Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

Elementary, My Dear Charlie Boone! - Chapter 3

"All I'm saying is that I think it's strange they didn't chase us after Adrian zapped their playtoy," Ricky said, looking annoyed. "Hell, they don't seem to have even tried to track us back here!"

They were met in the spacious living room of their hotel suite, which served as a common area to the five bedrooms the suite provided. Once, Charlie would have probably been astounded at the cost of such richly appointed rooms, but Robin was covering the bill, and had told them not to even worry about the expenses, that it was his party and he was paying for it. It was the first time that Charlie had really considered that Robin was surely a millionaire many times over, having had over eight hundred years to work on the problem of supporting himself. That Robin owned a number of businesses around the world had been suggested by things the man had said, though none of the boys had felt it proper to be too nosy about it. Nicholaas was exactly the same way, having had a millennium to acquire wealth, and he never spoke about such things much, either. But that Nicholaas used his businesses to help others, they did know, and Robin was cast in the same mold as Nicholaas, if just a little more roguish around the edges.

Charlie knew he liked Robin a lot now, and was certain that the storied thief was a good man and could be trusted. So he was willing to indulge him in the Sherlockian approach with which they were dealing with this latest investigation. Robin gave every evidence that he knew what he was doing, and that he was not just playing at detective by emulating Doyle's master investigator. The man was a thinker, and Charlie knew that Robin's experience was head and shoulders above their own. He was more than willing to follow Robin's lead, especially if it made what they were doing even more interesting...and fun!

But neither did he want to forget that this was a serious business they now found themselves engaged in. Playing tag with skwish users could be dangerous. While they had yet to meet other humans that could use such powers on the level that Robin and Nicholaas could, both men had hinted that they considered it probable that there were others out there, as yet undiscovered, with substantial talents in the arts. The numbers of skwish users that Charlie himself had sensed at the manor only proved that the talent was less rare among humans than he had originally supposed.

"I didn't sense that we were tracked back here," Keerby repeated, but with a frown. "But by that I mean I didn't sense any sort of tracking by methods I am aware of."

"I didn't either," Robin agreed, but smiled at Charlie then. "Yet neither was I aware of the fact when you tracked my teleports around the country from your spaceship hovering in space, when we first met. That just shows me, anyway, that there are ways to do things I can't be aware of."

Keerby nodded. "I have to agree with that, at least some. But I'm very sensitive to having any sort of outside influence impinge upon my suspha, and I haven't felt a thing."

Kippy, who had been listening quietly by Charlie's side, suddenly smiled and leaned forward. "Oh, my. And what...and your suspha?"

Adrian, sitting with Ricky, laughed and rolled his eyes.

"Be good, Kip," Charlie said, as much out of habit as anything else. But he couldn't help smiling, too.

"I'm asking a simple question," Kippy returned, seriously. "If Keerby has a suspha, I certainly want to know about it!"

The elf grinned at them, and waved a hand at Kip. "You have a suspha, too. All of you do. It's just a term to describe your overall shell of awareness. Even non-skwish users have this sense of self. It's what makes people suddenly uneasy when someone they can't see is watching them, or the sense of foreboding they might feel before a storm. In skwish-users, it is a heightened awareness of your place and the things around you. Any outside force directed at you should be sensed. This includes the form of active sensing equipment that tech-users employ to track things." He turned to Robin. "The Kifta device used to track your teleportation movements is a passive array designed solely to sense the use of skwish to perform operations. It's like tracking a radio broadcast using a receiver and a directional antenna. There's nothing emitted to impinge upon your suspha, so you are not aware of it."

Kippy blinked, looking impressed, and then smiled. "Your education is showing, Keerby."

The elf looked mildly embarrassed. "It's just one of my interests, Kip. I kinda get involved in things that interest me."

"And you should." Kippy nodded. "I wish more people these days understood the value of education and knowledge."

Ricky chuckled "I think the Britannica thing is rubbing off, Charlie."

"He could do worse," Charlie said, shrugging. He turned back to Robin. "What about that? After sending that machine out to stop us, they seemed to give up pretty quickly after that."

The older man frowned. "Rash act, that. Sending the investigator after us, I mean. Had I been in charge at the manor, I would never have done such a thing."

It was Rick's turn to frown. "You wouldn't want to know who a bunch of skwish users were that had just visited your house?"

Robin shook his head. "No, I would. But I also understand the need for tactful action in such a situation. Why start a fight needlessly?"

"Maybe they're just the fighting type!"

Robin winced. "Let's hope not. But...suppose we trade places with our foes." He suddenly smiled. "If it's even safe to call them that. How about opponents? That will allow them the dignity as yet of not being termed as the enemy."

