Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

Elementary, My Dear Charlie Boone! - Chapter 1

© 2022 Geron Kees. All rights reserved.

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

"Thievery," Robin Hood said, smiling, "is like art. The best artists are both masters of direction, and masters of misdirection. A truly great artist gets his or her point across by combining the patently obvious with the deceptively subtle. A great thief works much the same way."

"Uh huh." Kippy Lawson, listening from his seat next to Charlie Boone, gave a skeptical grunt. "The patently obvious part refers to the fact that thievery will get you put in prison, you mean!" Kippy tsked, causing Charlie to smile and tighten his arm around his boyfriend's shoulders.

They were seated on the comfortable sofa in the great room of Schloss Zeitlos, Robin's castle in the mountains of Bavaria. A grand window before them let in a magnificent view of the valley below, and the other mountains that surrounded it. A small town was nestled in the trees at the foot of their own peak, ornate tiled rooftops showing their bright smiles to the sky above, while a river wound beneath a stone bridge beyond and wandered away into the distance. It was every bit the fairy tale view one might expect from such a castle, and from the man who called it his home.

Charlie sighed. "Now, Kip."

Kippy turned and glared at him. "Don't now Kip me, Charlie!" He waved a hand at Robin. "I thought we were reforming this guy. But it doesn't sound like he's changed at all!"

Charlie nodded, and turned back to their newest friend. "You're speaking comparatively, of course."

"Oh, of course!" But Robin's eyes twinkled merrily, making no secret of the fact that he still thought picking the pockets of the wealthy to feed the poor was good business. "I was just using an analogy, Kip. Good art and good thievery both require mastery over the eyes of any beholder."

Kip looked unconvinced. "I usually know a pretty picture when I see one."

"Do you? The eye is both a stern taskmaster and a lazy fool. It has a stunning ability for gathering detail, and yet is so easily taken in that one has to wonder how we humans have mastered an entire planet at all!"

"You have a point, I'm guessing," put in Ricky Travers, from next to Kippy. Beside him, his boyfriend, Adrian Whitaker, gave a gentle sigh and leaned against Rick's shoulder.

"Let him finish, Rick."

"Well, we're just going the long way around on this one!"

Robin chuckled pleasantly. "I was impatient in my youth, too."

"But there is a point," Charlie pressed. "I mean, we were thinking of doing some other things today, right?"

The man who was one of the most beloved thieves in human history laughed. "I could have gotten to my point by now, were it not for this surprising rush to judge!"

Charlie nodded, and turned to his friends. "Let him finish, okay? good."

Kippy snorted and crossed his arms, but nodded. Ricky raised his eyes to the high beamed ceiling a moment, but also nodded his agreement. Adrian just grinned, used to this sort of diversion from the topic by his friends.

"Go on," Charlie urged Robin.

"Um...yes. As I was saying, I brought you boys here for a reason today. I wanted to pass on to you an observation I have made that I find reasonably stunning and worth repeating." The man paused again and smiled at them, as if waiting for some form of reply.

Charlie sat on a sigh. "We're all ears, Robin."

That the man had been enjoying his little game was clear. But now he took in the attentive gazes across from him, and nodded. "I'm sorry to twist your tail, young Kip. One learns at least some patience in a life as long as mine has been. It would not harm you to work on your own a little."

Kippy made a face, but Charlie sensed his boyfriend's discomfort. "Well...I'm sorry." Kip managed to smile. "What did you want to tell us?"

Robin rose from his chair, gave a little stretch, and then leveled his gaze upon them. "What do you know of the Espero Group?"

Kippy turned to stare at Charlie, who himself drew a complete blank.

"Never heard of it," Ricky said, sounding disappointed now. "Should we have?"

Robin smiled. "Well...perhaps not. They are not a well-known organization, despite being behind several of the world's largest corporations."

Charlie couldn't help smiling. "They have money, huh?"

"Yes. Lots of it."

"You're not going to take it away from them, I hope," Kip said. "Those kinds of people get very mad when you do things like that!"

Robin shook his head. "I wasn't planning to target them, no. In fact, they are a very generous group, and they fund some extremely worthwhile causes around the world. I tend to leave alone the giants that share." Robin frowned then. "But this is a very different case."

Charlie waited a moment for the man to go on, and then smiled. Robin was not going to make this easy! "Please tell us."

