Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

Elementary, My Dear Charlie Boone! - Chapter 2

They met later aboard Ishkatar, the starship belonging to Captain Neema and his crew. The field atop Myer's Hill had become an overgrown tangle in the warm late-spring weather, and Beel had used great artistry with some kind of alien device in clearing off much of the hilltop in a way that looked amazingly natural, as if someone had patiently hauled a tractor up the steep path and mowed the place clean. That task now served a dual purpose, both in providing a clean landscape upon which the big starship could remain grounded and invisible behind its scat field while Ragal and the others visited; and in providing Charlie and the others with their choice of spots from which to watch the fireworks a few days hence. Normally, they would come to the hilltop before the night of the show with a few garden tools, just to make sure they had a tamed area in which to spread a blanket they could relax upon to enjoy the fireworks display at the mall. Now, that duty had been handled for them.

"My dad would love that whatsit you used to clear the hill," Ricky said to the Rootar, after they had all met in the ship's conference center. "I can see him now, sitting on the front porch drinking iced tea, while some alien gizmo cut the grass for him." He grinned at Charlie. "We could make millions!"

Charlie smiled at his friend. They had already discussed and vetoed the idea of importing alien technology to earth, mostly because of the trouble such an act could generate for them after the fact. The possibility of questions that they would not and could not answer was just too likely. Unless something came along that might be of value and which could have possibly been produced with Earth's level of technology, they had sworn they wouldn't do it. Galactic technology wasn't just a little bit ahead of Earth's, it was leaps and bounds beyond what human science had yet to discover. There was simply no way to explain away such an exponential gap in knowledge.

"Buy him a really big pair of scissors," Kippy suggested, his eyes smiling at Ricky. "And then run!"

Ricky and Adrian chuckled, better able to imagine, perhaps, the results of such an action. Ricky sighed then, and waved a hand at where Beel hung from his crooked branch of the family tree. "I guess the idea is dead in the water, buddy."

Beel snorted, and the Kifta translators they wore in their ears managed to instill some humor into the sound. "Whadda shame. That defoliator is a cheap gizmo, too. I could'a gave ya a million of 'em for pocket money!"

"And all legit, too," Stropa added. "More or less!"

All the Rootar laughed harshly, something that made Charlie smile.

The alien's voices were plainly issuing forth in some harsh tongue that was beyond comprehension, and what the boys were hearing were the translations in their Kifta earpieces. That the translators made the Rootar sound like a bunch of gangsters out of some old black and white crime movie was a fact they had grown used to, and even come to enjoy. The Rootar were pirates, born into a society in which such a profession was deemed honorable, if upon a somewhat lower rung on the ladder of life. The Kifta translators were good enough at picking up on their inflections and mannerisms to convey their true social status within Rootar society, and translate their speech into the appropriate English. It made talking to the aliens interesting, to say the least!

"So," Captain Neema began, his branch swinging his wrinkled head closer to them, "is this just a simple transport, like Ragal here said, or will youse fellas be wantin' us to take you places?"

Charlie looked at Ragal, who simply smiled, and then gave his shoulders a quick bounce. "As far as I know, all you were needed for was to bring Ragal and his party here, wait for them, and then take them back. But..."

Charlie broke off then, the odd feeling of deja vu coming back to him. But this time it wasn't about people; just a general feeling that where they were heading with this new inquiry was far from being determined.

"Gotcha," the Rootar said then, his own head bouncing up and down on his branch. "Too early ta tell, huh?"

"That's about it," Charlie agreed. "Do you guys have to be somewhere?"

"Nah. We gotta contract to fill later, but it's a ways off just yet. We can hang around long as ya want, providin' we get paid for it."

Ragal smiled than. "I've already guaranteed them that, Charlie."

Charlie nodded. "We're good for it."

"I'll say!" Captain Neema beamed his frightening, jagged smile. "If you don't mind me sayin', we ran a credit check on youse fellas on Engris, and it was through the roof! You guys are as good as any ten big hunks of skravi, far as dough is concerned."

Charlie looked questioningly at Ragal, whose eyes twinkled with delight. "Skravi is actually dung, Charlie. It's excreted by the Hrojii of the sixth planet in the Faranik system. It's a bright, whitish, dense, malleable and ductile metal, a transition metal, and exceedingly hard to come by, which makes it a precious metal, as well."

Kippy leaned forward, his eyes slightly bulging. "You said it was dung, didn't you? As in poop?"

Adrian laughed. "What sort of creature poops metal?"

Ragal smiled. "The Hrojii, of course."

"Naturally!" Ricky agreed, laughing.

"Tough stuff to come by," Qurank offered. "Faranik Six is about the most dangerous place I've ever been. Big, heavy-gravity world, inhabited by the most dangerous critters you'll ever meet. One of them Hrojii could roll over top of Ishkatar and flatten her, and not even notice!"

Kippy eyed the alien questioningly. "I thought you people could make any element you wanted."

"Not skravi. You build the stuff in a synthesizer, and it's fine for about the time it takes to get it out and look at it. Then, pow!, it gets hot and reverts to platinum, which is a junk metal."

Charlie looked over at the Rootar. "How do you account for that?"

"Me? I dunno much about that stuff. The science people say some bodily function of the Hrojii acts as a field binder of some kind, that lets the skravi they make remain coherent. So far, no one's been able to duplicate it. Which is okay by us, because once they can make the stuff and keep it stable, there goes the market for the real thing!"

Stropa and Beel both laughed their harsh laughs.

"Listen to Qurank, puttin' on airs!" Stropa hooted. "Ya sound like one of them lab people, yourself, there!"

