Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

It's Just a Matter of Time, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 1

© 2022 Geron Kees. All rights reserved.

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

Snow fell outside the cottage. The horizon, absent cloud cover, rippled with the illuminated curtains of color that were the aurora borealis, the great northern lights. The wind whipped and turned, creating dry snow devils beyond the frosted window panes, and causing the eaves of the cottage to hum in gentle sympathy.

Within the snowbound house, Charlie Boone and his boyfriend, Kippy Lawson, sat together on one of two fat, comfortable sofas before a large stone hearth filled with flames. The fire crackled cheerfully, and filled the room with a welcome warmth. On the sofa beside their own, Ricky Travers and Adrian Whitacre sat together, their fingers intertwined just as Charlie's were with Kip's. All four of the young men were tense, watching the elf before them as she moved slowly back and forth before the flames.

"You have all done very well learning my methods," Blanche Kutraposky told them, her gaze firm. "You have come to see your minds as a citadel, a fortress. Its walls of solid stone, its parapets manned and ready. All comers are challenged, none let within. The only way to protect what is yours, and yours alone, is through eternal vigilance."

The gray-haired woman sighed then, and patted the front of the apron she wore over her house dress. "Of course, once you have your defenses in place, they become automatic, and don't need much maintenance."

Charlie shook his head then. "So, you're saying that the things you have taught us are all we need to protect ourselves from a hypnotic?"

"They seem such...such simple defenses," Kippy added, sounding unconvinced.

"They are simple defenses," Blanche agreed, smiling. "But powerful defenses often are quite uncomplicated in nature." She waved a finger at them. "Always remember: the simplest solutions are usually the best ones. The more complex any magic becomes, the more likely there is to be a loophole somewhere that someone can utilize to get to you. A smooth, solid wall is always more secure than one fitted with doors and windows, even though they be equipped with the strongest locks available."

Ricky nodded at that. "That makes sense. But will these mental walls keep out someone like Lane Tallfield?"

Blanche offered a disapproving look. "From what you have told me of him, he's something of a driven man. But, I can assure you that his type of talent all works in the same way. As I have explained, a hypnotic works by subtly overlaying your mental processes with their own. They create a new mental reality, that becomes your own. It is normally a surreptitious event, as once a subject is aware that it can be done, it makes it much harder to accomplish. The fact that your Mr. Tallfield was able to control thousands of others marks him as a giant in his ability. I have never known anyone quite so adept."

"That's what worries us," Charlie said. "He seems so powerful."

"Nevertheless, even the most powerful of hypnotics must get their foot in the door first. The techniques I have taught you will lock that door against any entry."

Charlie thought back to their encounter with Tallfield. He remembered the first inkling he'd had that something was wrong, but knew now that had only happened after the man had already compromised their thought processes. He squirmed slightly, recalling the horror he'd felt when he'd understood what was happening.

"I know it's traumatic," Blanche said then, watching Charlie with sympathy. "It's a devilish talent. To be invaded within the privacy of your own thoughts is a shock and an insult." She sighed. "But now, it cannot happen again. Your defenses are active and will need no constant monitoring to keep them effective. Any time a power such as the one this Tallfield uses to control others impinges upon your defenses, you will know, and your defenses will intensify." She managed a smile then. "You are all bursting with skwish. I cannot conceive of a hypnotic so powerful that he could overcome your defenses."

"Tell that to the thousands of people he was controlling at once," Kippy said, still sounding unconvinced.

Blanche gave a small nod. "Your Mr. Tallfield is apparently immensely powerful, but he is not as able as you might think." She waved a hand at Charlie. "Didn't you tell me that when you broke his focus, all of the thousands of minds he controlled were released at once?"

"That's right." Charlie blew out a short, uncomfortable breath at the memory. "It felt like they all took off in every direction possible at the same time."

The elf looked satisfied. "See? He was using a single template to control so many. One mental reality he had created to contain them all. When his focus broke, they were all released."

"Is there another way?" Adrian asked.

"Yes. The ablest hypnotics I have encountered create a single mental reality for each of their victims. Some of these hypnotics can control a hundred or more realities, and thus victims. Your man Tallfield had the power to control thousands, but not the ability to provide each with a mental reality of their own. He was trying to add your group to that single template, and when you broke his concentration, it released, not just yourselves, but everyone else as well."

