Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

It's Just a Matter of Time, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 3

"What do you think?" Charlie asked Rance Tallfield, after he had finished speaking.

The older man offered a smile. "It's very straightforward. I thought you were going to get me to try to tell him he was dead again, or something like that."

"That won't work," Kippy said. "We tried that when we met him last time. He isn't going to be convinced easily."

"You're sure he can't be hurt, though?" Eleanora spoke up. "I won't go along with anything that will hurt Lane."

"No," Charlie assured her. "Nothing I have in mind is designed to hurt Lane. I've explained to you how the realities work on the lower layer. He has embedded himself in one belonging to a friend of ours. Lane seems to think we'll want to confront him over this issue, and that he can somehow control the outcome."

"He's wary of you," Rance said. "I would say afraid of you, except I don't think Lane knows how to be afraid. The family stories I've heard of him suggest he had a tremendous amount of luck, and routinely passed unscathed through events that would have killed others."

"That's very possible," Horace spoke up then. The man turned to Charlie, looking thoughtful. "I have an idea. Let's imagine a man who always came out on top. He simply didn't know failure. We know Lane was a witch, and a powerful one. Suppose one of his talents was for success?"

"You mean, beating the odds?" Rick asked. "Every time?"

Charlie frowned at that. "Is there such a thing?"

Uncle Bob chuckled, and Horace smiled at Charlie. "Why, you seem fairly well-endowed with the talent, yourself!"

Kippy sighed, and leaned up against Charlie's shoulder. "You can be so blind, sometimes, Charlie."

Charlie felt his face warm, and gave a small laugh to cover his embarrassment. "Okay, okay. So we suppose that Lane just always won, and that's what he expected out of everything." He frowned then.
"Being killed the way he was, so suddenly that he didn't see it coming, would tend to go against all that experience. So, I can see he might believe that something else has happened, instead."

Eleanora fixed her gaze on Charlie, her eyes sad. "I can feel the Lane Tallfield I've heard about, somewhere inside this man. A kind and decent man. A strong and a good man. He genuinely believes he has somehow been captured into some realm of hell...or, what he sees as hell. And that he must be ruthless in his attempts to free himself and return to the world and the people he loves."

Horace cleared his throat. "How people understand death is important to how they accept it, or refute it. For a man who looked death in the eye and walked away, time and again, accepting the idea that he has passed probably wouldn't be easy. Especially as he has no memory at all of the moment of his passing."

"It was quick, by all accounts," Rance agreed. "They said he was dead before he hit the ground."

Charlie shook his head. "That's tragic. And so senseless."

"Violence usually is," Rance said quietly. "It was a different era, too. Armed robbery was still much more commonplace then. We think it's still a problem today, but it's nothing like it once was. Lane would have taken all the care one would expect of a lawman at that time. And yet, he was still caught unawares."

"He doesn't know he died," Charlie repeated slowly. "I find the concept hard to wrap my mind around."

Horace blew out a small puff of air, perhaps a statement of his own frustration at trying to understand their current adversary. "Most people have at least a momentary awareness of death approaching, Charlie. Death is, for most people, not a surprise. But from what we have learned from Eseffa and Jorli, it seems to be clear that some percentage of new arrivals in the lower layer have no idea how they got there."

"Lane was able to gather quite a few of them into his antagah," Kippy reminded.

"He was a very charismatic man, by all accounts," Rance said. "People liked him."

"That could have been at least partly the result of his witch powers," Robin suggested. "The ability to cause people to like you is a known talent. And, in most cases, it's a totally unconscious one in application."

Kippy smiled at the man. "Do you have that talent?"

Robin grinned. "Are you saying I'm likable?"

Kippy's eyes held a twinkle of mischief. "No. I was just asking."

Robin's own eye's filled with pleasure. "I happen to like you, too, Kip." He turned back to Rance then as Kippy's gaze met Charlie's, and Charlie could see the contentment there at the older man's compliment. Kip had come the long away around the block to liking the thief, but now that he did, it had run deep. He smiled, and patted his boyfriend's arm unobtrusively.

"I have to ask you another thing," Robin continued, his eyes moving from Rance to Eleanora. "What does Lane think of the two of you?"

Eleanora looked briefly unsure of what to say. "Us?"

But Rance nodded. "I get you. You mean, what does he think, when he comes to Eleanora, that he isn't seeing the family he expects to be here, but two strangers, instead?"

"That's it. He comes here because it's his childhood home, and he expects family to be here. But he doesn't know either of you."

"Oh." Eleanora pursed her lips then. "He seems to think we're his parents."

Horace frowned at that. "He can see you, can't he?" he asked. "Or, at least, he can see you, Rance?"

"He can," the man agreed. "But what he wants to see apparently plays a large part in all of this."