"Hoity toity!" Beel agreed, gleefully.

Qurank scowled, and his branch moved closer to Charlie. "They can't help it. They've always been a little rough around the edges!"

Stropa and Beel both roared with laughter, until Captain Neema shouted them down. "Be quiet, ya clunks! Just because yer brother got him some learnin' ain't no reason to be pickin' on him all the time! It's him that figures out a lot of the things that stops you stoops dead on your limbs! At least your brother Diek ain't joinin' in this croffaw!"

"'Cause he's asleep!" Beel put in, sounding annoyed. "Like we all should be now!"

"I ain't asleep!" Diek said then, though it was plain from his voice he was not entirely awake, either.

Qurank had looked briefly shocked at what the captain had said, and now rotated to face the other. "Why, father...if I had only known how you felt..."

Captain Neema's yellow cat's eyes grew wide with terrible warning, and Qurank immediately made a sound like he was clearing his throat. "Uh, thanks, Cap'n!"

Kippy rolled his eyes toward the overhead and settled against Charlie's shoulder. "Some things never change!"

Charlie laughed, and turned the other way, to find Robin watching him with a smile. "What do you think?" Charlie asked.

"I'm enjoying myself immensely," the older man returned. "The charm of our hosts is only exceeded by their sense of humor."

All five of the Rootar turned to stare at Robin. "You serious?" Qurank asked.

"I am. I find your honesty and forthrightness extremely refreshing."

"Honesty!" Stropa bellowed. "You take that back!"

But Qurank spoke first. "He meant it as a compliment, ya clunk!"

Stropa blinked his yellow eyes uncertainly, and then examined Robin anew. "Well...okay. But watch it, pal."

Charlie and the others laughed. But that Robin found his encounter with the Rootar fascinating seemed clear.

Ragal brought his hands up and placed them before himself, and steepled his long fingers. He smiled over them at the others, and then his eyes came back to Charlie. "Very well. We're here. Where do we begin with this new task?"

Captain Neema grumbled something, and the family tree raised off the deck in its floater and turned to go.

"You don't have to leave," Charlie called.

"Yeah, we do," Qurank called back, as the tree headed for the doorway back into the corridor. "Privacy ethic. You didn't engage us for whatever you're about to talk about, so we're gonna go find other things to do. Keeps us honest fellas outta trouble!"

All five of the heads roared with laughter then, and the tree passed through the doorway into the corridor and the door slid closed behind them, cutting off the sounds of their glee.

A moment of silence followed their leaving.

"Well, that was fun," Ricky said then. "Those guys are sure some original gangsters!"

"I think they're sweet," Kippy said, grinning. "They're like big, purring kitties hiding behind nasty Halloween masks."

Ricky laughed. "Shh! They might hear you!"

Kippy shrugged his shoulders. "If they're eavesdropping, they deserve whatever they get! But I don't think they are. Rootar culture is surprisingly honorable, considering our friends are a bunch of pirates."

"We got standards!" Adrian said, doing a presentable job of mimicking the harsh way the aliens spoke. Everyone laughed.

"I like them," Robin said simply, standing and stretching. "They're very genuine people. And I have known so many people in my life." He smiled at Charlie. "I know a good one when I see one."

Charlie felt his face warm at that, feeling Robin was directing his compliment at him. He floundered for just a second, mentally, and then returned the smile. "So. Where do we begin?"

Robin went over the entire story of the Espero Group again for the newcomers, ending his account with his desire to look into the matter more thoroughly.

"How are we to help?" Ragal asked. "I can already see a problem with freedom of movement among your kind."

"We know about that," Ricky explained. "It just means you can't go everywhere we can, physically; or, at least, not without some changes."

"Maybe I can help," Casper offered.

Ricky smiled. "That's what I was thinking. With your power of illusion, you can make people see you, Durapar, and Ragal as humans."

Duraper spoke up then, his eyes on Casper. "Your power of illusion is that strong?"

"I'll say it is!" Adrian said. "When we were first looking for Casper, he made us see all kind of things!"

Casper looked embarrassed. "I didn't know you guys then. I was just protecting myself!"

Charlie dropped a hand on the small alien's narrow shoulders . "We know. But that power may come in handy now. Could you make yourself, Ragal, and Durapar look human?"

Casper laughed his squeaky laugh, which made everyone smile. And then the forms of himself, Ragal, and Durapar blurred, shifted, and...

Three human males stood in their places. They were dressed in sexy, skinny jeans, and white shirts with the fronts open, showing off a fair amount of tanned six-pack beneath. Kippy's eyes widened, and then he shifted close to Charlie and whispered frantically into his ear," That's Dirk Butler! And Romy Shea, and Lane Eakins! They're Misconceived!"

Charlie also stared at the familiar faces of the popular rock band members. Kippy sighed dreamily, and pressed himself up against Charlie. "That Dirk is soo hot!"

Charlie put one arm around his boyfriend and squeezed him close, and used the other hand to momentarily hide his grin. "Um...that's really good, Casper. Where did you get those particular faces?"

The human form of Dirk Butler raised a hand and pointed their way. "From Kip's mind. Was that wrong?"

Kippy rolled his eyes. "I guess not." But his face was flushed now, and Charlie understood his boyfriend's embarrassment. Having one's fantasies suddenly paraded before others was not exactly without penalty.

Ricky whistled. "Wow, Charlie! Jealousy time!"

Charlie knew his friend was only kidding, but Adrian raised a hand and slapped his boyfriend's arm. Ricky turned to him, surprised. "What? Charlie knows I'm just playing."

Adrian squinted at his boyfriend. "Then play nicely! That was a sucker punch in front of witnesses, Rick."