"Just gathering my thoughts." The older man smiled. "I want to present my case in a manner that will prove my point." He placed his hands behind his back, and started pacing in a slow circle around his own chair. "The organizational structures of large corporate entities can be extremely complex. The rules governing such bodies vary around the world, and international laws would seem to have some generous loopholes built into them that can make certain actions by these large entities virtually invisible. For instance, it has become easy for Western corporations to create subsidiaries in tax-haven foreign nations, to which they transfer ownership of patents and other intellectual properties, from which they derive substantial amounts of their profits. They can then claim that any monies obtained from these assets were earned overseas, and pay taxes accordingly, which are usually none. Or, they purchase foreign firms they really have no interest in or use for, but for which ownership allows them to reincorporate in countries with more favorable rules. The number of corporations which own or are a part of yet other corporations or companies can become so layered that it becomes quite difficult to find the seed that started it all. There are a multitude of strategies available that obscure what these corporate giants are doing, and it has become hard to tell the actual players from the facades they all wear."

"Facades?" Charlie repeated.

"Oh, yes. The number of companies in the world today that are simply shells in which some larger entity has something hidden is simply stunning. The ways that large corporations have found to hide assets, connections to other enterprises, and just what they are up to on a broad scene, have become extensive. Sometimes, tracking these many manipulations through their twists and turns can be quite challenging." Robin chuckled companionably. "Such investigative work is a hobby of mine, actually, which is why we are together today."

"Know your enemy, huh?" Charlie asked, smiling.

"Something like that," Robin agreed, his manner cheerful.

"And I just thought you invited us here today because you liked us," Kippy said dryly.

Robin laughed. "I am already very fond of all of you, young Kip. And I also respect your abilities, which is why I feel you will be interested in what Espero may or may not be doing."

For a moment there was silence. "These guys are up to something bad?" Kippy asked then, raising his eyebrows.

Robin seemed surprised at that. "What makes you say that?"

"Well--" Kip paused, and looked over at Adrian. "Feel anything?"

Adrian squinted a moment, and then nodded. "Yes. Something odd. But don't ask me what it is."

"Skwish?" Rick asked, looking interested now, himself.

"Uh huh. It started as Robin was talking about this Espero thing."

"With me, too," Kip said, turning to look at Charlie. "That's when I first felt something."

"Something wrong?" Charlie asked.

Kippy frowned at that, and then shook his head slowly. "Not wrong. Not necessarily, anyway. But...something different, something unexpected...yes."

Charlie nodded, and turned back to Robin. "You have our full attention."

The older man seemed curious himself now. "Hmm. That this matter has already tickled your senses before I have even completed my presentation tells me I'm onto something." Robin frowned, ceased his pacing and sat down again. "It's been a hobby of mine for the past century, ever since the corporate world grew to its now gigantic status, to pay attention to what they are doing. Unraveling the many twists and turns these people take to shield what they are really up to is extremely engrossing. Despite the fact that they are very good at it, there are always some sort of tracks left behind."

"Always?" Kip asked, looking doubtful. "I thought the very rich could pretty much hide anything."

"You'd think that, and you'd be right when it comes to the average investigator. The layers of misdirection under which many large corporations operate today is nothing short of phenomenal. And yet, everything that has been done to create places to hide things requires steps to be taken to get there. I have more than a century of experience now, and my own talents have grown alongside theirs. There has not yet been a trail I could not sniff out." Robin sighed. "Until now."

Charlie sat forward at that, loosening his arm from Kippy's shoulders. "You mean this Espero Group has confounded you?"

Robin stood again, his nervous energy apparent. He obviously did not like that he had not been able to solve this problem. But he smiled at Charlie. "You know, the word Espero means hope in Esperanto?"

"Is that important?" Kippy asked, before Charlie could.

"I don't know." Robin frowned. "It's just another of the very odd points that I have failed to add up about these people."

"Esperanto?" Ricky repeated then. "Isn't that the artificial language someone created to make a world language?"

"Yes, that's correct."

"Leyzer Zamanhoff," Charlie said absently. He looked up then at his friends. "He was a Polish ophthalmologist."

Ricky snorted. "An eye doctor created an entire language?"

"He was something of a visionary," Charlie returned, smiling. "No pun intended. He had a dream of a world without war, without misunderstandings. He felt a universal language was needed as a first step in that direction. It was not a dream without merit."

Ricky blinked at Charlie's seriousness, and then his eyes twinkled. "Oh," he said softly. "Britannica Brain strikes again!"

"Oh, stop that!" Kippy said, gently slapping Ricky's wrist. "Charlie's outgrown that nickname." He grinned then. "He's much more of a Wikipedia Brain now, than a mere book."

Charlie sighed. "Okay, all of you. Enough." He turned back to Robin, who was watching them with a smile. "What else can you tell us?"

"Quite a lot, actually. I can list the tree of enterprises that Espero has a hand in these days, and those that they simply use to conceal other operations."