"It's not just that," Eleanora said. "Those that have passed often have a distorted view of the real world, when they are able to make contact at all. He views this place and us through another's eyes - my eyes - and by way of a means other than how nature intended eyesight to travel. I don't find it strange that Lane sees us as his parents. That's who he expects to be here."

Robin placed his fingertips together in thought. "What does he think of the process he uses to come here? He must understand that he's not really here, and that the two of you exist in the real world, while he does not."

"He thinks he is speaking to us from the road to hell," Eleanora answered. "He thinks he was captured, somehow, into another world, and an evil one, too. He thinks he is using his witch abilities to call home."

"Which he is, after a fashion," Charlie observed. "I still would like you to try to ask the questions of him that we've discussed."

"I'm willing," Eleanora said. "Just remember that you must be absolutely silent. He will hear you if you make a sound."

Charlie turned to Kip and smiled. "You understand that?"

Kippy tsked. "I can play ball, Charlie."

Charlie's smile widened. "I know that. But can you keep quiet?"

Kippy blinked, and then a smile spread across his features. "Yeah. I'll be good."

Charlie turned to Rick, and raised his eyebrows.

Ricky sighed, and then used his forefinger to cross his heart. "I'll be good, too."

Charlie smiled, and turned to Eleanora. "What should we do?"

She rose from her chair, and went around behind her husband, to stand before the window. Rance turned in his swivel chair to follow her. Eleanora looked back over her shoulder at those sitting on the sofas. "I'll try to draw him to me. Remain absolutely silent from now until he is gone."

Rance stood, and went to put his hands on his wife's shoulders. "What will we do if he refuses to leave when we're done?"

"He hasn't, the last few times we've spoken. He seems to have settled down some now, and become aware that he can't simply force his way through from the world he's in to this one. I think he'll be okay."

"Okay." The man sighed, and gave his wife's shoulders a gentle squeeze. "I'm right here."

Eleanora raised a hand and laid it briefly on Rance's fingers. "Thank you, dear. Now...I'm going to begin the calling."

Kippy took Charlie's hand and squeezed it, and Charlie squeezed back. Everyone sat still, their total concentration on Eleanora.

The woman bowed her head slightly, and Rance took his hands off her shoulders and stood by, his body plainly tense with emotion.

For a long minute, nothing happened. Charlie thought he could hear birds chirping somewhere outside, and it seems an incongruous accompaniment to what they were doing now. Trying to communicate with the lower layer. Trying to communicate with the dead! Now that he mostly understood the way these things worked, he could think back to every ghost movie he'd ever seen, and realized that at least some of them had been more right than they knew. Channeling the dead was now not the farfetched plot piece he had once considered it. There was a science behind the supernatural, after all.

Eleanora gave a faint sigh, and seemed to relax. At the same moment, there was a flicker of light around her hair, which slowly built into the head and shoulders of a man in a Stetson, much taller than Eleanora. The image firmed, grew arms, and then took on the outline of the long duster they recognized from their meeting with Lane Tallfield in the reality that was The Tors. The figure burned with a reddish light, an unearthly light, almost totally hiding the smaller figure of the woman within.

There was a sigh, almost a moan, like the wind off a pillar of rock somewhere among dark peaks; and then the voice they knew so well spoke out, sounding too loud, and too far away, at the same time.

"Mother. It's good to be with you again."

"My son," Eleanora murmured, sounding subdued.

"Is father here?"

Rance stepped around his wife into her view. "Right here, boy. Good to speak with you again."

"It's wonderful to be home again." The wistfulness in those words was apparent even to Charlie.

Rance nodded. "We wanted to know how things were going for you."

"We're worried about you, Lane," Eleanora added quickly.

The specter of the big man grunted. "I am not having much success. As I told you before, the posse I assembled to help me get home deserted me at the battle with that Charlie. I am having no luck assembling another."

"What will you do?" Eleanora asked.

The big lawman laughed harshly. "It's only been a few days. I'm still working at it. This place I am imprisoned in is bizarre, but it does have some things to offer that may assist me."

Charlie felt surprise at hearing that. Once again, the strange paradoxes of time and no-time were surfacing to confound them. Lane spoke as if only a short period had passed since the battle he had had with Charlie and the others, which to them had happened over a month ago. Continuity of action was somehow maintained between the layers, but the continuing disparity between the nows of each place could be confusing.

"I'm sorry to hear that, son," Rance said. "What can you do now?"

"Keep at it. I'm going to have a rematch with this Charlie and his posse at some point. I can feel it. I need to be prepared for that, so it goes better than the first time."

"You must be careful, son," Rance urged.

"I will. I plan to set things up to make it easier for me to crush them next time. I underestimated their powers, and it cost me dearly. They are of the craft, father, and strong!"

"Maybe they are not your enemies," Rance suggested, carefully.