Ricky looked embarrassed, and turned back to Charlie. "I'm sorry."

But it was Kip who raised his hand. "Charlie knows I love only him." He smiled then. "But a guy can fantasize a little, can't he?"

Charlie squeezed his boyfriend again. "I will fight for your right to fantasize, Kip!"

Kippy sighed, and turned worshipful eyes his way. "Oh, Charlie. You say the sweetest things."

It was Charlie's turn to feel his face warm. "Um...we're getting distracted. Very distracted!"

Robin raised his hands for attention. "That's...that's very good, Casper. Your power of illusion fooled me, so I feel like it will fool just about anyone. I still see a problem with that, though. It will not fool cameras."

Charlie frowned at the handsome rocker. "It won't, will it, Casper?"

"No. But my range, as you remember, is pretty extensive. The illusions won't fool cameras, but they will fool anyone watching what the cameras are seeing."

"Still a problem," Robin decided. "Most security systems record the footage from their cameras. A review of the video at a later date would still show you three for what you are."

"I might be able to provide them with disguises," Keerby injected then. "An optical form that will even fool any watching cameras."

Everyone turned to the elf at once.

"A form?" Robin asked. "I don't believe I know what that is."

"I do," Charlie said. "I learned about it from Max. He used some sort of thing like that to disguise Lollipop. Like solidified smoke, or something. Max said it would last until he took it off, too."

"That's right," Keerby agreed. "It's a little harder to do for people than for inanimate objects, because it has to conform to their movements. And...well, I can't hide Ragal's height like illusion can. He's tall, for a human."

"But not outside the spectrum," Charlie pointed out. "He has the height of a basketball player."

Ricky laughed. "A highly paid basketball player!"

"But you can do it?" Kippy asked the elf.

"I think so. Casper's size will require he look like a young person. Durapar, a little older." Keerby grinned. "And Ragal, like a highly paid basketball player."

Robin looked pleased. "That will simplify our travels, if these three can simply accompany us. You can keep this physical illusion going for a long period of time?"

"Sure." Keerby nodded. "It's actually a simple thing to do, if you have the skwish for it."

Robin smiled. "Amazing talent." He turned to Charlie. "What wonderful friends you boys have!"

"We kind of like them," Kippy agreed.

Horace gave a sigh then. "I wish Amy had agreed to come along."

Charlie smiled comfortingly. "Give her a little time. She feels it's her job to watch the office, not to be running all around the countryside with us. But she's agreed to work with us and provide us with the help of her talents, if we need her."

Horace nodded. "Yes. And...I have a feeling we will need her assistance at some point."

Robin waited a second, made sure Horace was done talking, and then emitted a little, satisfied sigh. "So, are we ready to start?"

"Where are we going first?" Kippy asked. "That place in Switzerland you showed us on the map?"

"Yes." Robin waved a hand, and the easel with the map on it appeared again. He pointed at it, and the section they had been shown before bearing the green pushpin enlarged.

"That's a fair-sized city there," Charlie pointed out.

"Basel," Robin informed them. "It's the third-largest city in the country. But we aren't going there, not exactly. We're going to a place nearby, on the outskirts, called Bettingen."

Charlie frowned at that. "Small town?"

"Municipality, actually, though there are a couple of pretty small settlements therein. It's mostly heavy forest, some parks, some sports fields." Robin smiled. "It's rural, to say the least."

"We'll stand out in a place like that," Ricky said. "Strangers."

"That's what I was thinking," Charlie said.

Robin smiled. "Well, we are only going near Bettingen, not actually there. Switzerland is used to tourism, as is most of Europe. Besides, the area we are going to visit is open to the public. And, at least a quarter of the small population there are not natives. The area seems to have a high proportion of inhabitants from other countries."

"What do we have to do there?" Adrian asked.

Robin pointed at the easel, and the map image zoomed in so fast it made Charlie gasp. Their perspective virtually fell upon a countryside that swooped upwards to meet them...and then they were hanging above the image of a very large house of some sort. A very large house, a mansion or manor, to every standard one could imagine.

"Whoa," Ricky said softly, leaning forward to stare. "That's a pretty big dump!"

"Der Adlernest," Robin said, eying the image. "It means the eagle's nest."

"German?" Charlie asked.

"Yes. There is no actual Swiss language. The people of that nation largely speak the languages of the nations that border Switzerland. There are local nuances, definitely. But it's very simple, actually: if you live in the north, you likely speak Swiss German. If you live in the west, you speak Swiss French. And if you live in the southeast, you speak Swiss Italian."

"Oh, is that all!" Ricky exclaimed, following it with a hoot.

Robin smiled. "Actually, it's not. Romansh is also spoken in the canton of Graubünden, but pretty much only there. It's a language descended from the spoken tongue of the Old Roman Empire. And, Swiss German also varies into Swiss Standard German and the Walser vernaculars along the border with Austria, while the Swiss French has speakers of Franco-Provencal, and some Swiss Italians speak Lombard."

Ricky's eyes widened, and he turned to Charlie. "That sounds like trouble!"

"It shouldn't be. Pacha said that the translators were programmed to handle every language and sub-tongue on Earth."

Robin gave a brief bow. "I speak many of the languages in my own part of western Europe on my own. But this marvelous device planted in my ear is a delight!"

Kippy frowned at the huge manor displayed upon the easel. "What's with the name? Why the eagle's nest'?"

Robin waved a hand at the image. "It's less apparent from directly above, but the manor house reposes atop a mount with a commanding view of the countryside. There are several roads providing access, however."

Kippy turned back to Robin. "And they'll just let us walk in?