"So what does that say about him?" Charlie asked, unable not to smile a little. "That he's very powerful, just not very good at what he does?"

The elf laughed, and Charlie's smile widened at the pleasant sound of it.

"It tells me that his experience is limited. But that doesn't mean he won't be able to refine his techniques as he goes. He will learn from his mistake with you, certainly. He will understand that using one group mental reality in which to store his subject's minds is dangerous and prone to failure. I expect that by the next time you meet him he will have expanded his abilities. Unless he is simply stupid, of course."

"I didn't get the impression he was stupid," Charlie returned. "Nasty, yes. Stupid, no."

"Hypnotics often have personality dysfunctions," Blanche said. "Delving into the minds of others means being exposed to a multitude of such issues."

Charlie closed his eyes a moment, and willed himself to relax. Just thinking about Tallfield brought back the frightening feelings he'd experienced during their encounter.

"You must learn to trust yourself, Charlie," Blanche said quietly. "All of you must. You are protected now. The techniques I have shared with you will work. The ways that hypnotics can invade the mind are many. But the protections to thwart them are very simple, and few, and well-tested. You'll be safe now, and you must not let fear stalk your path forward."

Charlie nodded. "Okay." He felt around inside his head, and marveled at the new structures he found there. They were immaterial, and yet he very much sensed them as physical walls. Fed by his skwish ability, they were formidable in both size and solidity, completely surrounding the core of what he considered to be himself inside his head. And yet...when he examined them closely, looked outwards at the world beyond those walls, it was as though they were totally transparent, made simply of air. His mind still felt free to roam, still felt free to act. The walls would protect him without confining him, without staunching his own abilities.

I can still use my own powers, he understood. I can still fight back if I need to.

But...he squinted quizzically at the elf then. "You're not a hypnotic, yourself, are you?"

"No. That one's a rare talent, Charlie. Or a rare curse, depending on your point of view. It's definitely not an ability I would care to be saddled with, quite frankly." Blanche smiled. "My specialty is the mind, though. I am akin to a human psychologist, perhaps? Knowing how the mind works in a skwish-dominated world is key to defending its independence, Charlie."

Charlie sighed softly at that, feeling totally at ease again for the first time since meeting Tallfield, and the others seemed to relax, too. Blanche looked around at them, and smiled. "Any further questions?"

There seemed to be none. The elf seemed satisfied with the response, and nodded at them. "You are all very able students. I'm sure you'll be fine now."

Charlie took that as the signal that they were finished here. He stood, and smiled at Blanche. "Thank you. For everything."

"Not at all. You tell that old reprobate, Max, that I have repaid another of the many favors that I owe him."

Charlie smiled as the others got up. "I will. I'm sure he'll be delighted to hear it."

Blanche laughed, another pleasant sound that made Charlie grin. "Oh, I know he will. And Charlie? You can tell the others to come in."

The four of them headed for the door into the entry vestibule of the cottage. Charlie opened it, and they filed out.

Seated in the narrow entry foyer were Ragal, Casper, Horace, and Uncle Bob. They all looked up as the four boys emerged.

Horace got up first, looking nervous. "How was it?"

"Piece of cake," Kippy said, feigning complete nonchalance. "Don't worry about it at all."

"You four can go ahead in," Charlie said, smacking his boyfriend gently on the butt. Kippy grinned at him, but didn't say anything.

Ragal paused beside Charlie as the others entered ahead of him. "Everything okay?"

Charlie nodded. "I think so. I think we have just what we need now to face Tallfield."

The tall alien looked pleased. "Good. I rather want another crack at him." He smiled. "I have come up with a few surprises of my own for our next encounter."

"I can only imagine," Charlie said, laughing.

Ragal clapped him on the shoulder, and then followed the others inside and closed the door.

"Horace was nervous," Kippy said, staring at the door. "Poor thing. He has enough experiences with spooks and specters on the outside, without also having to worry about them invading the inside of his head, too."

Charlie frowned at that. "Tallfield isn't a spook or a specter. He's just a man with an insidious gift. Once Horace understands Tallfield can't get at him anymore, he'll be fine."