"Aren't they? "Horace asked. "They attacked our bus!"

"Perhaps," Durapar added. "But perhaps it only seemed that way."

Horace looked baffled. "Punching a hole through the rear of it wasn't exactly a friendly move!"

"It was a machine," Casper explained. "What makes sense to us and what makes sense to a machine are not always the same."

Charlie smiled at him. "Go ahead, Casper. You're our resident skwish expert on machines."

The little alien's human form smiled. "Ragal and I examined that machine. It's AI was primitive, at least by galactic standards. It's power to reason would have been very limited. It would be using a very complex table of instructions instead of an aware ability to reason and problem solve. If this condition exists, then follow this instruction. It's much more the way your own computers operate now, than does a truly self-aware and intelligent mind."

"So why would that make it attack the bus?" Adrian asked.

Casper made a negative gesture. "It may not have been an attack. It could have simply been tasked with catching us and getting our attention. It simply took the most direct method, which was to punch its way through the rear wall."

"Breaking a window would have been a lot faster," Charlie pointed out.

"Yes, but other instructions in the list may have precluded that. If the machine was under instructions not to injure us, then flying glass may have been off the list of permissions. It can become very complicated with all those ifs and thens."

Charlie smiled, impressed. "Your command of English has grown considerably, my friend."

Casper looked delighted. "Well, the direct implantation of knowledge used as a way of learning out in the galaxy helps a lot!"

"He's studied very hard," Ragal said, gazing down at his friend fondly. "He wanted so much to be able to talk to all of you directly, without the translators."

"And now, I can," Casper said, looking happy.

Robin stroked his chin thoughtfully, his eyes on Casper. "So it may not have been an attack at all? Simply an attempt at communication?"

"Maybe. We can't know now. But this particular machine had nothing in the way of weapons aboard. If it was going to hurt us, it would have had to do it with its hands alone."

Robin smiled. "They may have simply sent it after us to stop us. So that they could talk." He nodded. "This is how wars can start, when actions that seemed appropriate at the time are completely misconstrued by the other side. It holds together, and especially as there was no follow up afterwards. Had they been adamant about stopping us, they could have simply grouped their minds and attacked."

Charlie frowned at that. "But that man and woman followed us out of the manor. They stood on the front porch and watched us get into the bus. Wouldn't it have been a lot simpler to just yell, 'Hey, folks, could you wait just a second?'"

Robin laughed at that. "That's what I would have done, more or less, had I wanted to talk. But that operation also supposes an ability to act on the fly. If we suppose a command structure among these people, they may not have been able to act before we boarded the bus and left the parking lot."

Ricky blew out a frustrated breath of air. "So we don't know any more than we did when we started."

"That's not quite true," Charlie said. "We know we're dealing with a number of people that can use skwish, who have access to technology advanced beyond that of Earth, and who have a vast amount of wealth, and, presumably, the accompanying power that goes with it. And that they have probably been around for 78 years."

Ricky stared a moment, and then smiled. "Isn't that what we knew when we started?"

"No. We knew from Robin's visit with them that they were skwish users, and that there were many of them. We didn't have a sense of their power until we felt it for ourselves. We assumed the wealth and power that goes with a corporation that large. But looking around the manor sort of crystallized that fact for me. And, we knew that Espero had been around since the last years of World War II. But we had no inkling of the superior technology."

Ricky considered that, and then turned to Casper. "What did you and Ragal do with that machine?"

"It's wrapped in a blanket in our room. But it's completely inoperative." Casper smiled. "If you're thinking they can find us by its presence here, I don't think they can. It is emitting no signal of any kind. And its construction is not of any material that passive detectors, like radiation sensors, could follow."

Adrian patted his boyfriend's arm. "That wasn't what you were thinking of, was it?"

Ricky smiled at his boyfriend. "Nope." He turned back to Casper. "Could you and Ragal get that machine to work again?"

Casper drew back in surprise, and then turned to Ragal. "What do you think?"

Ragal looked thoughtful. "From what I could see of the interior, the bolt of electricity that Adrian imparted to the shell simply blasted every circuit protector within. The self-repair mechanism was completely offline, so we know the machine will be unable to right itself. might still operate if repaired by an outside force."

"You mean us?" Horace asked. "Is that a good idea?"

"We won't know unless we try," Robin said. "What do you think, Charlie?"

"'re hoping that, if we reactivate this thing, those others will attempt to contact us?"

"It's a possibility." Robin turned to Ragal. "Do you understand the workings of this thing well enough to effect repairs?"