"As a matter of fact, they will. The manor - or a part of it - is open for tourists. You will find that a common practice for many of the buildings in the area, even some of the larger private homes. Der Adlernest is listed as a sort of financial think tank belonging to the Rimedoj Foundation, but it is also on the historical site listing, and the first floor of most of the building is open for visitors."

"Rimedoj Foundation?" Ricky repeated. "What do they do?"

"Well, they consider matters of finance and economy, according to their official documentation. They can be tied to Espero, and again we have a name that means something in Esperanto. Rimedoj, in that language, translates as means."

Charlie narrowed his eyes at that. "As in, means to an end?"


Charlie inspected the manor house closely. "Looks, um, sturdy. Old?"

"A century and a half, or so. I remember when it was built, actually."

Charlie understood then. "You've been there!"

"Certainly. Both in the past, and again, recently. It is not like me to start into any venture without a careful survey of the target" -- Robin smiled then -- "er, the destination."

Charlie shook his head. "I don't see why you need us, then."

Robin briefly scratched his chin. "I took the tour of the first floor. My senses suggested to me that to venture elsewhere on my own, alone, might not be a good idea."

Charlie couldn't conceal his surprise. "With that great camouflage you have? You can go anywhere, and not be seen by cameras or eyes!"

Robin gave his head a brief shake. "Apparently not. What I sensed inside Der Adlernest was...skwish. And of a nature that suggested my normal methods of hiding myself would not work there." He smiled. "You and your friends spied me out at our first encounter. It is not beyond the abilities of other power users to do the same."

Everyone turned to look back at the image of the great manor house. "So what's there?" Kippy finally asked. "Other humans that can use skwish? Like the witches of Kinniston?"

"I think a bit more able," Robin replied. "I have encountered others in my time that were very able users. Whoever, or whatever, is present at Der Adlernest would seem to be capable of at least thwarting my abilities to move about surreptitiously." He smiled. "More talent was needed. That's why I called in you and your friends."

Whoever, or whatever...

Charlie nodded then. "Ah. I think I see."

"I knew you would."

Charlie turned to face the man. "What conclusions have you drawn from this so far?"

Robin took a deep breath, and let it come back out slowly. "I find it unwise to speculate this early in the game. Speculation leads to bias in thinking. I prefer to keep my view as fresh as possible, for now."

Charlie had to smile at that. "Bit of Sherlock Holmes there?"

Robin looked delighted. "Exactly." He leaned closer. "I knew Doyle, you know."

Charlie couldn't help gaping a little at that. "You did?"

"Oh, yes. I always made it a point to get to know the influential thinkers of my day...whatever day, in whatever year that happened to be!"

Charlie grinned. "You sound like a fan."

"Exactly, my dear Boone."

Horace spoke up then. "Isn't it, Elementary, my dear Watson?'"

Charlie shook his head. "Actually, Doyle never used that line in any of his stories. It was P.G. Wodehouse, in one of his Psmith novels, that supposedly coined that phrase. It then went on to be used in film, thus perpetuating the myth." Charlie smiled at Robin. "But Doyle did use the phrase, 'Exactly, my dear Watson."

Robin looked enchanted. "You sound like a fan!"

Charlie shrugged. "I like to read."

"Britannica Brain," Ricky whispered, grinning.

Robin used a hand to indicate the image of the manor house. "Join me in an investigation, my dear Boone?"

Charlie bowed. "It would be my pleasure, my dear Hood."

Kippy snorted, and rolled his eyes heavenward. "Oh, boy! Here we go again!"

The Swiss countryside was beautiful, Charlie had to admit that. And, considering how far from home they were, it looked surprisingly homey. There were more conifers here than at home, but the difference was not so noticeable while everything was so green. From Charlie's perspective, driving down the road in their small Mercedes bus, they could be anywhere in upstate New York, just as well.

"How far now?" Ricky asked, from the seat behind Charlie's.

Robin, seated across the aisle, gave a glance at his wristwatch. "I'd say about five minutes. What do you think, Ruedi?"

That man, seated in the driver's seat and busy navigating the bus along the winding road, let his eyes flick over to the GPS console. He nodded. "Zat looks about right."

As it had turned out, none of them had the required licenses to be driving a vehicle of this sort, not even back in the US. With ten people in their group, anything less in size than the small bus would not have accommodated them all, and Charlie had no desire to complicate their mission by having them split up among several vehicles. Robin had agreed, made a phone call, and not long after, Ruedi Kreider had appeared at the door of their hotel suite. Ruedi was someone that Robin knew - just how was not said - and was the sort that asked very few questions. He seemed to know that Robin was interested in something, and would tell him what he needed to know at the proper time. The idea prompted a new respect in Charlie for Robin's tenure on this earth. The man must know just an amazing amount of people everywhere, that could do just about anything that needed doing. Such a network as that, built in Robin's extensive travels, would prove invaluable to operations in just about any part of the world.

And, Ruedi had the required license to drive the rented bus.

"Beautiful place," Horace said, from his seat beside Durapar.

"Most affecting," Durapar agreed, waving a very human hand.

Keerby had been as good as his word. Ragal now looked like a very tall, very thin man in his early thirties, his height even noticeable where he sat in his seat, his head much closer to the overhead than anyone else's. Keerby had given Ragal a strong and pleasant face, and allowed the alien's humor and intelligence to show in his bright green eyes. He was dressed casually, in tan slacks and a white, button-down shirt, and perhaps the largest pair of loafers Charlie had ever laid eyes upon. Ragal's graceful, almost jointless way of walking could not be concealed, as the form he was hiding behind had to conform to his own movement. So when he walked among them in the hotel, people often stopped what they were doing and turned to watch. But they were not the rude or mocking stares he might have received in some places back in America. The Swiss were a tolerant and accepting people, and the smiles they turned Ragal's way expressed admiration and interest, and nothing else. Well, maybe just a little surprise, too!

