, you know my opinion on that. People get caught up in the whole Halloween experience, and think they see all sorts of things."

Jeff laughed. "That's right. You're our resident cynic when it comes to seeing the phantom."

"You don't believe people actually see anything real?" Charlie asked.

The woman's eyes sought out Charlie's, and he was surprised to feel a brief but clear touch in the part of his mind where his second presence lived. Automatically, he blocked it out hard, some defensive mechanism within deeming it an intrusion into a private space. Rhea Willman flinched, and blinked, and Charlie was certain she had felt the rebuff.

"Um...well..." For a moment the woman seemed unnerved; but then she smiled and collected herself. "People have very vivid imaginations."

"Sometimes they do," Kippy agreed, his eyes flicking sideways to touch upon Charlie, before moving back to focus on the woman. "But sometimes, they don't."

Again Charlie felt something, this time between Kip and Rhea, only this time it was a searching probe from his boyfriend directed at the woman.That seemed to unnerve her even more. Rhea closed her eyes a moment, took a breath, and then reopened them. She looked a little pale now.

The mayor eyed her uncertainly, as if wondering what was going on. "Do you feel okay. Rhea?"

"Yes. Just a bit of a headache. I meant to take some aspirin before coming out today, but forgot. You know how it is when you're rushed."

"But you'll be okay?"

"Yes, I'm fine." She smiled again, but Charlie could feel her retreat on a mental level. Her own guards were up now, the doors locked, the windows closed.

The woman kept her eyes on the mayor now. "I hope you haven't been feeding these people too much of the town gossip. It will distract them from the facts, you know."

Jeff looked surprised at that, but then smiled. "No. You know how careful I am to walk the line down the middle. I simply was telling them how Halloween went around here."

"We were told it's very interesting," Horace offered, smiling. "That the holiday would seem to be the best time to be out and about in order to observe possible phenomena related to the phantom."

Charlie suspected that Rhea wanted to contest that idea, but instead she simply smiled. "The town has a lot of fun then. I see no reason to rain on any parades."

"You don't agree with the idea that the phantom is more active on that night?" Ricky asked.

Rhea's eyes slid towards him, but Charlie was fairly certain her gaze was directed at about chest level, avoiding his friend's eyes completely. "I've lived here my entire life. I've never seen a thing, Halloween or not."

"There are quite a lot of people here who will say the same thing," the mayor agreed. His eyes smiled. "Mostly older folk, though, who are usually soundly abed after dark."

Rhea also smiled at that. "Are you calling me old, Jeff?"

"Not at all. I just meant that the young people of the town love the holiday, and I see no reason that they shouldn't."

"Oh, neither do I. But this is supposed to be a serious examination of the phantom. Let's not lose sight of that."

"You're not saying the phantom doesn't exist, are you?" Kippy asked.

This time Rhea's eyes came up, and the defiance there was plain to see. "Of course not. We have more than a century of experience that says otherwise. I am simply resisting attempts to give a personality and motivations to a force that has yet to show it is anything but some sort of freak natural occurrence."

Kippy looked surprised at that. "You feel the phantom is just some brainless natural force that has nothing better to do than to move cars around at night?"

Rhea's eyebrows went up. "I didn't say that. intelligent are birds? Birds construct sometimes intricate nests in which to raise their young. They have been known to steal things, especially shiny things, left outdoors. Some breeds of birds can even mimic human speech. But I wouldn't expect any bird to give me a run for my money on an IQ test. All I'm saying is that we shouldn't be applying human characteristics or motivations to something that is plainly not human."

"And we agree with that," Charlie told her. "But neither will we automatically embrace the idea that the phantom is simply some brute force, or animalistic force. That it is not intelligent in some way, and that its motivations cannot be understood."

"We're treating it like a person until we see we shouldn't be," Adrian put in. "Or at least like it's smarter than a bird."

"All possibilities have to be considered," Frit said quietly. "Or this would not be an investigation at all."

"No assumptions," Pip added, nodding. "We want facts."

Rhea looked around the circle of faces, and nodded slowly. She seemed both disappointed and resigned. She squeezed her eyes shut, and rubbed her forehead.

The mayor looked concerned. "I'm so sorry you're not feeling well. Would you prefer to do this at another time?" He turned to Horace. "Any rush to speak to Rhea just now?"

Horace already seemed to have decided that something unseen had happened earlier, but not what. He glanced at Charlie a moment, and then smiled at Rhea. "I see no hurry. We can come by the library later and talk, if you'd rather."

Rhea's fingers dropped to the table and drummed nervously on her purse. "That might be better. I'll get something to eat, too. That will help, I'm sure." She stood then, picking up her purse. She smiled around the table, but this time did not make direct eye contact with anyone. "I'm sorry if I've held anything up. Just one of those off days, you know? Please feel free to come by the library later today. It's open until seven PM, and I should be there." She made an effort to smile around at everyone. "So nice to meet you all."