Kippy watched Charlie closely a moment, and then took his hand. "And how are you doing?"

"Me?" Charlie smiled, bent forward, and kissed his boyfriend. "I think I'll be okay."

"I know you too well, Charlie Boone. You worry about things, when you shouldn't. Max wouldn't send us to someone who didn't know what they were doing."

"Wasn't that you just a few minutes ago that seemed uncertain?"

Kippy sighed. "Well, I'm not now. And you shouldn't be, either. Blanche knows her stuff, Charlie."

"I kind of felt like she did," Ricky said then. "Um, not that I was eavesdropping on what you guys were saying, or anything."

Adrian rolled his eyes, and smiled. ""I wasn't listening, either. Now stop worrying so much. Charlie."

Kippy leaned up against Charlie and nuzzled his face into Charlie's cheek. "Are you hearing us?"

Charlie laughed. "Yes." He turned his head and kissed Kippy again. "It isn't just me I worry about. It's all of us."

"Well, stop it. We'll be fine."

Charlie indicated the seats the others had just vacated. "Sit with me and hold my hand?"

Kippy sighed, and gently swatted Charlie's shoulder. "You're incorrigible."

"I try. But, come on. We might as well sit while we wait for the others." Charlie looked at his watch then. "We should be done here in plenty of time to meet Robin."

Their own introduction to mental defense had taken about two hours. The four of them talked while they waited, and the time passed quickly.

When the door opened again and the others came out, Blanche emerged with them. Charlie quickly examined his friend's faces, and noted that Horace and Bob were both smiling. Casper was laughing, and Ragal seemed as confident as ever. Those were good signs, and it made Charlie smile.

"You are all excellent students," Blanche told them, looking quite happy, herself. "I feel confident now that you can go out there and win!"

Uncle Bob tilted his head at the woman and smiled their way. "She's a better coach than I had in high school football!"

"I've learned some fascinating things," Ragal said, appearing quite pleased. "Some of which may open the door for further contributions to our defense."

"Walls in my head," Casper said, smiling at Charlie. "Who knew!"

Horace came over to them and gave a little sigh. "I feel a lot safer now."

Charlie reached out and squeezed the man's wrist comfortingly. "I'm glad. I was a little worried that our recent experiences put a damper on your enthusiasm."

The older man frowned at that. "Oh...I wasn't having second thoughts about being a part of Third Planet Inquiries, if that's what you're thinking."

"He was," Kippy said boldly. "Charlie was worried. He thinks he's your daddy."

Charlie sighed, and jabbed Kip with his elbow. "You're not helping."

Horace smiled, and nodded his head gently at Kippy. "I like the way that Charlie looks out for us. It's a good quality for a leader to have."

"I think so, too," Uncle Bob agreed. "Be nice, Kip."

Charlie grinned. "See?"

Kippy stuck out his tongue, but looked happy. "I was worried about you, too," he confessed to Horace.

The man gave another slow nod. "I was worried about me. But for a different reason than you may think. This fellow, Tallfield? He felt the same way inside my head that Pyewacket did when we first met him. Like a boojum. Dark and powerful. I expect that sort of thing from a natural force, but not from a human being."

"You think Tallfield isn't human?" Adrian asked.

"No, I didn't say that. I'm just referring to the sort of power Tallfield seems to wield. And the malevolence he wields it with. It seems somehow unnatural in a human being."

"He's not exactly human anymore," Ragal pointed out. "He's passed. In the lower layer, abilities a person had while alive sometimes become...changed. Sometimes they become more powerful. Sometimes, they just become different. Tallfield is no longer exactly the same man he was when he was living."

Horace shook his head. "It's not even that." He looked pointedly at Charlie. "I tend to attract forces like my Gretchen, and Kiernan's Pyewacket." He grunted. "I don't want to think that our Mr. Tallfield is drawn to me as well, or that I am a liability to the group because I'm present."

Charlie was surprised by that idea. "I don't think that will be a problem. You gained the ability to summon Tallfield in the lower layer, yes, and he didn't like that one bit. But I don't think he will have the same awareness of you that a genius loci would. You draw those spirits because you're sympathetic to them. They sense you're a friendly encounter."