"I thought they'd confounded you," Adrian noted then.

"Not completely." Robin's face grew serious. "I know what they are now. As I said, I have the tree. Or, the trunk, and all the branches. What I cannot seem to find is the root. What I do not know is from where they came originally. How they started. Who was involved. Where their seed money came from." He made a frustrated sound. "Espero simply appeared seventy-eight years ago, out of nowhere, and has been growing at a prodigious rate ever since."

Charlie frowned at that. "I've seen lists of the world's top corporations. I've never heard of this one."

Robin stabbed a finger at him. "Exactly! Yet if one traces everything this entity is involved with, all the revenues, all the profits, all the ties...they are in the top five corporations in the world. And yet...they do not appear on any lists of those corporations as the single entity they actually are."

"I'd say that was impossible," Charlie said. "No one could hide all those ties so successfully that someone in the financial world wouldn't be aware of them."

Robin shrugged. "And yet..."

Charlie and Kip exchanged glances. "Still feeling a skwish thing about this?" Charlie asked his boyfriend.

"Yes, Charlie. And it's growing stronger."

"It is," Adrian agreed. He reached out and took Rick's hand and squeezed it for comfort. Ricky looked down at that in surprise, and then up at Charlie. "Maybe it's time that Third Planet Inquiries looked into this?"

"I'd say." Charlie nodded. A sense of anticipation overcame him then, as he realized they were about to be off on another hunt. But a hunt for what?

He leaned forward and smiled at Robin. "Okay. We're in. Now...where do we start?"

Robin stood and waved a hand slightly, and an easel appeared before them, supporting a Winkel tripel projection map of the world with just an incredible number of push pins stuck into it. Some were red, some blue, some green, some white. Every continent was covered in pins, even Antarctica having several.

"I've been mapping out the Espero connections around the world," Robin said, a trace of excitement in his voice now. "As you can see, there are many."

Charlie simply stared at the map, unable to believe how much power and money such a network must represent. "That's putting it mildly!"

Kippy gaped at the map, too, and then leaned forward to examine it more closely. "What do the colors of the pins mean?"

"The red are for manufacturing enterprises, the blue for academic connections, the green for financial connections, and the white for as yet undetermined parts of the whole."

Ricky shook his head. "I wouldn't even know where to start looking!"

Robin smiled. "Fortunately, I do." He turned to the map, leaned closer to it, reached out, and gently placed a fingertip against a green push pin somewhere in western Europe. "This one could actually be a white pin, as I know that money is only part of their connection. The rest...I have yet to fully understand."

Charlie leaned closer, squinting. "Is that in Germany? The pin is right on the border, it looks like."

"Switzerland, actually. It's the location of what I believe to be Espero's headquarters."

Ricky grunted. "Hell of a place for it."

Robin laughed. "Not at all. A neutral nation, very strict privacy laws. It's actually the perfect location. And, it's only a short teleport from here!"

Charlie shook his head at that. "You're not suggesting we go there right now?"

Robin gave a little sigh, his impatience visible. " Not just the five of us, anyway. I rather think it might be a good idea to enlist more of your group."

Kippy held up a hand. "July Fourth is just a few days away. Tell me I won't be missing my fireworks." He turned his head to gaze emphatically at his boyfriend. "Charlie!"

Charlie laughed, and squeezed Kip's hand reassuringly, and turned back to Robin then. "We won't get so involved in this we'll miss the holiday?"

Robin looked from one boy to the other. "Something important about this Independence Day? It's just an American holiday, is it not?"

Kippy looked indignant. "Well, we're Americans, in case you didn't notice! It's an important day! It's about freedom! It's about history! And there's...there's fireworks!"

Charlie nodded at Robin. "It's tradition. We never miss it. Myer's Hill, pizza, as many friends as we can need to come."

"I see." Robin frowned, and then smiled. "There's no deadline to this, no set plan. We'll simply be investigating. We can halt at any time and enjoy the festivities, and then get back to our inquiries after."

Kippy let out his breath then. "Well, then, that's okay!"

Ricky patted Kip's shoulder and nodded at Robin, his expression serious. "If it's okay with Kip, it's okay with us." Adrian bobbed his head in agreement, adding a smile to show he meant it.

"Great." Charlie stood then. "How about we teleport back to our offices, and we can figure out who we need to ask into"

"Mission sounds good," Ricky agreed happily, rising also. "Sounds exciting!"

"Oh, this can't be as exciting as some of the things we've done, I'm sure," Adrian said. "Investigating some old corporation. But it is nice to have something to do around the holiday."