Durapar looked like a teenaged boy, perhaps just at driving age or so, and was dressed in new-looking jeans and a black tee-shirt that said My other car is a Humvee on the front. Why Keerby had settled on that particular phrase was anyone's guess, but Durapar had seemed to get the humor in it, even if Charlie just found it silly. As a matter of fact, Keerby and Durapar had discovered a kinship in silly jokes, and had been happily displaying their knowledge of them for most of the trip up the mountainous road.

Casper, due to his size, had become a reasonably nice-looking human boy of about eight years in apparent age, with black curly hair and gray eyes. He was also dressed in jeans and running shoes, and a blue tee-shirt that said Made in Zanzibar on the front. Again, Keerby's choice, and again the why of it had escaped Charlie's notice.

But the three were now well-disguised, and that was all that really mattered to Charlie. They could now go anywhere they wanted, and the only notice they might receive that was out of the ordinary would be due to Ragal's unusual height and graceful gait. They could live with that.

Ruedi, despite being not very talkative, conveyed a lot. He was a good-sized guy, maybe in his mid-thirties, with thick brown hair that seemed to arrange itself very naturally on his head without demanding much attention. He had a thick mustache, his brown eyes were bright and alert, and he seemed one that liked to keep them moving, too. Charlie had felt the man's gaze several times in the large rear-view mirror, but had determined fairly quickly that the inspections seemed to be to assure their driver that everyone in the rear of the vehicle was safe and accounted for. Ruedi's curiosity was businesslike and well-managed, and he seemed to take his place among them seriously. He looked capable of just about anything, and Charlie had no trouble at all imagining the man in the dress of the rogues of Sherwood Forest, holding a staff in hand and with a bow over one shoulder, smiling away as Robin Hood jovially relieved some well-to-do traveler of his purse on the road to Nottingham Castle.

Merry Men, indeed!

Well down the road and across a small valley, the steeple of what seemed to be a church came into view, rising above the trees on a higher elevation than their own. That would be the church of St. Chrischona. Along with its little hamlet, it was located on the highest mount in the canton, somewhat higher than the mount they were climbing even now. That they could see it surely meant that they were almost to the top of their own small rise.

"There," Ruedi said then, pointing ahead.

An indentation in the side of the road quickly became a driveway with a large wrought iron gate, both massive 'doors' of the gate opened inward and latched back to allow entry. Ruedi turned into the wide drive between the large stone gateposts and started up the last rise towards the manor house, now coming into view beyond the trees. Charlie studied the massive building as they approached, wondering at the idea that anyone would build something this size as a home. The basic style seemed to be in the neoclassical mold, though there were surprising touches of gothic, particularly at the extremes, that suggested a flair for the dramatic in the original designer. The medium was mostly stone, the windows on every floor tall and somewhat more narrow than modern windows, and each composed of eight or ten panes of glass in a framework.

The front door was a double, and also somewhat ornamental, and located at the top of a stone base wall that included two adjacent staircases rising from the paved apron to the level of the porch before the doorway. The faces of the stone base wall showed round, wagon wheel windows on the outside of the staircases, indicating a large basement below. The land encircling the manor, once they exited the surrounding forest, was clear save for some much smaller trees placed in gardens around the very well-maintained lawn. There was a patio and garden to the right of the house, in which were a number of tables with umbrellas above them, and at which sat a few people sipping drinks they had poured from a container on one of the tables. Three cars were in the lot at the front of the house, while several more could be seen in a parking lot at the building's rear. The place reeked of money and orderliness, and Charlie raised his estimation of what they were about to encounter another notch above his already preconceived idea that they would be dealing with wealth on a far-from-daily level.

Like Ricky had said earlier, the place was quite a dump!

"Impressive, is it not?" Ruedi asked then, perhaps his first conversational foray since he had joined them.

"I'll say," Adrian agreed, from behind Charlie and Kip. "I wonder if the king is at home today?"

Ricky, seated beside him, laughed. "It looks more like a bank in Boston or Philly, to me. Maybe a little bigger than that."

Ragal gave a grunt, and nodded his head. "It looks like wealth to my eye, and..." He closed his eyes a moment, frowned, and then turned to look at Charlie. "I sense some odd things here."

"Me, too," Casper said, sounding hushed. "Some big things!"

They had been told by Robin to speak freely in front of Ruedi, but Charlie still felt some resistance at speaking openly about skwish things in front of strangers.

But Ruedi took care of that for them. "Za place smells of za gift," he said then, his eyes going to Robin. "Many here vith za power."

Robin nodded. "I sensed it when I visited before. You notice the strength of it? That suggests more than a few people with skwish."

Ruedi smiled at Robin's use of that word, but said no more.

"Who are the people over on the patio?" Kip asked. "Do they live here?"

Robin shook his head. "Visitors, like us, I would imagine. Note the cars there? The people that work here park around back."

"Does anyone actually live here, or is this just a business?" Charlie asked.

Robin nodded at that. "It's a foundation, and run like a business, but...I think there is someone here at all times of the day and night." The way the man said that made Charlie's eyes widen. Robin's tone wasn't ominous - it was very matter-of-fact, actually. But it was the suggestion that there were people here at all times of the day and night that seemed off. A think tank was like any other operation, one would think, open by day, usually closed at night.

"They close the front gate at seven in the evening, but the presence I feel here is with the place at all times."