"They as much as admitted that they worked with the gatekeepers! With the devil's own! How can they be anything but my enemies?" The anger and desperation seemed clear in Lane's voice now.

"Lane..." Eleanora began, but then paused.

In one of those peculiar flip-flops they had experienced in dealing with the man, the anger seemed gone when he spoke again. "What is it mother? You sound distressed."

The woman gave a brief sigh. "It's your temper, son. Your bitterness. It's so unlike you to act this way."

The lawman was silent a moment before continuing. "I'm in hell, mother. Or near its doors. Do you understand that?"

"We don't know where you are calling from, son," Rance said gently.

"Well, I do! And I don't belong here! I lived a good life, a beneficial life. A life of law and order! I cared for my neighbors, and my friends! I cared for my town! And I loved my family, so dearly!" The big man's image slapped a fist into the palm of his other hand, and Charlie could feel the man's anger, back again, despite the fact that the impact made not a sound. Lane almost growled then. "And you see what it got me? Stolen away in the night, I was, and placed on the road to hell! The devil is playing a game with me, a game of survival! Only by winning will I be released to come back to you! If I lose...if I lose, I am captured forever! I must not let evil win me over!"

"But your anger blinds you, son," Rance pointed out, again very quietly. "You can't think, you can't plan, when you are so upset."

"I will not stay here!" the lawman roared, and the power of his voice made everyone in the room flinch. "I will not stay at the borders of hell!"

"But...are you sure that's where you are, son?" Eleanora asked, sounding now as if she was trying to remain calm.

"What else could this place be? My craft tells me that this place reeks of death and strangeness. Some of those here are wretches like me, men and women stolen from their beds in the middle of their dreams, not even knowing where they are. I tried to take them in hand, to lead the way home. There is a gateway from this place, and I will reach it!"

"You must not harm others," Eleanora pleaded. "It goes against our ways!"

"Others? There are men and women here, to be sure. But then there are...things, mother. Things that are not even people! They are strange, benighted and deformed, like nothing I have seen or heard of before. What sort of place could hold such a variety of strange creatures, save the lands around hell, itself? Should I care for these, who only stand in my way?"

"But this is not you!" Eleanora said, this time sounding upset. "You are a kind and decent man, Lane Tallfield! You act as if hell has already consumed you!"

There was a sound then, a tone that reverberated in the air of the room, strange and unlike anything Charlie had ever heard before, and somehow he understood that this was shock, emanating from Lane Tallfield, and somehow crystallized into the very air.

"Clearly, you do not understand," he said then, sounding distant and cold. "I must go, and resume my battle. Do not call for me again. When I return, it will be as I was before, filled with life!"

The red fire around Eleanora flickered, and then vanished so suddenly that the woman staggered, and might have fallen had not Rance stepped quickly to her side to catch her. He led her back to her seat, and helped her to sit down.

"That didn't go well," he said, shaking his head at Charlie.

"He's gone, I assume?" Charlie asked quietly.

"Yes." Eleanora looked up at them then, her eyes filled with sorrow. "He isn't sane anymore."

Charlie turned to Horace. "What did you sense?"

The ghost hunter winced. "My god, Charlie. He's powerful. And..." Horace swallowed hard, and took a breath. "And Eleanora may be right. He does not exactly project an aura of sanity."

Charlie nodded. He wasn't trained in the human mind, but even he could sense the unevenness of Lane Tallfield's thinking. It seemed erratic, at least emotionally. Here and there. As if two different realities struggled for control of his thinking.

"It's almost like there are two of him in one body," Charlie mused.

Horace gaped at him a moment, and then nodded. "That could well be."

Kippy tsked. "How could that be? There would have to have been two of him in life, too."

The ghost hunter shook his head, looking like he was onto something. "No. I have actually heard of this kind of splitting before. Ghosts that seem nothing like the person they were in real life, or swing wildly back and forth between two personalities, or even seem to have more than two."

Eleanora frowned, but then nodded her head. "I'm familiar with this phenomenon, as well. It is called ambiguation. In our normal processes of thinking, many streams of awareness blend to form one major sense of consciousness. Ambiguation, in regards to the spirit world, refers to a state caused by one distinct line of awareness breaking away from the main stream to form a singular one that accompanies the main line of awareness, constantly distracts from it, and causes the spirit to exist in a state of anxiety and doubt. The split stream of awareness can even be denied by the main one, causing further anxiety."

Robin nodded at that. "And what would cause this?"

Eleanora looked at her husband a moment before answering. "From what I know of the subject, it is supposed that the ambiguation of the stream of consciousness is caused by some form of great shock at the moment of death."

"Shock?" Charlie repeated. "What kind of shock?"