"And there's skwish," Kip reminded. "Something's happening that needs our attention."

Adrian's expression grew more serious. "That's right. Maybe it is more important than I thought. Something is going on."

Charlie waved a hand at the others. "So come on, then. We'll pop back to the office, tell Amy what's up, and then see who we want to ask in on this. Start our plans, you know?"

Kippy nodded, but turned back to Robin a last time. "You're not going to steal anything, right?"

The older man laughed, and then drew a cross over his heart with one forefinger. "Promise. For now, anyway."

Kippy huffed hugely. "Well...if that's the best I can get, I'll take it." He smiled toothily then, but his annoyance was ill-concealed. "For now, anyway!"

"It looks almost ominous to me," Amy said, frowning at the map that Robin had produced before her. The man had just finished his brief summation of what he knew of Espero. Amy was seated with them in the conference room at the offices of Third Planet Inquiries, the business the boys had begun as a platform from which to launch their investigations into the unusual and strange. It was midday now, with lunch behind them, and they were hoping to get their new adventure organized before the business day was done.

"Such a huge corporation," Amy continued, shaking her head at the multitude of push pins. "For something like that to be so invisible is a little unsettling."

"My feeling, exactly," Robin agreed. "Your business acumen is showing, dear lady."

Amy frowned at that, but closed her eyes a moment, her own unique senses parsing the information she had received. A moment of silence passed, and then she suddenly smiled. "Oh. But...I don't get that sensation I have when something is lost and wants to be found. Whatever is going on with this Espero Group, it's not putting out the sort of feeling of urgency I sometimes get with lost cats."

Robin grinned at Charlie, and nodded at Amy. "Good to know we are not looking for misplaced felines. But do you get any other sense of this enterprise that may assist us?"

Amy closed her eyes again, and everyone watched in silence as her face worked slowly through several expressions. And then her eyes popped open again. "I get a sense of size. Espero is big."

"We kind of knew that, from Robin's map," Kippy explained patiently.

Amy nodded, eyeing the map full of pins again. "Yes, but I mean bigger than that." She lifted a hand and pointed at the map. "That's only a small part of the whole."

Robin glanced at the map, his expression puzzled. "Bigger than that? dear lady, this map represents interests on every continent of the planet!"

Amy shrugged. "I just get a sense that they're even bigger than what you see. I can only tell you what I'm feeling."

Kippy patted her arm reassuringly. "I know what you mean. Adrian and I feel something screwy with this bunch, but we don't know what." He shook his head. "It's not really ominous, what we're feeling, though."

"No." Amy smiled at that. "I shouldn't have used that word. I don't get any sense of...of wrong about this. Nothing bad. Just a feeling that this is not what it seems, and that there is a lot more to it."

Robin watched her intently a moment, and then nodded. "I believe you. My own sense is that your sense is accurate in this." He sighed, and sat down next to Charlie. "So the mystery grows larger, and deeper, and we are no further along in our plans. We still don't know who else to bring in on this."

Charlie pursed his lips in thought. "Well, if we're operating out in the open here on earth, we'll be restricted to humans and elves, at least for operations that require us to interact with other people. But that doesn't mean we can't get some of the others involved, and keep them behind the scenes."

"Pacha would be a big help," Ricky offered. "And his band of merry men." He tossed a grin at Robin, whose eyes twinkled in return.

Charlie shook his head. "Pacha'ka, Mike, Bobby, and Kontus are off in the Magellanic Cloud again, looking for the Citadel of Nabakeah. I talked to Pach, and he said they'd come back if we need them. But for now, I don't think we do."

Kippy laughed. "I know how they are when they're off sniffing out those old empires!"

Adrian gave his head a little shake of wonder. "One of these days they're going to go walking into one of those ancient places and find the owners still at home!"

Ricky grinned. "Well, all I can say is, they'd better be real nice to Pacha!"

Adrian considered that, and then smiled at his boyfriend. "And Kontus!"

Amy cleared her throat gently, and Charlie smiled at her. "Something?"

"Well..." she looked around at the others, and then smiled. "I know Horace would love to be involved. He thinks the world of all of you."

"We love him, too," Kippy said immediately, grinning. He turned to Charlie. "Horace is always a big help."

"Yes, he is." Charlie nodded. "We'll give him a call."

"What about Max?" Ricky asked. "We're about as far away from Christmas as you can get. He's probably just sitting around, being bored right now."

"If we get Max, won't Frit and Pip want to come?" Adrian asked. He smiled at Kippy. "And Keerby?"

Kippy didn't take the bait, though, and acted like he couldn't care less who showed up. "Maybe," he agreed. "We can use them, too."