Horace smiled. "I do find most of them to be very nice people."

Charlie grinned at that. "See? There is the attraction for these spirits. You're interested and welcoming. I kind of doubt you feel that way towards Tallfield."

"No. I'd be quite happy to never see the man again." Horace gave a sigh, and looked content. "Okay. I'll stop worrying that I'm throwing a wrench into things."

Kippy patted the man's arm. "Good. Because we need you."

"There you go," Charlie said, smiling.

Uncle Bob gave Horace a little nudge with his elbow. "What did I tell you?"

"It sounds like everything will be fine now," Blanche said then. "Time for me to get back to my cooking."

"I hope you didn't burn anything on the stove," Kippy said. "We kept you busy for some hours there."

The elf smiled. "Not at all. I'm preparing a banquet for the Wednesday Afternoon Ladies Society of Christmas Cheer Givers. There's only 200 or so attending. I simply put it all on hold while we talked. Just a wave of the hand, and I'll be right back where I left off."

"What does your group do?" Adrian asked.

Blanche offered a winning smile. "Why, we spread good cheer, of course."

"Of course!" Kippy agreed, beaming.

"Well, thanks again," Charlie offered. That was followed by a chorus of similar gratitude from the others.

The elf looked pleased. "You'll be fine. Just remember that Mr. Tallfield's element of surprise is gone now. He will not be able to get at you again."

Charlie thought of something then. "Um, we may have a few others that need your training. Would it be okay to bring them by, if needed?"

"Certainly. Just pop in at any time. I'm always pleased to have company."

They thanked the woman again, and she returned to her inner sanctum and closed the door.

Adrian shook his head in wonder. "Max sure knows some wonderful people."

"What do you expect from elves?" Ricky asked. "They're all cool!"

Charlie looked at his watch again. "Well, it's about time we go meet Robin." He smiled at Bob. "Would you?"

Uncle Bob grinned, and opened his arms. "Gather around, my children, for we are off to Bavaria!"

Kippy sighed, looking happy. "I knew this would work out!"

Robin paced back and forth slowly, thinking. They were in the great room of the man's castle in the mountains of Bavaria, and Robin was pacing against the backdrop of the snow-covered valley arrayed beyond the large, multi-paned window in the outer wall. "I've never encountered one of these hypnotics before. Their talent must be very rare."

"Then you'll need Blanche's training," Charlie suggested. "If you're coming with us, it's the only way to make sure you're safe."

Robin smiled at Uncle Bob. "When we're done here, you can teleport me to her home. I can find my way back by myself."

"Will do."

Robin stopped his pacing, and looked thoughtfully at Charlie. "Did you talk to Max about coming along? Or Keerby?"

Charlie nodded. "Max is very busy helping Nicholaas get ready for Christmas deliveries. Nicholaas has already started on his delivery equation. I don't think we can ask either for help just now."

The man frowned at that. "I've already done my part to assist Nicholaas with his transdimensional delivery equation. He'll be done early, just as he was last year. Max won't be as busy as he normally is, either. Can't he put us outside of time long enough for him to help?"

"We had a long talk with him about that. He said that neither he nor Keerby can make changes that would be effective in the lower layer. There isn't any time there." Charlie gave an amazed shake of his head. "He tried to explain to me the difference between the passing of time in our layer of the universe and what he calls a mutable subjective reality, which is what we experience in the lower layer. All it did was give me a headache."

"It gave us all headaches," Kippy added, rolling his eyes. "Max is busy, and seemed to think we can do this on our own. And Keerby is off being best man at his girlfriend's brother's wedding."

Adrian smiled at that. "Bet he's cute in a suit!"

He and Kippy exchanged knowing looks.

Robin frowned at learning that neither elf was available. "And yet, somehow I feel an ability with time is needed in this upcoming venture."

"So did I," Charlie admitted. He smiled then. "Max was able to offer us a solution."

Ricky laughed. "I'll say! He said we could take Auggie along with us."

Robin's eyebrows went up. "The magical bearcat?"

"The one and only," Uncle Bob said, grinning.

"And he's pure skwish," Kippy reminded. "He won't even need Blanche to work on him to be safe from Tallfield."