The woman shook her head. "That, I cannot say. As we seem to have determined that Lane has no memory of his death, it seems hard to believe he may have had trauma accompanying it."

"How about a suppressed memory?" Rance asked. "Maybe he does remember something of the moment, after all. And it was such a shock to him that he is in some kind of denial over it?"

Horace nodded. "Maybe." He looked lost in thought a moment, and then he sighed. "We just can't know, and there seems to be no way of getting it out of him. He's not exactly cooperating, is he?"

Eleanora turned to Charlie then. "Please, try not to hurt him any more than he already is."

"We don't want to hurt him at all. We're just trying to keep him from hurting himself further, and possibly any others in the process."

"We accomplished your goal, I think," Rance said then. "We asked him what he planned, and what he was thinking about. We got his ideas on where he is and why he thinks the way he does." The man gave a tired sigh. "More or less."

Jeremiah Hawkins, who had been listening in silence until now, cleared his throat. "This seems such a shame. It's too bad we can't just go back to the day this man died, and see what happened for our own selves."

Kippy gave a surprised laugh, and elbowed Charlie, and Charlie grinned, himself. "Yes, it's just too bad."

Rance narrowed his eyes at them, obviously nonplussed by their reaction. "You have a plan. I can see it in your expressions."

"Maybe," Charlie agreed. "We'll have to talk about it and see what we can come up with." He stood then. "Thank you for your help. I think it's made a huge difference in what we do next."

The others of Charlie's group also rose to their feet, sensing that the visit was over. Eleanora also stood up, and extended her hand to Charlie. "Promise me you'll try to help Lane."

Charlie took her hand, and squeezed it reassuringly. "You have my promise."

The woman looked into his eyes a moment, and then smiled. "Thank you."

Rance also extended his hand. "It was a pleasure to meet all of you." He went around shaking hands, and stopped before Charlie at the end. "I'd like to know how this turns out."

Charlie took the man's hand, shook it warmly. "I'll promise that, too. Thank you for seeing us, and for your help. I think you've done more than you can possibly know."

Rance smiled at him. "I get a good sense of you, young man. I'm glad now that we took the chance and called you."

Charlie looked from the man to his wife, and back again. "About that. I don't believe I ever told Lane my last name. He just knows me as 'Charlie'." He shook his head in wonder. "How on earth did you know who to call?"

Rance chuckled. "You're in the craft. You must know at least something of how people finding works."

Eleanora smiled at him. "I didn't need any of your name, really, Charlie. I simply needed Lane's sense of you, which I absorbed from him quite easily while channeling him. I felt right away from his sense of how you spoke to him that you were from our own country. I got out a map of the United States, immediately sensed you were in New York state, and then it was just a matter of getting maps of ever smaller regions of that state until I located the city and the street where you could be found. Once I had the precise location, it came down to finding your phone number." She smiled. "Part craft, part Google. And here we are!"

Charlie laughed at that. "That's quite an art!" He turned to his friends. "Ready?"

"Not just yet," Horace said, holding up his hand. He turned to Eleanora. "You have a genius loci on the property, I believe."

Jeremiah rolled his eyes at that. "He means your place is spirited," he told Eleanora.

The woman looked surprised, but then nodded. "Yes. That's Maddy. She's our friend. This was her place, before the Tallfield's found it. They have cherished her presence ever since."

Horace looked curious. "She gives the property a rather forbidding aura."

Eleanora and Rance looked at each other, smiling. "She's shy," Rance explained. "She doesn't trust strangers."

"But she knows you now," Eleanora explained. "Because we do. She takes her cue from us. Have a look at the property another time before you leave."

Horace smiled. "We'll do that."

Robin led the way to the door of the library. "We'll let you know how things turn out," he promised Rance and Eleanora.

They made their farewells, and Rance and Eleanora accompanied them to the front door of the house, and stood on the front porch while they climbed into Jeremiah's Checker. They exchanged waves, and the long car started off. There was a paved area to the side of the house, evidently for parking, and Jeremiah made for it now.

"Drive slowly," Horace asked of him. "I want to look at the property again as we leave."

The driver nodded, and turned the car around in the parking area and took them slowly back down the long drive. Everyone turned to look out their windows, and Charlie was amazed at the differences this time. The house now seemed a bold and grand edifice upon its hill, a beautiful example of Edwardian-era arts and craft, and the land around it, which had seemed almost painfully sterile, now looked as robust and peaceful as any land could look while in the grip of winter. It was a pretty place, and even the curtained and shaded windows no longer spoke of denial of the world outside.

No longer were they being warned off. The welcome was clear.

Jeremiah simply shook his head in wonder. "Why, the place is durn pretty!"

Horace sighed, looking happy. "Amazing what a change in spirit can bring!"

"Maybe you can get to know this Maddy at a later time," Charlie offered. "I have a feeling we'll be coming back when this is all over."