Ragal nodded. "Oh, I think so. With Casper's help, definitely."

Durapar waved a hand. "Might I suggest not reactivating its ability to move under its own power?"

"And why do we want to do this?" Horace asked, sounding upset.

Charlie squinted at him then, suddenly wondering about the man's overabundance of caution. "Does something about this bother you?"

"I--" Horace stopped, and looked around the circle of those watching. "I have a strange feeling about this whole thing, is all."

Kippy reached out and put a hand on Charlie's wrist. "Listen to him, Charlie."

Charlie stared at his boyfriend. "Do you have some warning feeling about this?"

His boyfriend offered a conflicted grimace. " My skwish isn't telling me anything to worry about."

"Then what is it?"

Kippy got up and went to sit beside Horace. He took the older man's hand and squeezed it. "What do you feel?"

Horace returned Kip's gaze uncertainly a moment, and then sighed and closed his eyes. He seemed to go away from them a few seconds, and then to return. He opened his eyes. "I sense something else involved with this situation we find ourselves in. Some larger...presence."

"Like what?" Ricky asked quickly. "Really tall people?"

Adrian gasped, and swatted his boyfriend's arm. Ricky immediately looked contrite. "Sorry. I was just asking what he meant!"

"Something otherworldly." Horace replied, not helping much at all.

But Kippy instantly understood. "You mean a genius loci? Like Gretchen?" He frowned. "Or...something darker, like Pyewacket?"

Horace concentrated a moment, and then nodded his head. "Yes. Dark. But...I just don't know. I sense it there, but also sense it can only watch just now. It seems to have no ability to act here, now, with us. It is all it can do just to observe."

Kip nodded. "Then it's not dangerous?"

Horace shook his head vehemently. "No! It's very dangerous! It's's not here, not with us." He sighed. "It's not of this world."

"Then it can't hurt us, can it?" Adrian asked.

Horace looked over at the boy. "No. It can't reach us here. But it wants to. It wants to, very badly. I sense that it wants destroy us!"

Keerby walked over to stand before Horace. "Kip, can I trade places with you?"

Kippy patted Horace's hand and stood up, and Keerby took his place. "Give me your hand, Horace."

Keerby took the proffered hand in his own, and closed his eyes. It only took him a second to react. First he frowned, and then he gasped. "Oh, no you don't! No running and hiding now!"

For a moment everyone watched in amazement as Keerby's head rocked back and forth and turned side to side, almost as if he was chasing something. And then he made a frustrated sound and opened his eyes to look at Horace. "Well...heck. Do you sense it now?"

Horace closed his own eyes, and then smiled. "No. What did you do?"

"Nothing, really. As soon as I took your hand and looked, there it was. It took off right away, and I followed for a while, but it was too powerful, and too fast. It ducked around a corner and was gone."

"Around a corner?" Charlie asked, wonderingly.

Keerby smiled, and then laughed. "Figure of speech, I guess. A dimensional corner, is a better description." He gave Horace's hand a reassuring squeeze, released it, and stood up. "Your sensitivity is amazing. Horace. I had no idea this thing was around until you pointed it out to me."

Horace nodded, his eyes wide. "What sort of thing is it?"

The elf plucked at one ear lobe. "Not sure. May be a boojum. Can't be a hernacki, or it wouldn't have run. Hernacki's aren't afraid of anything!"

Kippy turned to Charlie. "A dark energy being."

Keerby nodded in agreement. "I'd say so. Big one, too. And, by the way it took off, up to no good of some kind or another. It seemed shocked when I could see it, because it doesn't exist in our universe at all."

Robin glanced at Charlie, a look of amazement in his eyes, and then leaned forward. "If it's not here in our universe, then where is it?"

Keerby looked indecisive for a moment. "Hard to say. Alternate reality to ours, I think. Usually, alternate realities are all connected, but this one seems to have diverged from ours a long time back. There are no natural corridors left that connect them."

Robin nodded. "Then how - and why - is this entity watching us now?"

Keerby pouted in thought a second. "Seeing into alternate realities is a matter of tracing the timelines and windowing the probabilities involved. When two alternate realities are close together, it's not only possible to observe the other, but to travel there. That happened to us last Halloween, when Pyewacket sent us to an alternate reality to this one. Despite the fact that the two realities had diverged very far back, there were incidents of cross-reality travel by individuals that had kept the two realities tied closely together. That's why Pyewacket was able to send us there. This current situation is different."

Robin nodded. "How so?"

" most cases where timelines are as divergent as these two, it's just impossible to take into account all the probabilities involved and open a window to observe the other reality, let alone go there. So something has happened fairly recently to tie our reality to this other one. Some recent connection has been made, which is enough to allow this boojum to observe what is happening here. But it's not enough for it to come here, or to act against us here."