Robin smiled. "This offers interesting possibilities, too. My meetings with Auggie have always made all my little sensory bells ring. He's a powerhouse of untapped talent."

"And you liked him," Kippy pressed, grinning.

"And I liked him," Robin admitted, his smile growing broader. "I have a good feeling about this plan." He made a thoughtful face then. "Hmm. Maybe it's not so much that they aren't available, as that they aren't making themselves available. I suspect from conversations I've had with Nicholaas that both, he and Max, feel you boys should be let out on your leash a little to handle things on your own."

"I wasn't aware we were on a leash," Charlie said, trying not to smile.

"Metaphorically speaking, of course," Robin amended. He smiled then, looking around at the group. "Nicholaas and Max think highly of all of you. They want you to understand just how capable you have become. Having them along tends to place you in their shadows, if you know what I mean."

"We've sort of figured that out already," Rick said. "That they felt we could do more on our own, without always falling back on them. And so far, we have done mostly okay."

"You have," Robin agreed. "You roped me in!"

They all smiled at that. History's favorite thief had allowed himself to be snagged, if anything.

Okay." Robin nodded. "That sounds like the start of a plan, then. Bob, if you would, run me over to this Blanche's place, and then you can come back here and get the guys." He turned to Charlie then. "If that's okay, I'll meet you at your offices later."

"That's fine," Charlie agreed.

Bob approached Robin, and the two vanished together.

"Your uncle's getting mighty good at that teleporting stuff," Adrian told his boyfriend, smiling.

"It's a nice ability to have," Horace agreed. "Bob and I can hang out whenever we want these days on very short notice. A quick phone call, and then he's there." The man smiled. "Gretchen likes him, too."

Ricky seemed pleased to hear that. "You two have become good friends."

The older man nodded. "We have. He's a lot like you, Rick. Or, you're a lot like him."

Adrian grinned at that. "No comment."

Ricky smiled, and gave his boyfriend a squeeze. "Just you wait."

"Ooh! I like the sound of that!"

Casper giggled, and Ragal fixed a smile on Charlie. "I feel like we've bounced back somewhat from our encounter with Tallfield."

"Yeah." Charlie nodded, feeling a little surprised. "I think so. I'm more focused now on how to dislodge him from Jol's reality than I am on defending our group from his power."

The tall alien considered that. "Speaking of powers, we really don't know what other talents our Mr. Tallfield might have up his sleeve. He was able to sling arrows of a sort at us, as well as trying to sweep us away with a wall of water. He may have other tricks at his disposal, as well."

"I'll bet he does," Casper offered. "And I'll bet it's all mean stuff, too."

"I guess we'll find out," Charlie reasoned. "If it comes to a face-to-face fight, I don't see him holding back."

Bob reappeared, and gave a little shiver. "Cold there!"

"You went outside?" Rick asked, his eyes widening.

Bob laughed. "I didn't have to. I just looked out that little window in the entry hall, and it looked like a blizzard going on. That was enough to convince me!"

"It doesn't bother elves," Kippy said, laughing. "They teleport everywhere."

Charlie smiled at Rick's uncle. "Robin dropped off okay?"

"Sure. That Blanche is a sweetie. You should have seen the size of the cake she's making. You could probably feed 100 people with it!"

"Maybe even 200," Kippy said, looking interested. "She showed it to you?"

"Uh huh. I went in with Robin, and the first thing he said was, 'Oh, something smells wonderful!'. Then he closed his eyes, sniffed the air, and said he smelled butterscotch, chocolate, and peanut butter. Blanche seemed thrilled to hear that, and then we were off to the kitchen!"

Ricky grinned. "The man has a way about him, doesn't he?"

Bob nodded. "Sure does." He shook his head. "I never would have believed that a kitchen that size would fit into a small cottage like that. I saw smaller chow halls when I was in the service!"

Charlie laughed at that. "Elves are not constrained by mere things like size. Max's little house has more rooms and floors than you can shake a stick at!"

"He said over a thousand elves lived there," Kip remembered. "It's a big family."

Bob emitted a happy sigh. "Sure is fun to be a part of all this." He turned his smile on Charlie. "Ready to head back to the office?"