The driver gave a sigh from the front seat. "Will y'all let me know what happens, too? I can tell my place in all this is about done."

Kippy gently elbowed Charlie, and Charlie smiled. "Um, Jeremiah? What do you have planned for the next few days?"

"Me?" The driver looked at them in the rear-view mirror. "I don't have to be anywhere special." He laughed. "Poker game Saturday night, maybe."

Charlie nodded. "Suppose we were to offer to hire you on for a couple of days?"

The man gasped, and stepped on the brake, stopping the car. He threw the transmission into park and turned to face them, glee apparent in every line of his face. 'What d'ya'll got in mind?"

Robin chuckled, and Charlie couldn't help smiling. "Well, you could start by driving us to Branson. Would you mind leaving your car in a parking lot there for a brief period?"

The man winced. "Well, I s'pose not. Maybe a corner somewhere, so's no one can scratch my new paint." He nodded. "What then?"

Charlie scratched his chin. "After that...maybe we see what we can do about your idea."

Jeremiah looked surprised. "My idea? What one are you talking about?"

Kippy sighed. "Oh, the one about going back to see what happened to Lane Tallfield, ourselves. Duh!"

Jeremiah looked around the large activity room that the guys often referred to jokingly as 'the bored room', where they spent most of their office time. It was equipped with a corner that looked like a small gym, and another corner occupied by a u-shaped placement of comfortable sofas set before two large, flat-panel monitors, on which could be viewed just about anything the Internet could provide, as well as information the hidden interstellar communications system managed by Big Irv, the office AI, could direct there. Another corner of the room was filled with bookcases, upon which were stored the office's tremendous collection of reference books. The many computers spaced around the room were their first go-to for most information, but there were times when you just couldn't do better than a good book on a subject.

And the last corner of the large room held a kitchen area, with two large refrigerator-freezers, three microwave ovens, and a counter with a sink and a dishwasher. There were two long tables lined with chairs, which could seat a small army, which suited Charlie just fine, because their group of friends had just about reached that status in size. Sometimes they were just too busy to go out to eat, and a good food prep area, well-stocked, easily took up the slack.

Just now, a large Christmas tree decorated with colored lights, shining ornaments, and red bows stood in the corner by the TVs, aglow even now with holiday spirit. There were presents beneath the tree, to be exchanged on the Friday before Christmas, the last day the boys would be at the office. Christmas Eve day was for being with their friends, and hopefully enjoying whatever those friends - and their skwish - would bring them.

Beside the tree stood a wooden case, as tall as a refrigerator, with a partial glass front. Behind the glass, basking beneath a tiny spotlight, the figure of a cat easily three feet in height sat on a small hassock. But it was a cat with a more human-like body, with the booted feet planted firmly on the floor in front of the hassock. The cat wore brown velvet trousers above the golden boots, and a golden tunic above the trousers, with a wide, old-fashioned belt with a large buckle around its middle. The collar of the tunic was the same brown as the trousers, with a gold trim at the bottom, and a black bow tie in the front.

Perched upon the cat's head was a brown tricorn hat, with a golden feather tucked into the silver hatband, that just fit snugly between the upright ears. The cat's face was animated in a smile, mouth open, teeth exposed, which immediately reminded Charlie of the grin of the Cheshire cat from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The cat's whiskers were elegantly long, as were its eyebrows, and the face furred in a pattern that suggested a Tabby. The yellow eyes were wide and focused directly at anyone standing in front of the case, and the effect was eerily realistic.

The cat held what looked very much like a magic wand in one hand, and a small golden tray in the other. Just beneath the tray was a small wooden box with a hinged top, and beneath that, on the wooden front of the lower cabinet, a golden slot large enough to put a hand into. The device was a mechanical fortune-telling machine, a Christmas gift from Frit and Pip, their elf friends, the previous year. It had become a favorite of the boys, and they often consulted it for small things and large, and had found it eerily prescient. That skwish was somehow involved seemed clear, and they often felt the presence of the machine there with them, even when they weren't using it.

"Give that handle a pull," Kippy told Jeremiah, pointing at the long lever on one side of the case.

"What's it do?" the man asked, squinting suspiciously as the cat inside. "Got a witchy feeling 'bout it."

Charlie grinned. "It will tell your fortune, sort of. We've found it also gives advice, and even opinions!"

The older man laughed at that. "Okay. Let no one say that Jeremiah Hawkins ain't a good sport!"

He reached out to pull the handle back towards him. When it stopped he let it go, and the cabinet immediately hummed to life as if to the sound of some large clockwork mechanism inside.