Robin turned to look at Charlie a moment, and then snapped his gaze back to Keerby. "Some connection as recent as, say, 78 years ago?"

The elf nodded. "That would be close enough. But whatever the connection is, it's just one, and it's highly focused. Our new friend doesn't have access to it at all."

Charlie smiled at the elf. "Don't you guys keep track of human skwish activity? I'm surprised this group exists and your people don't already know about it."

Keerby shrugged. "We have people that do keep track of your kind, but we can't be aware of everything that happens in the human world. I think Max already told you that we know there are humans with skwish here, but that the overall activity was miniscule next to the elf world. If this new group is not using skwish actively, they could easily go about their business undetected."

"I agree with that," Ragal put in. "We sensed these people when we got to the manor, but we were not aware of them before the fact. Had they been using large amounts of skwish regularly, then Kip or Adrian would have become aware of it at a much greater distance."

"We didn't know about the witches of Kinniston beforehand," Adrian pointed out.

Kippy bobbed his head in agreement. "And they're not all that far away from where we live."

Ragal nodded, a human mannerism he seemed to have embraced easily enough. "The witches are not users on your level, either, nor are they all active at one time. Detecting the presence of skwish and detecting its activity are not the same thing at all. In your daily lives, you likely pass within shouting distance of others of your kind possessing skwish, and never even know it. But let someone use their talents for anything large at the same distance, and you will know right away."

Kippy turned to Charlie. "I see what he's saying. We could feel the people at the manor, even though they weren't using their skwish, because they were pretty strong, and there were so many of them."

"That's correct," Ragal said. "Yet I didn't detect any usage to speak of. Just native ability, which was, I must say, considerable for your kind." The alien smiled. "But still not as strong as I sense in the four of you."

Casper chuckled in his little hamster laugh. "I can always feel you guys coming!"

Kippy looked amazed at that. "And we're just starting out with skwish, too! So most humans must not be very strong with it at all."

"They're not," Keerby agreed. "Your group is a notable exception, as are the rare instances of individuals like Nicholaas and Robin. And these people we detected at the manor are also stronger than the human average. But they are not on your level, or Ragal's level, or Casper's, and certainly not on Robin's level." He laughed." And I'm an elf! The ten of us arriving all at one time must have greatly alarmed them!"

"They took their time noticing us," Robin said. "We had been there twenty minutes before they came to have a look at us."

Keerby frowned at that. "They had to have noticed us immediately, Robin. I think it was rather that they took that long to react to us."

"Ah. A distinction that's important, I think. It lends to the idea that they have a chain of command that takes some time to make decisions."

Casper smacked his small hands together, his eyes bright. "So what about the investigator? Should Ragal and I try to get it started again?"

Robin turned to Charlie. "Opinion, my dear Boone?"

Charlie grinned at that. "Do you feel it's safe?"

Robin nodded. "As long as it can't explode, or otherwise pose a threat, and Casper and Ragal can fix it so it can't move around, I'd say yes."

Charlie looked around at the others. "Anyone else have a thought?"

Horace raised a hand. "What about the dark energy being?"

"I'm aware of it now," Keerby said. "My hernacki has taught me a few things about dealing with these critters. And I think our friend sensed that, by the way he took off when I focused on him. So I'll sense him now if he comes back."

Horace sighed, and smiled. "Then I have no objections to trying this experiment with the investigator."

Charlie nodded. "Anyone else?"

"Let's get to it," Ricky said. He pointed at Ragal and Casper. "You guys need a hand, I'm good with tools. Just say the word."

Casper and Ragal exchanged smiles. "This is going to require some different tools than you're used to using," Casper said. His eyes twinkled merrily. "But if we need someone to hold the thing down while we tie its arms together, we'll definitely ask you."

Rick's eyes widened, and everyone laughed. Ricky sighed, and nodded. "I guess I should have figured you'd be using skwish tools. I wouldn't mind watching, then."

"We can all watch," Robin suggested. "I think it's a good idea, even."

Charlie nodded. "Then, my dear Hood, I believe it's time to act. Shall we?"

They stood as a group and started for the room shared by Ragal and Casper. Robin moved closer to Charlie as they walked. "This thing seems to be growing in size. It's become a genuine mystery."

Charlie nodded. "It is that. Especially as you just sort of tripped over this whole thing in your corporate studies."