Charlie turned a last time to look out the grand window into the valley beyond, where the lights of a small town shone under the late afternoon sky. The clouds had lowered, and it looked like some fresh flakes were just starting to amble down to the already snow-covered ground. The town was lit with lights of all colors in keeping with the holiday, and was awfully appealing to the eye and the heart. It was looking like Christmas here, certainly. Maybe they could find time to visit that little town and see what it had to offer, before the holiday was done.

But first...they had work to do.

Charlie sighed, nodded, and pulled Kip closer. "Yes. Let's go."

Bob opened his arms and gathered them together, and then the small town beyond the window vanished.

Amy flipped through the small notepad she had in hand, quickly scanning her notes. "Mr. Okasha called again about that Egyptian project. He said he'd try to have some map coordinates for you just after the holiday."

"Oh, good. "Charlie stopped pacing and nodded at that. "We can get started on looking for that site, then."

"What's that one about?" Bob asked.

Kippy waved a hand. "Oh, just something about a mummy that won't stay in its tomb. We'll get to that after New Year's probably."

Amy nodded. "And I got about a ream of notes faxed by Ms. Clowper on the big old barn on her property. Lots of stuff on when it was constructed, who did the work, the types of materials used, who has lived on the property since the barn was constructed, etcetera, etcetera. About 150 years of history there. It will take you a couple of hours just to read it all."

"She was good with the February start date?" Charlie asked.

"She said that would be fine."

Bob had been looking back and forth between Charlie and Amy. "You're taking on a job about a barn?"

Charlie smiled. "Sure. This one has a way of disappearing on certain nights of the year. The property owner, Ms. Clowper, wants us to find out where it goes."

"Piece of cake," Ricky said, waving a hand nonchalantly. "Probably just mice in the cellar, or something."

Amy smiled, and turned another page. "And, I talked to Arno Coldat. He was hoping he could get an earlier start date on his mountain house project."

Charlie shrugged. "We take them in order. It will depend on how quickly we get finished with the first two."

"I told him that. He just said that any flexibility you can offer would be appreciated."

"I'll keep that in mind," Charlie agreed.

Bob smiled. "And what's that one?"

"Just an old haunted house," Kip said. "Up in the mountains, somewhere."

Charlie nodded. "Big old house. The current owner is trying to convert it into a bed and breakfast, but the house doesn't seem to like that idea."

Bob's eyebrows jumped skyward. "How so?"

Charlie laughed. "Well, he says that three different construction crews have gutted and rebuilt five rooms so far, and that all five have reverted back to their original state. Now he can't get anyone to work there, and his investment is in danger of being lost."

Horace raised a hand. "I'm in on that one, right?"

"Yes, sir. Ghost hunters are not easy to come by!" Charlie turned and smiled at Bob. "Why so curious? Are you bored and looking for things to do?"

The older man laughed. "You know you can call me anytime for one of these things, Charlie."

"I will. Consider yourself hired for anything that interests you."

"Wow, thanks!" A cautionary note appeared in the man's eyes. "Um, just remember that I still have a magic act, and some bookings. But I'll come when I can."

Charlie nodded. "You're free to join in on anything, if you're available." He turned his smile on Horace. "You, too." And then he moved his eyes back to Amy. "And you. You're welcome to come along on these things, too."

The woman smiled. "I know. I'll speak up, believe me. Give me some time, Charlie."

"What about me?" Robin asked, smiling.

Charlie rolled his eyes. "Do I even need to ask you?"

"It's always nice to be asked, Charlie."

"Okay. Robin Hood, prince of thieves, thorn in the side of the Sheriff of Nottingham, defender of the kingdom of Richard, The Lionhearted - are you interested in joining us on more of our adventures?"

The man grinned. "Well, when you say it like that--"

"He means 'yes'," Kippy said, airily.

"Sounded like a 'yes' to me, too," Rick said, feigning boredom.

"Was that a 'yes'?" Charlie asked.

Robin laughed. "That was a 'yes'. Now, can we get on with our plans?"

"It does seem like we should be forming some ideas on what we plan to do next," Ragal agreed, his eyes twinkling mischievously at Charlie.