The cat's hand holding the wand moved then, came around and used the tip of the wand to lift the lid of the small box set in front of the cat's booted feet. The other hand, the one holding the small tray, swung on its arm to the back of the cabinet and paused briefly before a slot there. As it did so, a card dropped out of the slot onto the tray. The motion of the arm was scarcely broken by the pause, and it swung directly back to the front of the cabinet, paused over the now open box, and the hand turned so that the card slid off the tray and into the box, dropping into the slot in the front of the cabinet below. The tip of the wand then flipped the box's lid shut again, and the cat resumed its original position.

"Now take the card and see what it says," Kip instructed.

Jeremiah made a patient sound, and reached out to take the card from the slot. He read it, smiled and then held it up for all of them to see:

Dress warmly. You're going for a ride!

"What the heck does that mean?"

Charlie laughed. If he'd had any doubts about bringing Jeremiah along, they were settled now. "Come on over and sit down. We'll talk."

He led the group to the 'U' of sofas and sat down. In the space between the three sofas stood a large, hand-crafted coffee table of beautiful design, made by a friend of theirs across the state in Canandaigua. The selection of woods had led to an exquisite result, and, after noting a penchant for even himself to put his feet up on the table while relaxing, and not wanting the gorgeous finish to be damaged, Charlie had ordered a sheet of tempered safety glass with polished edges, to the correct size to place on top of the wooden surface. It was protected now, and they could still see the beautiful details.

"Nice table," Jeremiah said, eyeing it with approval.

"We think so, too," Kippy said.

Jeremiah looked around the room again, and then let his eyes circle the group. "Somethin' more'n just plain witchery goin' on here, I think."

Charlie nodded. "This is our business. It's called Third Planet Inquiries. Our specialty is investigating the strange and unusual, and, specifically, anything to do with skwish."

Jeremiah grinned. "With what?"

"Skwish," Kippy repeated. "The magic that defines witchery, among other things."

The man from Missouri scratched his head. "Oh. Never heard it called that before."

"It's the term we use," Kippy said, smiling.

"We have made ourselves a lot of, um, friends in our travels, Jeremiah," Charlie went on. "I want you to meet some of them, but I want to prepare you first."

"Somethin' unusual 'bout 'em?"

Adrian and Kippy both laughed.

"You might say that," Rick agreed, his eyes bright.

"They're good people," Uncle Bob said. "Even the ones that aren't people like us."

Jeremiah's eyes widened at that. "Not people?"

"Not like us," Horace confirmed. "But can you trust us when we say they're good people, and that you will be totally safe with them?"

Jeremiah looked around at the faces turned his way, saw the sincerity and peaceful intent in each of them. "Sure. I trust you fellas." He grinned then. "Don't ask me why!"

Charlie raised a hand. "Big Irv?"

The office AI responded. "Yes, Charlie?"

"Can you let Amy know it's okay to send the others back here now?"

"Yes, Charlie."

It was only seconds later that they heard footfalls in the hallway. The door to the room, which Charlie had left ajar, opened, and Ragal and Casper came in, with Auggie hot on their heels.

Jeremiah's eyes widened at the sight of the two off-worlders, but at spying Auggie, his jaw simply dropped.

The newcomers came directly to where the others were sitting and stopped. Casper raised a small hand to Jeremiah, and grinned his infectious grin. "Hi!"

Auggie, who had stopped behind Ragal and Casper, peered around them then. "Hi!"

Jeremiah blinked. "A cat that talks." It wasn't a question, but a statement of what he had just observed.

Ragal smiled as he and Casper took seats on one of the sofas. "And much more than that, too."

Auggie paced slowly up to Jeremiah, obviously being careful not to spook the man. Jeremiah simply watched the big bearcat come, his eyes about as wide as he could get them. Auggie stopped, sat back on his haunches and then carefully leaned forward to give Jeremiah a couple of deep sniffs. Then he turned to Charlie, and offered a definite cat-grin.


Jeremiah blinked, and suddenly unfroze. Carefully, he leaned forward towards Auggie, and took a couple of deep inhalations of his own. His eyes lit up then, and his face relaxed. "You smell pretty good to me, too!"

Auggie loved that, and jumped up and down in place twice, before emitting a very pleased-sounding cat growl.

"The verdict is in, and it's a successful bake-off!" Kippy said, laughing. "Each chef likes the smell of the other's cookie dough!"

Jeremiah grinned at that, and offered a hand to Auggie. The cat sniffed it, gave it a careful lick, and then launched himself onto the sofa beside Jeremiah and leaned full against him. "New friend!"

Jeremiah laughed, and gave the bearcat a friendly rub.

"That's Auggie," Charlie introduced. "And these two mischief-makers are Ragal and Casper."

Jeremiah's face lit up at that. "You folk are from outta state, I'm thinkin'?"

"Quite a bit," Ragal returned, but obviously liking the man's playful manner.