Robin grinned, showing pearly white teeth. "Well...I didn't exactly trip over this thing. The discovery was inevitable, considering the corporate lines I was following. It was quite a web, too." The man shook his head in wonder. "We are dealing with keen minds here, Charlie. It would take an amazing sort of organizational talent to hide this much wealth in plain sight."

Somehow, Charlie wasn't the least bit surprised. "They haven't reacted yet in any way I would have thought of as normal. Maybe we'll learn something more with this next test."


Charlie smiled. "Yes, my dear Hood. It has occurred to me that sending the investigator after us and having it do exactly what it did was a sort of test to see how we might react. I'm just hoping that restarting this gizmo is the solution they hoped from us."

Robin stared at him a full two seconds, and then smiled. "Perhaps you should be Sherlock, and I, Watson!"

"No." Charlie smiled. "I like following your lead. I'll put my observations in, but I am much more comfortable being the good doctor, for now."

Robin seemed pleased. "Then we shall proceed in step, my dear Boone."

They reached the bedroom that Ragal and Casper shared, and Casper got down by one of the beds and reached beneath it. He pulled, and a rolled-up blanket emerged. "This machine is fairly heavy. Rick, will you help me?"

Ricky nodded and jumped forward, and he and Casper lifted the roll to the bed and laid it on the bedspread. Casper carefully unrolled it, revealing the investigator. It had been blackened by its encounter with Adrian's lightning bolt, but Casper had cleaned it up before he and Ragal had rolled it up in the blanket, and now it gleamed in the soft light from the bedroom window.

"Turn on that light overhead, please," Ragal said, pointing at the switch on the wall by the door. Kippy, closest, complied, flooding the room with more direct light.

Horace, up front, immediately pointed. "What's that hole there?"

Casper extended a hand towards an opening in the skin of the investigator. "That's an inspection access. I guess the cover was blown off by Adrian's bolt."

"What happened to that?" Charlie asked.

Casper brought the same hand up in a gesture of uncertainty. "I don't know. I looked for it in the bus, but couldn't find it."

"Does it matter?" Kippy asked. "It's just a cover."

Charlie looked at Robin. "Could our new friends have taken it off before they sent the machine after us?"

Robin raised one eyebrow. "To what end?"

Charlie leaned closer to peer at the investigator. "How was that plate held in place? I don't see any screw holes, or any fasteners."

Ragal shook his head. "Oh, nothing so crude as that. It would have been held in place magnetically, or by a molecular bond. This technology was capable of that much."

Kippy, standing at Charlie's other side, emitted an excited squeak. "They wanted us to be able to get inside!"

"Maybe." Charlie nodded to himself. Just maybe.

Adrian grunted. "You think they want to know how we think? What our motivations are?"

"It makes some sense to me," Durapar spoke up. "If this is some sort of test, as Charlie has suggested, then removing unnecessary obstacles to our completing it would be in their favor."

"You mean, if they had left the cover on the machine, we simply may not have been able to open it?" Horace asked.

"That's likely," Ragal agreed. "A molecular bond, especially, would need a tool tuned to a very specific frequency, and capable of decrypting the security code, to allow the cover to be removed."

"They wanted us to be able to get at the guts!" Ricky said, sounding amazed. "That sure sounds to me like they are hoping we'll make contact."

Robin nodded. "It would take a very certain kind of mind to take what seemed an attack and turn it into a chance to parley." He smiled at Charlie. "I think you're right. They are trying to determine our psychology."

"Minds that prefer the ways of peace look for methods to promote those ends," Durapar said. "While warlike minds react in predictably energetic and often counterproductive ways. One can usually expect the bellicose to strike first and think about it later."

Casper and Ragal bent over the machine, and talked in low voices while everyone else watched. Casper closed his eyes and concentrated several times, and Charlie could feel stirrings of skwish all around the small alien.

Mind tools!

"Wow." Ricky said softly, peering carefully over Casper's shoulder. "That is so cool!"

Charlie could feel the small manipulations himself, as Casper rebuilt parts within the interior of the investigator. The little alien's 'way with machines', as he liked to put it, was certainly on display now!

"Very good," Ragal said approvingly. "Excellent. That shortcut will disallow the arms from moving, and that one will redirect all requests for motive power to the memory's trashcan. I think this will work."

Casper looked pleased. "All I have to do now is send the boot command, and we're in business." He looked up at Charlie. "Whenever you're ready."

Charlie looked to Robin for a cue. "Shall we, my dear Hood?"

The man smiled. "Most definitely, my dear Boone."

Kippy sighed. "This Sherlock Holmes stuff is going to get old, I think."

Charlie and Robin both laughed. "We'll try to keep it to a minimum," Charlie reassured. "We're just having a little fun."