Charlie frowned. "You know..." he stopped then, wondering at what he was feeling. It was an odd feeling, a sense of people that he'd had once or twice before, just before those same people had called him on the phone. It was kind of like deja vu, the sense that you had been to a place, or done something, once before, when you knew you really hadn't. A sort of familiarity, but this time involving people he knew...

He blinked, realizing everyone was watching him. "What?"

"You're sending out skwish like crazy!" Kippy exclaimed. "What are you thinking about?"

Charlie pulled his head back, surprised. "Well, for some reason I was thinking about Ragal and Casper. And Durapar."

Kippy looked happy at the thought. "They should come!" He suddenly frowned. "Think they'll be available?"

Charlie gave a small laugh. "Somehow, I think they will be. And happy to be invited, too!"

They heard a faint chime then, and Irving, the AI that ran the office's tech systems, spoke to them out of what seemed to be thin air: "There is a call waiting for you from Engris, Charlie."

Kippy laughed, and jumped to his feet. "I knew you were sending out skwish big time, Charlie! You probably stopped Ragal and Casper in their tracks!"

Charlie gaped just a second, and then smiled at the ceiling above them. "Thanks, Big Irv. You can put it through."

They all turned then, as a holo image appeared across from the coffee table.

"Ragal!" Kippy exclaimed, as the tall, gaunt figure smiled across light years of space at them. "And Casper!"

Next to the tall, spindly alien stood a much smaller one, with a conical head, large gray eyes, and a ready smile on his face. "Charlie!" Casper called, looking excited. "And Kip! And...and...everyone!" But he suddenly bent forward then, looking startled. "Oh...I don't know you! Or you!"

Charlie stood and reached down to draw Amy to her feet. At the same time, he wrapped a hand around Robin's arm and pulled him just a little closer. "This is Amy, and this is Robin. They're our very good friends!"

"Then of course we are pleased to know them," Ragal said gallantly, giving a little bow.

The effect in so tall and thin a fellow was almost comical, and Amy lifted a hand to deftly hide her smile as she nodded in return. "I'm always happy to meet more of the guy's friends."

There was also the fact that Ragal was dressed somewhat flamboyantly, in lavender slacks and a matching topcoat, that appeared to have a mini cape of gold fabric attached to the back and sleeves, giving him the appearance of a large, skinny bat as he moved.

"Been to a party, Ragal?" Kip asked, not hiding his smile at all.

The alien glanced down at his outfit, and then managed to look pleased with himself. "Stunning, isn't it? I've just returned from a gathering of the Merchants Society, actually, to which we had been invited by Durapar. I naturally had to dress in an appropriate manner."

Ricky tried hard not to laugh. "What do these merchant's sell? Neon signs?"

"They sell everything!" Casper called, laughing. "And Urgo, the Similian vendor at the Untraceable Treasures pavilion, said Ragal looked like a king in that outfit!"

"You went, too?" Adrian asked, now examining Casper's respectable looking navy blue outfit. It looked comfortable and expensive, but was as conservative in appearance as Ragal's get up was outlandish.

"Yes. It was really a lot of fun, guys! The merchants here are all making plans to get the market on Lyrgris going full steam ahead! Since our new villa there is so close by, it means we get two markets to visit!"

Charlie nodded at the mention of the other dark world. Along with Engris, Lyrgris was one of five such artificial worlds created by the now extinct Madracorn, that moved about on their own within the darkness of the Cooee, the space between spaces, the area of no-time through which starships moved from one star to the next. The Madracorn had been intent on creating a project world, one that required a very specific geometry in order for them to operate the technology they had developed that allowed the living to communicate with the dead. It had taken them five tries, culminating in Engris, the finished product. Lyrgris was the next most developed world, almost entirely functional save for problems with planet's internal geometry, which had kept the world from operating as designed.

After Charlie and his friends had helped to save Lyrgris from Moth invaders, the Madracorn representatives, Eseffa and Jorli, had allowed them to open up the second world for colonization by the lost and unwanted of the five empires. The planets were self-aware, and used a set of Madracorn standards in allowing visitors to land. The true nature of all who approached Engris or Lyrgris could not be hidden from these artificial intellects.

The rules were simple: visitors to the two dark worlds simply need bear no ill will towards anyone else visiting those planets, nor harbor any designs against the safety and neutrality of visitor's businesses, homes, or the Madracorn properties themselves. These simple rules had excluded all the darkly ambitious of the five empires, the would-be kings, those of truly black heart and mind, and the flatly untrustworthy in nature, from finding the worlds long enough to attempt to appropriate things that did not belong to them. The technology of the Madracorn had assured that their sunless and timeless worlds would forever be safe havens, neutral in politics, and free from the hegemony of the galactic powers. The fact that Eseffa and Jorli were purely spiritual in nature, deceased before humans had walked the earth and free to wander where they willed, allowed them to monitor the two worlds closely. As essentially ghosts, they could move between the two worlds in the blink of an eye.