"Well, I'm good," Jeremiah said. "I know good witchery when I smell it. These fellas here come across to me just like you and your friends, Charlie."

"I'm guessing you're okay with that, then?"

"Sure. Good witches is good witches, plain an' simple."

Ricky slapped his hands together. "So, now we can get down to business?"

Robin gave a sigh, and leaned back into the cushion behind him. "I love the way these things work out, Charlie."

Charlie smiled. "It does seem like we are always falling over new friends, doesn't it?"

"It worked well for me," the older man said. "I haven't had this much fun in centuries!"

"So, what are we doing?" Ragal asked. "Your synopsis on the phone of events at the Tallfield home was short, Charlie."

"There wasn't a lot to it," Charlie confirmed. "Rance and Eleanora helped us to gauge Lane Tallfield's state of mind by asking him a few easy questions. The conclusion that we have sort of come to is that Lane is suffering from some kind of split in his spiritual self, perhaps caused by a great shock at the moment he died."

The tall alien frowned at that. "But he doesn't know he's dead, or so he claims."

"Eleanora Tallfield has proposed that he was subjected to an intense trauma of some sort at the moment of his death," Robin explained. "And that he either is not consciously aware of it, or that he has so fiercely denied it that it has caused a split in his consciousness."

Ragal nodded. "That could be devastating. The quantum echo of who we are is very much set at the moment we are separated from our bodies. If Lane Tallfield's self was devastated by something at the moment of his death, causing a split, he will be unable to rejoin this either separated or rejected part of himself on his own. He will spend his eternity as a spirit with the two halves warring for control of his nature."

"You know about this?" Charlie asked, surprised.

Ragal smiled at him. "I am returned from the dead myself, Charlie. Having been to the lower layer, I have been exposed to many of the fractured personalities that wind up there. Death, for some, is a quite terrible experience. The terror they experience can literally haunt them forever."

"But it doesn't split them all, does it?" Rick asked.

"People die in tragic ways every day," Adrian added. "They can't all go on to the lower layer in such sorry states, can they?" He shook his head. "That would be so sad!"

"Yes," Ragal agreed. "Fortunately, the spirits of most intelligent beings are very resilient. It takes a very certain type of shock to cause such a fracture."

Robin sat forward, obviously fascinated. "Like what?"

Ragal thought a moment, and then gave his head a small shake. "I can't be more specific. Each individual mind operates to a unique standard. What might be utterly shocking to one might seem mundane to another. I will say that, if the idea is true that Lane Tallfield was subjected to some sort of emotional trauma that sundered his sense of self, that whatever it was so offended his internal values that he simply couldn't handle it in the minute amount of time his life lasted after that."

The room was quiet for a moment as the idea sank in.

Kippy sighed. "When we met Tallfield on Jol's mountain, I got such a sense of selfishness and ego from him. I felt like we were dealing with someone that was evil in nature. I can't reconcile that experience to the image that Rance and Eleanora have of Lane Tallfield as a fine and decent man."

"If his self is truly sundered into two parts, he is not the man he was before that happened. All intelligent beings are a blend of traits we might consider good or bad. In many people, if not most, the balance is fairly even."

Ricky laughed. "Wouldn't that make most people snarly at least half the time?"

Ragal smiled. "Actually, it is generally more work to be nasty than to be nice. And besides, there is the factor of personality, which very much governs which internal traits are let out to play in public. And, we will simply not see a good Lane Tallfield one moment, and an en evil one the next. It isn't that simple. Tallfield's split would seem to have him fairly calm at one moment, and filled with rage the next. The pathways of his mind that may have once produced a fine and decent man in their totality are now broken. Separated. This will lead to the man simply being different than he was in life. His mind is no longer whole, but now exists in ill-communicating parts that could leave him anywhere from delusional to...well, insane."

"Can you sense this some way?" Horace asked Ragal. "When we were with Lane on Jol's mountain, could you feel the split within him?"

"No. It doesn't present that way to others. The split is internal to the cognitive echo. What presents to others is just a general image of the whole, if you will."

Kippy nodded. "So we couldn't sense who he once was. Just who he has become after all that's happened to him?"


"Is there way to put him back together again?" Robin asked.

"Like Humpty Dumpty?" Uncle Bob asked, though without a smile.

Ragal frowned. "I don't know the reference."

"Sorry," Uncle Bob said, waving a hand. "Is there a way Tallfield can be repaired?"

"Maybe." Ragal thought about it a moment longer, and then nodded. "Almost certainly. But he can't do it himself. He would need help."

Kippy closed his eyes a moment, and opened them again looking unhappy. "That's so sad. We have to do what we can for him."

Charlie reached for his boyfriend's hand and squeezed it. "We will. If we can figure out how."

"We will," Rick said, with confidence. "We always do!"