Charlie nodded. "It's not like I'm ignoring Tallfield. Chirka said she could insert us back into Jol's realty at any point after we left. After talking to Max about the mutable subjective reality stuff, I understand at least that we can pick up virtually where we left off there no matter when we go back. I will admit to not being in a hurry, since I feel something is still to happen that will affect what we have to do."

Kippy turned to look at him. "You're waiting for something to happen?"

"Well...yes. And I have no idea what it is."

Kip frowned, and turned to Adrian. "Do you sense something pending? I don't."

" I mean, I've had a kind of sense of anticipation for some time now, but I just thought it was about getting back to The Tors."

Kippy nodded. "Yeah, I've had that feeling, too, and thought it was for the same reason." He turned back to Charlie. "Now, I'm not so sure."

"What do you feel, Charlie?" Casper asked.

Charlie smiled. "I have no idea. Just that something is going to happen."

Robin pursed his lips, watching Charlie. "I trust your instincts, Charlie. If you feel we're in no hurry, I'll go along with that."

"Thanks. I'm not dragging my feet, believe me. I just...we're waiting for something important to occur."

Kippy smiled. "Well, you could at least sit down until it happens."

"Sure." Charlie sat down on the sofa, looked at the empty spot next to him, and sighed. "I sure could use a warm body next to me to put my arm around."

Kippy grinned, and came over to stand beside him. "Will I do?"

Charlie looked up at his boyfriend, and squinted at him, feigning indifference. "I suppose. Are you warm?"

Kippy huffed and dropped onto the couch next to Charlie, and pushed himself against him. "How's that?"

Charlie smiled. "Not bad. Are you good to put an arm around?"

Kippy grabbed up Charlie's hand and draped his arm over his shoulder. "How's that?"

Charlie tightened his grasp around his boyfriend and sighed happily. "Good. Very good." He leaned closer to Kip and kissed him. Kippy beamed, looking absolutely contented.

Ricky and Adrian, seated nearby, laughed. Amy smiled, and closed the notepad on her knee. "You two are so sweet."

Horace smiled at her. "And you are very nice to say so."

Amy turned to him, and nodded. "Happiness is something you should always encourage in people when you see it. The world doesn't have enough of it to go around anymore."

Horace gave a little sigh of his own, and smiled at Charlie. Isn't she wonderful?

Charlie and Kippy, both, sighed happily in unison.

"Oh, that reminds me," Amy said then, opening her notepad again, and flipping to the back of it. "There was a call earlier from a man who wanted to talk to you, Charlie. I said you weren't in, and to leave a message if he liked, but all he gave me was his name and a phone number."

Charlie nodded at her. "In a client capacity, you mean?"

The woman looked uncertain. "I sensed he was worried about something, but he didn't say what. But without more information, I can only guess it was about hiring the agency for something."

"Okay," Charlie indicated the coffee table in front of them. "Leave the number on the table, and I'll give him a call as soon as I can."

Amy nodded, tore out the sheet of paper she'd been looking at, and laid it on the coffee table. "I'd better get back to the front desk. There's probably a whole army of people out there waiting to hire us."

That brought a round of laughter, and Amy smiled as she got up. "Well, it could happen. Someday."

Horace got up with her. "I'll walk you out." He grinned at Charlie and Kip again, and they all smiled as the pair left the room.

"He's got it bad," Ricky said, laughing.

"Amy likes him back, I can tell," Adrian said.

"They talk on the phone every night," Uncle Bob confided. "I see a spark there, myself."

Charlie opened his mouth to comment, but then closed it again as a thin humming sound filled the room. A large circle of light appeared nearby, blinked, and then a figure stepped through it into the room. The circle of light blinked again, and then vanished.

Auggie bounded across the room and leaped onto the couch with Charlie and Kip, causing both of them to bounce into the air. The bearcat laid across their laps as they came down again, and rolled to gaze happily up at them. "Char-lee! Kip-pee!"

Charlie and Kip leaned forward to hug Auggie, and for a moment the room filled with happy sounds as greetings were exchanged. Then Auggie slid off the couch and went around to greet everyone, stopping at last before Uncle Bob and grinning his cat grin at the man. Auggie's fiery mane waved happily, and his eyes shone with interest. "Mah-jeek."