"You'll keep Murcha busy taking you back and forth, huh?" Rick asked.

Casper gave his head a short spin, the closest he could come to shaking it. "No need. Eseffa got the transportation system between the two worlds up and running. You just step into a booth in the market on Engris, and come out of another one at the market on Lyrgris!"

"Wow!" Kippy exclaimed, smiling at Charlie. "Is that convenient, or what?"

"Very," Charlie agreed. He smiled at the holo then. "And how is Durapar? I see him, hiding there behind Ragal."

A birdlike face appeared from behind Ragal, looking startled. "How did you know?"

Charlie laughed. "Ragal's so tall, I could see you between his legs."

The Andaleesian emerged now, and Charlie again smiled at how much the alien looked like a small ostrich. His plumage was visible protruding from the openings in his lime green tunic, and his startlingly blue eyes examined the humans in the holo with great interest. "It's wonderful to see you all again. And to meet Amy and Robin."

Charlie nodded. "Amy and Robin, this is Durapar. Another friend of ours on Engris."

"I cannot wait to visit that place," Robin said, his eyes examining the image in the holo with great interest. "I've heard so much about it!"

"Please come any time," Ragal returned. "You and Amy, both, of course. Casper and I would be happy to show you around."

"And me!" Durapar added, smiling broadly enough now to show teeth.

Ragal leaned closer then. "The reason for my call, Charlie....I had the most intense feeling that you needed us!"

"I felt it, too!" Casper added. "We hurried back to the villa and called you right away!"

Ricky scratched his chin and turned to Charlie. "I suspect this is a new talent for you. Or an extension of one you have. Some form of long-distance communication."

Charlie shook his head. "But I didn't talk to them. I just suddenly felt like they should be along with us on this investigation."

Ricky shrugged. "Still. It seems obvious that some sort of communication was exchanged. They became aware of your attention, somehow."

"We all felt you wanted to talk to us," Casper said. "It's why we called."

Ricky nodded at that. "Charlie, remember when Pacha's ship got crushed, and you heard Mike calling you?"

"Sure. It's what got us going looking for them."

Ricky nodded again. "At that time, we thought it was a part of your second sight, because that came right after. Now I'm thinking this communication thing is separate from the second sight. We just didn't understand it back then."

Charlie laughed. "Do we understand it now?"

Ricky looked surprised, and then smiled. "We'll, no. But now that I have a handle on it as separate from your second sight, I'll see what I can figure out about it."

"If anyone would know, it's you," Charlie replied. "You being our magic mechanic, and all."

The other boy smiled at that. "When you say that, I picture a guy laying on a mechanic's dolly underneath's Santa's sleigh, changing the oil."

Charlie laughed. "Well, one of your talents is a very special feel for skwish and the abilities it lends to people. If you say me alerting Ragal and Casper that we needed them is different than my second presence, I believe you."

"And alerting Durapar!" Durapar said quickly, from the holo. "I felt your call as well!"

"And Durapar," Charlie added, smiling at the Andaleesian.

Ricky grinned over at the holo, and then turned back to Charlie. "Wanna try an experiment?"

Charlie shrugged. "Sure. What have you got in mind?"

Ricky leaned a little closer. "See if you can get Horace to call us."

"Well--" Charlie gave a little shrug. "I'm not sure how I did it the first time. And I already said we would give Horace a call."

"Yeah, but that was conversational. I want you to try an explicit link with Horace. I want you to feel like we need him, okay?"

Charlie blew out a little breath of air, nodded, and closed his eyes. He hadn't had to shut them to get the feeling about Ragal, Casper, and Durapar, but...

Horace's face swam into view in his mind, smiling. Charlie immediately smiled in response, and thought, we could use you about now, my friend.

And just as quickly as it had come upon him before, the weird sense of almost deja vu arrived in his head, and Charlie opened his eyes and looked up at the ceiling.

"Charlie, I have a call from Horace Wingspanner waiting," Irving announced.

Charlie turned and beamed at Ricky, and then nodded to himself. "Put him on, please, would you Irv?"

They heard the tiniest of sounds as a connection was made, and then the new sound of Horace humming to himself. He sounded a little nervous, and Charlie knew exactly why. "Hi, Horace. What's that you're humming?"