"Strange, it is," Ruedi agreed. "What will we do next?"

Robin smiled. "One tour group, ready to go inside."

Ruedi smiled, and then reached down to the travel bag he had placed on the floor next to his seat. He dug inside, and produced a cap, which he placed on his head. On the front of the hat, in English, was an emblem that said, Kreider Tours.

Kippy laughed at that, and smiled at Charlie. "Shall we take the tour, my dear Charlie?"

"Yes, my dear Kip, I think we shall."

Robin stood then and held up his hands. "I must caution everyone...use your talents as minimally as possible. If we can detect the forces at work here, they will also be able to sense us."

"And we don't want that, do we?" Adrian mumbled.

Charlie was looking at Robin at the time, and saw the man smile at Adrian's words. What was up with that?

Kippy turned to Ricky. "You should be able to find out a lot about these people, Mister Magic Mechanic."

"Yes," Charlie agreed, turning his attention there. He smiled. "Keep your, um, eyes and ears, and whatever else you use, open."

Ricky nodded, and he and Adrian got to their feet.

Ruedi stood and opened the door to the bus and stepped off, and stood just outside while everyone got off. He waited until everyone was assembled, and then started talking while also motioning for them to follow as he turned toward the entry to Der Adlernest.

"My friends, vat ve have here at zis stop is Der Adlernest, originally known as Brachmann House, designed by Gunter Envernacht in 1872, at ze behest of Emile Brachmann. It took zree years to construct, and most of vat you see is granite from local quarries, zough ze accents are of marble from ze quarries at Carrara, in Italy. Ze Brachmann family vere prominent in Basel banking circles, and also owned a large share of ze Bilderbeck Shipping line of Bremen, Germany. Calliope Brachmann, ze vife of Emile, is said to have had a hand in ze accents of ze manor house, based upon her own drawings and models. Now if you vill follow me, ve will go inside and see vat life vas like in ze eighteen-zeventies. Ze first floor of ze manor has been kept as it existed in ze first years zat ze Brachmanns lived here, and..."

Charlie let Ruedi's voice merge into the background as they approached the steps and climbed up to the porch. His nerves were on end, some sense inside his mind very alert now to the unusual things he was feeling from within the manor. There was skwish here, most definitely. It wasn't the sort he was immersed in around elves, nor what could be felt emanating from someone like Nicholaas or Robin. The feeling he got was one of strength and diversity, but also the clear sense that it was the product of a fairly large group of people...or living things. It was familiar and alien at the same time, and that was what made it so unsettling. Charlie glanced over at Robin, who caught the look and smiled.

"Relax, Charlie," the older man whispered. "I don't sense any immediate danger here."

Charlie nodded. "It's the non-immediate danger I'm worried about!"

The man laughed. "I think this crowd is well up to defending itself."

Charlie just nodded. Kip reached over and grasped Charlie's hand, and squeezed it reassuringly.

Ahead of them, Ruedi opened the large right-hand door, and held it as they all went inside.

A large foyer awaited them, under a tall ceiling easily ten feet in height. A rather grand chandelier hung above them, this one's candle tubes fitted with electric lights, which caused the sculptured crystalline prisms hung beneath to fill the vestibule with a sparklingly pleasant and welcoming glow. The foyer was decorated in furniture of a dark wood, with black marble tops and ornate wrought iron handles on the doors. Paintings of landscapes hung on the plaster walls, and a burgundy-colored rope hung between heavy stainless-steel stands had the grand staircase to the second floor before them roped off from access. A sign with a red arrow on another stainless-steel stand directed them to the right, where the first large room - a sitting room of some sort - greeted them.

Though there was a desk or counter of sorts inside the first room that would seem to be home to a receptionist, no one was to be seen, anywhere.

They walked through several rooms then, and it soon became obvious that they could walk all the way around the central staircase of the first floor and return to the front entry. Ruedi kept on talking as they moved about, pointing out the furniture and the dressings of the manor with a practiced eye. The man had either done some extensive homework before showing up at their door, or was already some sort of expert on the history of the times in question.

They were about three-quarters of the way around on their tour of the first floor when Charlie felt a subtle shift in the skwish presence around them. Rather than simply ebbing and flowing as it had been, it was as if it suddenly gathered into one area.

Kippy's hand spasmed then, clenching Charlie's tightly.

They had been noticed.

Ragal turned to look at Charlie, and Casper raised a hand and pointed at him. Ricky frowned, and Adrian moved closer to Kippy and put a hand on his arm. Robin gave Charlie a quick shake of his head, and held out an arm to keep them moving.

Ruedi seemed not to notice, and kept them walking, talking the whole time.

A door opened across the room they were in, and a man and women looked over at them.

Charlie could sense the power of their skwish. But even as that power registered, he realized that it seemed strong because it was unusual next to humans he met on a daily basis. Compared to the power he felt among their own group, it was far less substantial.

Why...they were not outgunned here at all!

The power he sensed within the building was not to be ignored, yet neither was it worth their yet.

"Charlie..." Kippy whispered.

But Charlie shook his head. "Shh, Kip."

His boyfriend nodded, and they continued to follow Ruedi across the room. The man and woman standing in the doorway simply watched them walk. Charlie felt several light, probing touches against his defenses, but when he rebuffed them, they immediately withdrew.

Robin moved closer. "Interested yet, my dear Boone?"

Charlie turned to stare at the man, and then found he couldn't ignore the infectious quality of Robin's smile. "You're not worried?'

"No, as you can see, the inspection we are receiving is...careful. But contact has been made. Let's see what happens next."

"How come they didn't detect you when you visited before?"