Uncle Bob grinned. "Sure. What'll it be?"

The cat grunted out a laugh. "Coin treek."

"One coin trick, coming right up."

Bob reached into his pocket, found a quarter, and brought it out for everyone to see. Auggie's eyes fastened on it with delight.

"I have here one quarter of a dollar, two bits, a cup of coffee in far better times. It's shiny, it's new, it bears the likeness of good old George, and it's coin of the realm. I place this coin in one hand, like so, and wave it a little to get the electrons going. I close my eyes, say the magic words, 'Lucee, you have some splainin' to do!', and, voila! I open my hand, and the coin is no more!"

Bob opened his hand, and the coin had vanished. Auggie jumped up and down excitedly in place, and nosed the hand with his muzzle. He then turned immediately to Bob's other hand and nudged it with his nose. Bob opened his fingers, showing the hand to be empty.

Auggie snorted happily. "Where?"

"Ah, where, indeed? The magical winds are energetic today, and the coin could be anywhere in this room. But...wait. I sense it nearby. Yes, it has come to rest!" Bob leaned forward, waved both of his open and empty hands in front of Auggie's eyes, and then slowly moved his right hand to one of the cat's big ears, touched it gently, and then pulled his hand back, the quarter prominently displayed between thumb and forefinger. "Why, here it is! You had it, all along!"

Auggie leaned forward to plant a big kiss on Uncle Bob's cheek. "Mah-jeek!"

The room erupted into laughter as Bob's face gently reddened. But he leaned forward, always the good sport, and planted an affectionate kiss squarely atop the bearcat's nose, which caused Auggie to sway back and forth happily.

"I'd say you wowed your audience, Unk!" Ricky called happily.

Auggie looked around at the smiles directed his way, and ground out another great laugh. Then he favored Bob with another smile, got up, and headed back to sit in front of Charlie. "Where bad guy?"

Kippy sighed happily, and leaned up against Charlie again. "How can we lose?"

Charlie smiled at the bearcat. "We'll get there. You can be patient, right?"

Auggie let loose a long, drawn-out sigh. "Patient," he agreed.

"He wants to have at it," Robin said, smiling. He raised his eyebrows pointedly then. "But we'll both be patient."

Charlie smiled. "I knew those 800 years you've been around had taught you a few things."

"Anybody hungry?" Rick asked. "It just occurs to me that we haven't eaten since breakfast. Here in the real world, we need real food!"

"I could use something," Kippy admitted. "If my stomach growls one more time, I'm going to scream."

"Pizza?" Adrian asked. "We could order from Irving's, and Rick and I will go and get it."

Charlie nodded. "That works for me. Anybody want something else? Sandwich, or something?"

It seemed that pizza would do the trick. They figured out what they wanted, and Charlie called out front to see what Amy and Horace would like. The list made, Kippy called it in, and hung up with a smile. "They said about twenty minutes."

Charlie nodded. "Good. Let's all go out into the waiting area, huh? We can sit there just as easily, and Horace and Amy won't feel left out."

They got up to go. Charlie, remembering something at the last, turned and pointed at Robin. "Oh...would you get that piece of paper off the table? Maybe I can call that guy while we're waiting."

Robin nodded. "Of course." He turned, picked up the sheet of paper, and glanced down at it as he started towards Charlie.

And then the man stopped, and looked up, an indecipherable expression on his face. "You said you were waiting for something to happen, Charlie?"

Charlie tensed, feeling that sense of anticipation come rushing at him again. "Yes."

Robin frowned down at the paper, and then moved forward and extended his hand to give it to Charlie. "Well, I think it just has."

Charlie took the sheet of paper and looked down at it. Kip and Rick and Adrian crowded around to look, too.

There, in Amy's neat hand, was a name, a place, and a phone number. Charlie read the name three times before he could react. "Damn."

"Wow," Ricky said softly. "That was unexpected!"

"Charlie," Kippy said softly. "I'm feeling it now!"

Charlie nodded. "Me, too."

He stared down at the paper again, and read the words a fourth time:

Call Rance Tallfield, Holdover, Missouri, 660-389-6660.

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