Kippy frowned, and then smiled. "I think I may be a little jealous. No one is calling me 'dear' anything!"

Charlie gave a surprised laugh, and then took Kip's hand, pulled it up, and bent over it and kissed the back of it. "I am ever so sorry, my dear Kip, to have excluded you!"

Kippy's eyes grew wide, and he looked around at the others, who were smiling at him. "I didn't mean....I was only saying..." He sighed then. "That's sweet, Charlie. But I'll bet Sherlock Holmes would have never kissed a guy's hand like that."

"You never know," Charlie returned. "Our Mr. Holmes was a man of many talents, and many mysteries!" He winked. "And, Mr. Holmes was never married, never had a girlfriend, and said that women were not to be trusted. He admired a few for their wits, and was engaged once to a woman around which a mystery revolved, but completely lost interest in her once the mystery was solved." Charlie grinned. "What does that tell you?"

Kippy's smile widened. "That he might have kissed a man's hand, after all."

"I don't believe so," Robin said, almost apologetically. "Doyle never really dropped any clues that Holmes might have liked men."

Charlie nodded. "I agree. Holmes was actually asexual, not expressing such an interest in anyone." He grinned pointedly at Robin. "I do put to you that that leaves the question entirely unanswered."

Robin chuckled. "It does." He waved a hand at the investigator. "Perhaps we can discuss that question in more detail later? I believe this current mystery demands our attention first!"

"Agreed." Charlie looked around at the others. "Anyone have anything to say before we turn this thing on, and possibly vaporize a good part of the Swiss countryside?"

Horace emitted a shocked laugh. "Appalling humor, Charlie!"

"I'm sorry. I trust Casper and Ragal. I think it's safe. But I don't want anyone to feel they have to stay who doesn't feel the same way."

"Will they be able to see us?" Adrian asked.

"No," Casper replied. "I've disabled the visual pickups. But if they speak to us, they will be able to hear our replies."

Ricky looked around at the group. "We're wasting time, Charlie. We're all in this voluntarily!"

Charlie nodded. "Go ahead, Casper."

The small alien nodded, and bent over the machine. There was a hum, a faint illumination inside the case, and then a clearly synthesized voice said, "Preta por servo."

But what Charlie clearly heard through his translator was, "Ready for service."

"That sounds like Spanish," Adrian said.

Charlie shook his head. "It's not. It's Esperanto, I'm pretty sure."

"I agree," Robin said.

"You are correct," a new voice said. "However, for this conversation, we will use English."

Charlie blinked in surprise. This, clearly, was someone speaking to them through the investigator.

"May I inquire with whom I am speaking?" Robin asked immediately, holding up a hand in warning to the others not to speak again.

"My name is Hendrik, and I am speaking from the manor house you visited earlier in the day."

Robin nodded. "You made our exit rather interesting."

"My apologies. We were required by the circumstances to await permission to approach you, and by then you had left the manor. The machine before you was never dangerous to you. That was not its purpose."

"We decided that ourselves, which is why we are speaking now."

"Yes. And despite the slightly overeager attentions of our little friend laying before you, you still came back to talk. That has impressed us."

Robin emitted a small grunt. "The most direct route to obtaining the answers to one's questions is simply to ask for them."

For a second they thought they heard someone else speaking in the background, and then Hendrik's voice returned. "Could we possibly meet?"

Robin smiled at Charlie, and then crossed his arms and placed a tough expression on his face. "I don't know. That would depend on whether or not you have more machines of this type with which to besiege us."

The man on the other end of their link laughed softly. "You must have decided that the machine before you was harmless, or you would not have reactivated it. And that in itself was an impressive feat, as the technology involved would be to you."

"We noticed it had a few clever innovations," Robin admitted, winking at Casper. The little alien beamed, but remained silent. "Nothing we couldn't handle, though."

Again, they thought they heard quiet conversation in the background. "We would very much like to meet you in person," Hendrik reiterated.

Robin nodded. "Are you suggesting that we return to the manor? And place ourselves into your hands?"

Hendrik gave a little sigh. "Come now, let us not play games. We were able to sense your own power, just as you were able to sense ours. It is the opinion of our security people that we would actually be the ones at risk from you, and not the reverse."

Robin looked mildly surprised at that, and turned to look at Charlie. He canted his head at the investigator, and the question was clear: do we go?

Charlie looked to each of his friends in turn, the same question visible in his own eyes. Kip stared back a moment, then smiled, and nodded. Adrian also nodded, and so did Ricky, and emphasized his decision with a wave of his hand, as if to say, let's get this show on the road!