Jeremiah issued forth a low whistle. "I'm outta my league here, boys."

Charlie shrugged. "We all are, so don't worry. We're doing a lot of supposing, trying to find an answer."

The man from Missouri nodded. "So, what can we do?"

"Your idea was pretty good," Kippy said, smiling.

Jeremiah blew out a short breath. "You said that before, somethin' about time, but I still don't know what you're referrin' to!"

Kippy sat forward next to Charlie. "You said it was too bad we couldn't go back to the moment when Lane Tallfield died, to see for ourselves what happened."

Jeremiah looked askance at them. "Don't tell me you can?"

Charlie grinned. "No, we can't. Not on our own, anyway." He pointed to Auggie then. "But he can take us back, no problem."

Jeremiah's head turned to face Auggie. "Time travel? I've heard 'o that sort 'o witchin'. Never known anyone that could do it!"

"Me can," Auggie said, grinning a cat grin.

"I can," Kippy corrected, tsking.

Auggie turned to look at him. "You can't! Me can!"

Kip made an exasperated sound. "No! I meant--"

"Give it up, Kip," Charlie said gently, squeezing his boyfriend's wrist. "We know what Auggie means."

Kippy nodded. "You, me...what difference does the wording make? As long as we all can go!"

Charlie sat forward to look at Auggie. "What do we need to do?"

"Go place first," Auggie returned. "Me not know. Never been, can't get to!"

"I can teleport us all back to Branson," Robin said. "And Jeremiah can drive us to this Stockdale place."

Charlie's eyes moved to Jeremiah. "Can you?"

"Sure." He looked around at the many faces, and gulped. "People can see inside my cab, though. You fellas are gonna be quite an eyeful on the road!"

"I can opaque the windows," Ragal offered. "A variation on the black wraiths I learned while fighting Lane." He grinned. "I've been experimenting."

Charlie's eyebrows bounced upwards at that. "You've retained the things you learned in the lower layer? You can do them here?"

"I'm quite sure we all will be able to do that," Ragal responded. "Lesson learned, experience earned. Our visits to the lower layer, and entanglements with Tallfield, may prove to be quite instructive, Charlie."

"Are you sayin' I might be able ta learn some new witchin'?" Jeremiah asked, rubbing his hands together at the prospect.

"Seems that way," Charlie said. "Okay. I happen to be hungry, so let's get some chow before we go. And I want to get Amy back here and let her know what we're doing. If we get stuck somewhere, I want Max to know where to come to get our marshmallows out of the fire."

"Isn't it chestnuts roasting on an open fire?" Ricky asked, smiling.

"Only on Christmas day," Charlie responded glibly. "I happen to feel a lot like a marshmallow just now."

"It'll pass," Kippy said reassuringly, patting Charlie's hand.

Charlie looked around at his friends. "Class dismissed. Everybody grab a bite to eat. Horace? Will you go get Amy and bring her back?"

The older man smiled. "Be my pleasure!"

Charlie rose, and pulled Kip to his feet. "You come with me." He took Kip's hand, and pulled him away from the others.

"Where are we going?"

"Just over here," Charlie explained, pointing at the fortunetelling machine. "I want to get a sense of what we're heading into."

They reached the machine, and Charlie pulled the handle down and released it. The cat inside went through his act, and a card dropped into the slot below.

"Would you get it?" Charlie asked.

Kippy nodded, and leaned down to fetch the card, He raised it, and they both looked at it at the same time.

The answer is in the reflection.

Kippy glared at the card. "What the heck does that mean?"

Charlie frowned. "I don't know." He considered it a moment, and then smiled. "Most of the time, the cat is perfectly clear. So, I'd say this is just what it seems."

"But it doesn't mean anything!"

"Not yet. But I'm guessing that means we just haven't gotten to the point where it will make sense."

Kippy sighed. "So now, every time I see a mirror, I have to look carefully to make sure I don't miss anything important?"

Charlie smiled. "Just look for the sweetest thing in the reflection. It's usually you."

Kippy blinked in surprise at that, and then smiled. "Oh, Charlie. You say the nicest things."

"You bring out the best in me, Kip."

They stood quietly together a moment, and then Kip bumped his shoulder against Charlie's. "I guess we should go back with the others."

"I guess."

Kippy took a last look at the card from the fortunetelling machine, and then dropped it into the box they kept next to it just for that purpose. "Heck of a way to spend Christmas!"

"It's not here yet," Charlie said, putting his arm around his boyfriend and drawing him closer. "We have a couple of days yet."

Horace returned with Amy in tow, and took her to meet Jeremiah. Charlie gave Kip a squeeze and turned them back towards the others. "Come on. I want to eat something before we go."

Kippy nodded, gave the fortunetelling machine a last look, and then allowed himself to be steered back into the warmth of their circle of friends.

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