The humming cut off, followed by a short silence, and then Horace laughed. "I thought I was on hold."

"You were. I just caught the tail end. What was it?"

"Just some old Jimmy Buffet. Charlie, I had the weirdest thing just happen. I was sitting here, talking with Gretchen, and suddenly I just had to call you!"

Ricky looked elated, and Charlie grinned at his friend's smile. "Well, Horace, we're about to get going on a new investigation, and we kind of wanted you along."

"Really? What's it about? Oh...never mind. Don't tell me yet! I want to be there to hear about it!"

Charlie laughed. "That's okay. It's just a routine investigation so far. But we'd like your assistance, if you're free."

"Am I! I mean...I am, indeed free, Charlie. You know I always enjoy helping with anything you and the boys are doing."

Kippy waved a hand then. "Just tell him to come on over, Charlie."

"I heard that!" Horace said, laughing. "Do you want me now, Charlie? I can leave right away."

Kippy crinkled his nose. "We need one of us to be a teleporter, so we could go and get him!"

Robin cleared his throat gently, and waved a hand at Kip. "Um, hello! I can teleport."

But before Kip could answer, there was a popping sound in the room then, and Keerby appeared near Charlie. "I can go and get him, if you want."

Kippy gasped, and jumped to his feet. Keerby was an elf, just like Frit and Pip, a few inches shorter than Charlie and the others. Keerby had typically cute elf features, with dark hair, long eyelashes framing cheerful green eyes, rosy cheeks, and a smile that would melt butter. Kippy surged forward and ran to meet the newcomer, his arms outstretched. Keerby's eyes grew wide, and he vanished with another pop just before Kippy reached him, and immediately reappeared behind Charlie. He grinned at Kippy over Charlie's shoulder. "Come on, Kip!"

Kippy turned, and pouted at Keerby, visibly upset. "Well, if you're not as glad to see me as I am to see you...!"

Charlie heard the tiny sigh behind him, then another quick sequence of pops, and the elf appeared next to Kippy, his arms outstretched. "Hug!"

Kip's face lit up, and he threw his arms around Keerby and kissed him solidly on the cheek. The elf's face reddened, but he threw a stoic grin at Charlie and returned Kip's hug with genuine feeling.

Kippy sighed and stepped back. "That's more like it." He looked around then, a question in his eyes. "Frit and Pip didn't come with you?"

"Nope." Keerby took a fingertip and briefly touched his cheek where Kippy had kissed him, and then shook his head. "They're with Max, visiting Alonqua."

"Who's Alonqua?" Ricky asked, coming closer.

"Oh, it's not a who, it's a place. Vacation spot, in one of the side dimensions. Warm and sunny, pretty palm trees, nice, cool surf. They're there for a week to lay on the beach in the sun."

Kippy looked surprised, and then his eyes slowly widened. "All three of them? Laying on a beach? In bathing suits?"

Keerby somehow managed to look baffled, though his eyes just sparkled with mischief. "What's a bathing suit?"

Kippy squeezed his eyes shut, and clapped a hand over them. "Oh, Charlie! My imagination is killing me!"

Everyone in the room laughed. Keerby relented then, and leaned forward and gave Kippy a gentle push on the shoulder. "Yes, Kip. They're wearing bathing suits. I was just kidding you."

Kippy dropped his hand and opened his eyes. Charlie expected his boyfriend to be annoyed, but Kippy just smiled. "Somehow I knew that. I just couldn't imagine elves on a nude beach!"

"Oh, we have nude beaches," Keerby countered, the mischief still plain in his eyes. "Alonqua just isn't one of them."

Kippy sighed, and turned to Charlie. "Send him to get Horace, will you, Charlie? I have to go sit down."

Keerby turned to Charlie. "Want me to?"

Charlie looked up at the ceiling again. "Horace? Keerby can come get you."

"I heard! That would be fine. I'm ready right now."

Keerby grinned and waved at Charlie, and then disappeared. A tiny pop came over the phone system, and then the sound of Horace's surprised voice. "Oh, my! That was quick!"

Another pop, and then Keerby and Horace were standing in the room with them. Horace was still holding his phone in one hand. He blinked his eyes, looked down at the device, and then turned it off and slid it into his pocket.

A round of hugs was exchanged, and then Horace took a seat beside Amy. "The speed with which you boys do things is sometimes overwhelming!"

Charlie smiled at that. "We haven't even gotten started yet!" He turned back to the figures in the holo. "Can you three get Murcha to bring you here?"

Ragal looked slightly flustered. "Well, feeling that you might need us, I gave him a call while Keerby was getting Horace. I'm afraid he and Lollipop are on a cargo run out to the Alooshin Extremes. He can drop the contract and return, but it still will not be for several subjective days, your time."