Horace looked indecisive at first, but seemed to take his cue from the others, and nodded. Ragal and Casper both seemed eager to go, and Durapar had his hands clenched together in front of him, his eyes bright, the message within them quite crystal clear: oh please, can we?

Charlie smiled at that, and shifted his gaze to Keerby. The elf was waiting for him, and nodded his head slowly and decisively: yes.

Charlie brought his gaze back to Robin's, and canted his head at the investigator. Shall we go, my dear Hood?

Robin smiled, and nodded. Absolutely, my dear Boone.

The man turned back to the machine then, and leaned closer. "We tend to agree. When would you have us visit you?"

"This evening? Immediately, in other words? I feel that the quicker we meet, the safer we all will be."

That sounded interesting. Robin raised one eyebrow at the implications, but nodded. "Very well. We shall return. Give us a little time, and we'll be there."

A brief sigh came across the link. "Thank you. I think what we have to say will be of interest to you. And I guarantee you safe passage, to and from the manor. You may leave at any time, and no one will hinder you. I ask in return that you agree not to use your considerable powers here. Should we ultimately disagree, I wish the manor to be considered neutral territory. This is of the utmost importance, and I am not being overly dramatic when I say that many lives are at stake."

Charlie could hear the seriousness in the man's voice, and nodded at Robin.

"Very well," Robin replied. "We will agree to those conditions."

"One more thing: may I ask for the return of our device? We would prefer its proprietary technical innovations not be released to the world before our patents are established."

"No problem. We'll bring it with us."

"Wonderful! Then we will await your arrival."

Only then did Charlie realize that he had been hearing an almost inaudible sound, not even a hum, but something that barely registered, that must have indicated the connection between the investigator before them and the distant manor. When it ended, the room fell into an almost amazing silence, and Charlie knew then that the communication link had been severed. Robin pointed at Casper, and the little alien nodded, and looked inside the investigator. Charlie felt several quick, precise movements of skwish, and then the dim glow from within the investigator died out.

"I've shut it down," Casper said then.

For a moment no one said anything, and then it seemed like everyone was talking at once.

"What do you think of that!" Rick said, smiling at his boyfriend. "Was that cool, or what?"

Adrian nodded. "Not what I expected, at all!"

"They seemed quite pleasant," Durapar noted, again clasping his hands before him. "Not at all what one would expect from archvillains!"

"The man sounded sincere," Horace admitted. "I don't feel like we're doing the wrong thing by going, anyway." He laughed. "Not yet, I should say!"

"I'd love to see more of their machines!" Casper said, his eyes shining. "I don't get to see many antiques like that one!"

Kippy leaned up against Charlie's shoulder and whispered into his ear, "Thanks for asking me first."

Charlie smiled at him. "You're always first with me, Kip."

"I have to wonder at the way this has turned out," Ragal put in. "It's unlike so many of the mysteries we tackle for the other side to politely ask us to dinner!"

Everyone laughed at that.

"I didn't hear any mention of food," Ricky complained, patting his stomach. He turned to Charlie. "Can we eat before we go? Just in case?"

"Seems a good idea," Charlie agreed. "You and Adrian want to take orders from everyone and call room service?"

Ricky put on a happy look, and he nodded. "Chow time!"

Robin and Keerby moved closer to Charlie at the same time, and then smiled at each other. "Be my guest," Robin offered, nodding at Charlie.

"Fine, but stay, please, Robin." Keerby turned back to Charlie. "This poses some interesting questions."

Charlie nodded. "I've been thinking of a few, myself."

The elf scratched his chin. "They rightly assessed our superior abilities. Yet they cannot know we are not all humans. So to them, we are simply something entirely new, and yet still very familiar. Other people with superior powers. We are going to need a story to tell them, unless we tell them the truth."

"Ow," Charlie replied, seeing the point of that. "Yeah, I can't see telling them we're a mix of humans, elves, and aliens from other planets. Not right off, anyway. That might not go over well."

Kippy patted Charlie's arm. "Can't we wait to see what they're like, before we tell them anything about ourselves? And for that matter, we don't have to tell them anything. Let them believe whatever they want!"

"That may be a good idea, initially," Robin agreed. "I tend to play my hand close to my vest when going up against unfamiliar players. But at some point, if we are to develop any real trust with these people, we will need to tell them something about ourselves."

"I agree," Charlie said. "But my instinct at the moment is to play this by ear until we see what's going on."

"I'll go along with that." Robin paused as Adrian came up and took their orders for dinner.

"Have we met the enemy, and won yet?" Adrian asked Charlie, smiling.

"Not yet. You and Rick are getting burgers?"