She turned then, and left the room. The mayor stared after her, looking very surprised. "That was...unusual."

Horace smiled at him. "I could see she felt distressed. It doesn't matter. We'll go by and see her later."

"Oh. Well...fine. Then" -- the mayor cast a quick look at his wristwatch -- "is there anything else I can do for you now? Any further questions?"

Horace looked over at Charlie, who shook his head.

"No, thank you, Jeff. I suppose we'll walk around the town for now and see what there is to see."

The mayor stood then, and extended a hand towards Horace. "You have my cell number, if you need me." He and Horace shook hands, and then the mayor smiled at the boys. "So nice to meet all of you. I do hope you'll be able to help us. Feel free to ask any questions that come to mind."

"Thank you," Charlie returned, smiling.

They split up then, the mayor going one way down the hallway, and Horace and the boys the other. No one said a word until they got back outside and piled into Charlie's 4Runner. The moment the doors were closed, Kippy put a hand on Charlie's shoulder. "Are you okay?"

"Yes. Why?"

Kippy grunted. "I felt her reach out to you. And I felt you swat her away."

"Uh huh. And I felt you probe her back, Kip."

"I did. I was just trying to get a feel for her abilities. She could feel me looking, but she didn't know how to stop it." He sighed. "But it spooked her out, I'm sure. Everything sort of tanked right after that."

Charlie nodded. "She walked right into my head, as if she thought I wouldn't notice!"

"She has the touch," Frit said then. "She was looking for the truth, and she thought you wouldn't feel her search for it. When you did, and pushed her right out, it scared her."

"By the way she acted, she's never had that happen," Pip added. "She has skwish, but she seems not to have run into it before in others. Or at least, nothing like what she must sense in all of us."

"I could see it was alarming for her," Keerby put in. "She wanted to get away from us!"

"How curious," Horace offered. "Are you saying that Ms. Willman is like an elf?"

All three elves laughed at that. "She's not an elf," Pip said. "She's a human with skwish. She has a fair amount of it for a human, but she isn't trained. She probably just figured out a few things on her own. You can only learn so much with no teacher and no one else to compare notes with."

"She sure left in a hurry," Ricky said. "You spooked her, Charlie!"

"Kip did that, I think," Charlie countered, smiling at his boyfriend. "Always jumping in to protect me!"

Kippy grinned. "Nobody messes with your head but me!"

Charlie gave a little shrug of wonder. "It was a pretty weird experience. I never felt anyone inside my head quite like that before!"

"It's the truth touch," Keerby explained. "None of you have that. It's a very simple talent that simply lets one know if the people they are speaking with intend to be truthful or intend to play games."

Kippy shook his head. "I can usually tell when people are lying to me. So can Adrian." He frowned. "So can Charlie and Rick!"

Keerby smiled. "That's simply your skwish amplifying your normal intuition. All of you are good judges of character already."

"Yes," Pip agreed. "The truth touch is more than just a sense of someone telling the truth or lying. With the touch, you know what people intend to do. There is no doubt whatsoever."

"You are a lot stronger than she is, Charlie," Frit told him. "I'm sure it scared her a lot more than you."

"So what do we do now?" Keerby asked. "She looked around at all of us, and I could tell she felt all the skwish in the room. Did you see the look on her face? She was frightened!"

Charlie squeezed his eyes shut a moment, thinking. "The whole thing was weird. If she has the sort of skwish that can detect ours, why didn't she feel it in Horace when she first met him?"

"She may have," Pip said. "But Horace has a different kind of skwish than all of you. His is receptive, whereas yours is reactive. You can apply and direct yours. His would have felt very neutral and unthreatening to her. Yours would be exactly the opposite."

"Another thing," Charlie added. "The mayor said that Rhea Willman was sort of the town skeptic, and didn't believe a lot of the stories about the phantom. But if she has skwish of the type she has, she would certainly know the phantom was here, wouldn't she?"

Frit nodded. "No question."

Kippy made an excited sound. "Then she's hiding something!"

"Possibly," Charlie agreed. "But let's not assume just yet. I do want to go and see her a little later."

Charlie started the SUV, and backed it out of the parking space. "Any ideas on where to go just now?"

Kippy patted the back of the seat. "I'd like to see the statue of that guy that keeps moving around."

"Fenster Wolfbridge," Horace supplied. He smiled at Charlie. "Couldn't hurt. I'll tell you how to get there."

Charlie nodded. "Which way?"

"Turn left at the drive."

They left the courthouse, and Charlie turned left. But as the building receded behind them, his thoughts were on the woman they had just met, and the startling revelation that she was not only endowed with skwish, but knew how to use it. Even if just on a simpler level than they did themselves. Another human with active skwish!

The puzzle of Kinniston and its phantom, already missing so many pieces at the start, had just gotten bigger and badder by far!

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