Charlie rubbed his chin, not happy with that idea. Canceling a contract was bad for their shipping business, besides just being unfair to the client.

"I have an alternative method of getting us there, however," Ragal continued.

Charlie had an immediate suspicion, but nodded at the tall alien anyway. "And that would be?"

"Captain Neema and his crew are free. He said they would run us out to Earth immediately, for a very reasonable fee."

Ricky and Adrian both started laughing, and Kippy turned to Charlie, his eyes wide. "Them again!"

They had hired the Rootar starship, the Ishkatar, once before, while searching out Oumuamua, and it had been an interesting experience. Captain Neema and his crew, Diek, Qurank, Stropa, and Biel, were all family, born of the same tree. Literally. Looking like giant, shrunken heads suspended from the crooked branches of the family tree, they could detach themselves and move about the ship on small floating platforms, to perform the various ship functions as needed. The tree itself was in another floater, and could move about the ship with the entire family in attendance. Positioned before the main control console, the crew could run the ship without even leaving their branches.

"I'd love to see those guys again!" Adrian said. "Especially Qurank, that old softie. He's the one that gave us the holo cube of Oumuamua and her new mate flying off into the sunset together."

Charlie kept the cube in his desk drawer, and they had all played it often. It was a poignant reminder of a very successful mission, and one particularly close to their hearts.

"They said we could leave immediately," Ragal went on, looking happy again now. "Shall we?"

Charlie nodded at the holo. "Do all three of you want to come?"

The ensuing uproar was answer enough. Charlie and the others laughed, and Charlie waved a hand at the holo in appeasement. "Then by all means, come right away!"

Ragal looked happy again, and Casper's eyes just glowed with excitement. Even Durapar's birdlike face displayed the unmistakable signs of glee.

"We'll call you when we've arrived," Ragal said. "Okay for us to land in that Myer's Field again?"

"As long as no one's around," Charlie agreed. "And make sure Captain Neema keeps that ugly ship of his behind its scat field. I don't want him scaring the neighbors or the government!"

"I'll see to it, Charlie. Let us go and change our clothing to something more suited to adventure, and then we'll be along as quickly as possible."

"See you soon!" Kippy called.

Casper raised a small hand and waved, just before the holo image folded and was gone.

Kippy sighed. "It sure will be nice to see them again."

Charlie nodded, but was still thinking.

"What's the matter?" Kippy asked, leaning closer and lowering his voice. The others had moved closer together, and Rick and Adrian were busy reminiscing to everyone about the last time they had ventured forth with Ragal, Casper, and Durapar.

Charlie shrugged. "Oh...nothing. I'm sure we can call Max and Pacha if we really need them. I just have a feeling we don't - at least not now - and I don't want to spoil what they're doing just to make myself feel more comfortable."

Kippy moved closer and put an arm around Charlie's shoulders. "You're worried?"

"No. I'm not worried at all. It's just...Max and Pacha are so damn good at what they do. It always makes me feel better when they're around."

Kippy pouted, and briefly touched his forehead to Charlie's. "We've had this conversation. You need to trust in yourself, and our own abilities. We can't always be calling Max and Pacha. They have lives, too."

Charlie smiled, and briefly pressed his lips against his boyfriends. "We did have this conversation. I'm not worrying about our own abilities. We've gotten very good at what we know so far. I trust us. It's just that Max and Pacha, both, can do so many things that we can't."

"We have Robin, and Keerby," Kip reminded. "They're not exactly amateurs."

Charlie looked over at the others, and nodded. "True."

Kippy's eyes searched Charlie's. "Is it something else?"

Charlie considered that, and then raised and lowered a shoulder in a partial shrug. "Just a feeling. Adrian said a while ago that this new investigation couldn't be as interesting as the ones we've had until now."

"And you feel otherwise?"

"Yes. I have a feeling that's sort of like the one Amy has. That this whole thing is going to become a lot larger than it looks."

Kippy nodded, and kissed Charlie again. "Then we'll just have to be big, too. Big enough to handle it."

Charlie smiled into his boyfriend's eyes. "I love you, Kip."

Kippy returned the smile. "And I love you, Charlie. Which is why I know we can handle anything, if we're together."

Charlie nodded. "You're right." He tilted his head in the direction of the others. Ricky was describing something with his arms outstretched and his hands waving, while the others listened raptly. Even Amy and Robin Hood looked fascinated, and Charlie had to smile as a new feeling came over him then. This will all work out. These people will do the job.

They joined the others then, and sat to listen to Ricky's story.

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