"Yes. The special one with the four kinds of cheese, and lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and mayo. And whatever that really good sauce is they use, too."

Charlie licked his lips, and smiled at Kip. "What do you say, my sweet?"

Kippy laughed. "I'll burger with you, anytime, Charlie."

Charlie nodded at Adrian. "Kip and I will go along with you guys on that one."

Robin and Keerby gave their orders, and Adrian nodded and headed back to Ricky.

"We really should have everyone in on this discussion," Charlie said.

Robin nodded. "We'll talk over dinner. I'm just trying to figure out what we need to discuss."

"I don't think these people can put anything over on us," Keerby said. "Their abilities seem strong, for humans,"

"But you're an elf," Kippy finished, smiling.

Keerby looked embarrassed. "Well, yeah. I mean, we have a lot more experience at this sort of thing than humans do."

Charlie waved a hand dismissively. "No need to worry, Keerby. We know we're still learning."

The elf looked relieved.

"Yeah, like how Horace had to show you that dark energy being that was spying on us," Kippy added, smiling.

Keerby winced, and then sighed. "Okay, okay. All of us, taken together, are a formidable force. What I sensed of these others is that they wouldn't be able to take us on. But that does not mean they can't be dangerous. So we should be careful, even so."

Charlie smiled at Robin. "You know, either you or Keerby could have instantly teleported all of us back to the manor?"

History's favorite thief laughed. "And let them know we could? They may have sensed our superior power, Charlie, but they can't tell exactly what our abilities might be. I consider it good strategy to conceal our ability to teleport for now."

"I think it's also wise," Keerby added, looking at Robin with approval.

Kippy sighed. "Then won't we have to get that nice Ruedi with the amazing mustache and the quick trigger finger back here with his bus?"

Robin laughed. "I'll call him in a moment."

Ricky and Adrian returned then. "Food's ordered. What'd we miss?"

"Nothing that won't be repeated while we eat," Charlie said, smiling at his friend. "We were basically standing here, trading insults."

"You were not!" Adrian said, laughing.

Robin held up his hands then. "Please!" He sighed. "Oh, to be two hundred again!"

That got a laugh from everyone, and brought the others back to the group.

They headed back to the living room, off which was a very nice dining room, with a large window giving a fine view of the city. It was just into evening, with perhaps four hours of sunlight left in the day. The room service was very good, and their food arrived in only about 20 minute's time.

"I'd better call Ruedi before I sit down, and ask him to come over," Robin said then. "He's on call, but it will take him about ten minutes to get here."

That done, they dove into their meals. The food was excellent, but they'd come to expect that from the hotel. Robin apparently knew the best places to stay in most of Europe by now.

"We're just going to drive up and knock on the door?" Ricky asked, between mouthfuls.

"I rather think they'll be waiting for us," Ragal answered. "They'll sense us before we get there."

Robin looked around the table. "Any objection to me being the spokesperson for the group? At least initially?"

Kippy waved a hand. "You've got my vote."

Charlie laughed, but nodded at Robin. "You've been doing great so far. And we all kind of feel that you discovered this mess, so you should have to deal with it."

Robin grinned around his burger. "Why is it always the older folks that you youngsters have to sharpen your teeth upon?"

"You taste best, I guess," Adrian tossed in, smiling.

Robin looked around the table, and then smiled. "This is so much like eating with my merry band of cutthroats and thieves when I was a thorn in the side of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Everyone all anxious to get out there and raise hell!"

Everyone laughed, but Ricky said it best. "I think we're a little nervous, is all."

"I can understand that," Robin replied. "It's not uncommon for soldiers to get cocky right before going into battle."

Charlie paused in his eating. "Are you likening what we are going to do to going into battle?"

Robin shook his head. "No. I'm not. Quite the contrary, I have a very good gut feeling about this." He sighed. "Relax, huh? I would never take you boys into any situation I felt we could not handle."

Charlie nodded. But as he resumed eating, he felt much better. He had been a little nervous. What they did not know about this situation far exceeded what they did know. But...Charlie trusted Robin. The man had not lived over eight hundred years by constantly sticking his neck in the noose. And...what was it about this case, anyway, that was so much more nerve-wracking than any other they had pursued in the past six years?

But even as he wondered, the answer came to him - what it was that was so different about this new case. This one was happening here, on their own Earth. Not out in the galaxy, not in some other universe or dimension. Here, at home.

A very strange mystery had been discovered right in their own backyard. The clues they had been given thus far suggested some possibly amazing things. And now they were about to go after answers; indeed, they had been invited to do so.

The question now was, what would they find?

And, how would they deal with the answers they received?

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