"I am able to sit on my emissions, so to speak. It's easy for me now, as I've had many years of practice. Ruedi can cover himself, too. Your friends Ragal and Casper have excellent shielding, and Keerby is so good at covering himself it's like he's not there at all. Horace is a very mild broadcaster, not much more than the average person. Durapar is the same." The man grinned. "But you and Kip and Rick and's like sitting on the front porch of the powerhouse and listening to the dynamos run!"

Charlie squinted at the man. "You must have known this would happen!"

Robin nodded. "I did. I just felt it would be better not to be detected by myself. And I couldn't go poking around behind closed doors, because I felt they would see through my disguise. As it is, I'm fairly surprised we were able to come in here and walk around as long as we did before they responded."

Charlie looked at the watching man and woman out of the sides of his eyes. "So what do we do now?"

Robin leaned closer. "Nothing. Ruedi was told to ignore everything and just finish the tour. Keep following him. We'll go back to the bus and see what happens."

And that was just what happened. Ruedi kept up his tour, the others managed to act like nothing unusual was happening, and they returned to the foyer of the building and exited to the outside. The man and woman who had been watching them followed them outside and stood on the porch, but made no move to speak to them or come closer. Charlie's party boarded the bus, took their seats, and Ruedi started the engine.

"Is that all?" Charlie asked Robin, amazed.

"We're just gonna drive off?" Ricky added, sounding equally stunned.

"Charlie, those people sensed us!" Kippy added.

"I felt them!" Adrian agreed. "They were worried!"

"We must teach you to shield yourselves," Ragal said then, smiling at Charlie. "I believe they were surprised by the potency of your emissions."

Robin raised a hand for silence. "Easy. Yes, Charlie, we will now just drive off. This is what I hoped would happen. We have handed them the ball, now we see what they do with it." He turned to look at the driver. "Ruedi? Let's head back to the hotel."

That man nodded, and backed the Mercedes around, and started down the driveway at a carefree pace. Charlie dared to look back at the house. The man and woman were still on the porch, watching them go. Something about their calm gaze gave him the willies. It was almost as if they didn't expect the bus to get very far.

They almost didn't.

They weren't to the front gate yet when Charlie heard a strange whistling sound, which grew in volume. Then, something hit the back of the bus with enough force to make it shudder. Ruedi immediately pulled up at the side of the drive and jumped to his feet. They all turned, just as the rear panel beneath the back window dented inward. It continued to push inward until the metal tore with a screech, and something forced its way inside.

Kippy pushed himself against Charlie, and Charlie wrapped his arm around his boyfriend's waist. "What's that?" Kippy breathed.

A rounded object had pushed its way into the interior of the bus. Now, two glittering, metallic eyes opened, and surveyed them with a coldness that could only be born of machine life. The metal around the head of the thing groaned, and tore some more, and two insect-like arms forced their way inside, and spread the metal further...

Charlie heard several soft whup-whup-whup sounds, and holes appeared in the metal wall around the thing. Ruedi pushed past them, and unloaded the rest of the clip in his silenced automatic at the invader.

To no avail. Where the bullets struck the machine, brightly colored streaks appeared, followed by new perforations in the rear wall of the bus. It seemed clear the bullets were deflected off the shiny metal surface of the thing. The arms seemed possessed of incredible strength, and spread, tearing the opening even farther. The head with the glittering eyes moved forward, coming inside with them...

It had all happened so quickly, perhaps fifteen seconds had gone by since the first impact against the rear of the bus. The machine forced its way in, trying to reach them...

Charlie felt an odd tingling sensation in the air then, and instinctively pulled Kippy back down into their seat. An intense flash filled the bus then, one that blinded them. A roar of simply incredible proportions battered their ears, and the entire bus jumped, causing several of the others to fall back into their seats.

For a moment there was silence, and then Charlie heard the sound of someone moving quickly up the aisle.The engine of the bus growled then, and with a jolt they moved forward. Ruedi was not being carefree now. The bus accelerated rapidly, turned, and then they were off.

Charlie opened his eyes, waited a moment for the brightly colored flashes to recede. "Adrian? Was that you?"

"Damn right, it was," came Ricky's voice. "He fried that sucker, but good."

"I can't see yet," Kippy said, raising his hands to rub at his eyes.

"What on earth happened?" Horace asked, still sounding shocked.

"Adrian electrocuted our new friend." Keerby said, sounding satisfied. "I was about to twist it in two, myself, but Adrian beat me to the punch." The elf laughed. "Actually, I think this was a much better show for our friends back at the manor. They have to be wondering what happened to their proxy."

"Everybody okay?" Charlie called.

There was a round of responses, and Charlie counted them, and was relieved that everyone answered, all to the well.

Charlie sensed motion beside him, and then someone sat on the edge of their seat. "What a wonderful lesson," Robin said softly. "They'll think twice about approaching us so boldly the next time."

Charlie opened his eyes again, and the older man's face swam into view. Robin was smiling, and looked like he could see just fine.

"What happened to our guest?" Charlie asked.

Robin chuckled. "I'd say he blew a fuse or three. He's quite an inanimate object at this point."

Charlie blinked his eyes, and turned to look towards the back of the bus. He could see now, though things were still a little splotchy.

Ragal and Casper were at the back of the bus, examining the remains of the machine invader. Or...

"That was a machine of some sort, wasn't it?" Charlie asked Robin.

"Of some sort," Robin agreed. "Just what sort...perhaps Ragal can tell us."

Charlie nodded, and he and Kip both turned again to watch. Ragal and Casper had a grip on the thing, and were wiggling it into the bus. It arrived, and dropped to the floor with a noticeable thud.

"What is it?" Ricky called from his seat.

Ragal held up a hand, but continued his investigation a moment, and then rose and came back to them. Casper darted past him at the last second and stopped by Charlie, his expression excited. "You'll never guess!"

Charlie looked past him, at the blackened mass on the floor, and nodded. "You're right about that!"

"Most interesting," Ragal said. "I've never seen this particular design, but what I suspect this thing to be is some sort of maintenance inspector."

"Oh," Ricky said, nodding as if he understood completely. "Oh, one of them."

Adrian laughed out loud, and snuggled up against his boyfriend. "You have a screw loose, but I love you, anyway!"

Ricky grinned. "Ad, I'm just trying to cover up the fact that I nearly crapped in my pants!"

"Here, here," Horace said, smiling. "That makes two of us."

"And I don't even have any real pants!" Durapar added.

"I feel ya, guys," Charlie said, smiling. He turned back to Ragal. "Can you explain that?"

The tall alien nodded. "Yes. When starships land at a port, devices similar to this one crawl over the hulls, looking for damage. They can repair just about anything."

That answer was met with silence.

Charlie shook his head in astonishment at the import of the idea. "Are you saying this is galactic technology?"

Ragal's human looking face compressed into a frown. "No, I'm not saying that. As I said, I don't recognize the design. And what components are now bared are not up to the level of galactic technology. Indeed, an inspector of galactic manufacture would have shrugged off even that tremendous bolt of lightning that Adrian loosed upon this one." The tall man leaned downward. "This is not a machine of galactic manufacture. Yet neither could it have been manufactured here on your earth. The technology is far in advance of what is available here."

Robin narrowed his eyes at that. "So what does that leave us?"

Ragal's face eased into a smile. "I have no idea."

The bus slowed then, and pulled to the side of the road. Ruedi came back, but left the engine idling. "Ve are some kilometers avay from za manor now. Vat do you vish to do?"

Robin shrugged. "Might as well go on back to the hotel for now. We have some thinking to do."

"You don't think they'll send something else after us?" Charlie asked.

Keerby grunted. "They haven't. And if they are tracking us, I can't tell."

"I doubt they will," Robin said. "We handed them the ball, and they handed it back. It is now our turn to respond." He smiled. "I would hazard to guess we left them in some turmoil, though."

Ruedi gazed at the thing laying on the floor of the bus, and then his eyes went to the rear wall. He raised a hand and clapped it to his head. "Ach! Look at zat hole!"

Ricky grunted. "It could have been worse."

Charlie nodded. "We'll pay for the damage."

Ruedi smiled at him. "It's not za money. What do I tell Esmerelda?"

Kippy looked at Charlie, and then smiled. "I just have to ask. Who is Esmerelda?"

Ruedi gave a little sigh. "My sister. It was from her agency I rented ze bus!"

Charlie looked at the hole. "Tell her you backed into something. We'll pay for the damage."

Ruedi nodded. "Perhaps, it will work." He shifted his gaze to Robin. "To the hotel?"


Ruedi nodded, and headed back to the front of the bus. Robin returned to his seat, and waved for the others to sit. The bus growled again, and started moving forward.

Kippy slid into their seat by the window, and Charlie sat next to him across from Robin. The others turned in their seats so they could be part of the conversation..

"What next?" Ricky asked.

Robin turned to smile at Adrian. "That was quick thinking, my boy. No telling what might have happened had that device gotten inside with us."

Adrian sighed. "It was dangerous for me to do that in an enclosed space. I just reacted, instead of thinking."

Robin nodded. "Sometimes that's a good thing. The sheer power of your response will give our new friends something to think about."

Horace cleared his throat. "If this device is not of this earth, then what are we dealing with? Aliens?"

Keerby grunted. "I didn't sense that. They seemed like humans to me."

"To me, as well," Robin agreed. "Most unusual."

"You know," Charlie said, rubbing his chin, "when we were inside that place, I realized something. The sense of power I was feeling seemed so strong because all we ever feel are normal humans. Even when we were in Kinniston with the witches, there were seldom more than a few in the room with us. What I sensed at the manor was numbers. But not that these people are more powerful than we are."

"That was also my impression," Robin agreed. "I just want to warn you not to discount the power of numbers. Many users with the power, acting in concert, can be extremely dangerous."

Kippy sighed. "So we have humans with skwish - a lot of humans with skwish - and humans that have access to some sort of futuristic technology, too."

"Why would they have a ship inspector there?" Ricky asked. "Hell of a place for it!"

"I did not say it was such a device," Ragal corrected. "I said it was similar to such devices."

"It could be designed to work on anything," Casper clarified.

Robin gave a sigh, and settled back into his seat. "There is too much speculation going on now. I think we should stop, lest we fill our minds with preconceptions."

"We're just trying to figure this out!" Ricky countered.

"And we will, in due time. But for now, I suggest we all relax, and turn our thoughts to other paths."

The others clearly looked amazed, but when Robin did not go on, they all turned around in their seats and started talking among themselves.

Charlie leaned across the aisle. "Is that a good idea? They might come up with some good ideas."

"Then they still will." Robin also leaned forward. "We must not assume anything just yet, my dear Boone."

Charlie blinked, and then smiled. "I see. It's still an investigation, isn't it, my dear Hood?"

Kippy rolled his eyes, and sighed. "Oh, brother!"

But Robin laughed, and his eyes sparkled with interest. "We've just begun, my dear Boone. There will be time to speculate aplenty later. And time to think. But for now...we must plan our next move. Our opponents have acted, and we have met them and prevailed. The game is afoot!"

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