Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

Here Be Dragons, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 1

© 2023 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.

Arno Coldat was a small man, sinewy and lean. His grandfather had come to America from Moldova as a boy eighty years before, in the company of an aunt and uncle who had been his sole family at the time. The Coldat name had flourished after that, a combination of hard work, innovation, and persistence; and today, Arno, the third grandson of the original émigré, was a prosperous real estate developer. The man's suit was stylish and understated, expensive while not screaming the fact, as were his shoes. His dark hair was well-maintained, and his thick mustache was trimmed evenly, even professionally, suggesting a recent styling by someone that knew what they were doing.

Charlie Boone took notice of beards and mustaches. As a rule, he preferred a clean-shaven face. But there were some men for whom a mustache or a beard was the last ingredient in drop-dead gorgeous. Robin Hood, their friend from the past, often wore a Van Dyke in the winter that made the man look incredibly dashing and ready for action, with his bright gray eyes hovering above a ready and knowing smile. But not everyone had a face made for swordplay and derring-do, the world being full of men who simply worked long and hard for a living, and often looked like it. On some men, beards just looked scruffy and ill-considered.

But on Arno Coldat, a mustache looked good. There was perhaps a little too much space between his nose and his upper lip, which the mustache filled quite nicely. It evened out his features, accentuated his blue eyes, and added an extra gleam of whiteness to his smile that otherwise might have been lacking. For an older guy he was cute, in that mysterious way that Charlie had come to notice some older men had of holding onto a dashing youth. It made talking to Coldat much more interesting, certainly.

"I wasn't expecting you for another few weeks." Their newest client sat behind an impressive desk within a handsome office suite in downtown Allentown, Pennsylvania, from where he ran his business. Or businesses, rather. Coldat's private office had large windows and a southern exposure, and the glass was covered by expensive cloth strip blinds that let the light in to play, but which kept the late afternoon glare at bay.

Charlie nodded, bringing his attention back to why they were here. "We finished up our previous two projects early, so here we are."

"Wonderful! This might help me out a lot."

In the chair beside Charlie, Kippy Lawson smiled with interest. Coldat's charming appearance was definitely not lost on Charlie's boyfriend. "So, um, you have a haunted house you want us to look at?"

Coldat briefly returned Kip's smile; but then frowned at what he had said. "I honestly don't know what's going on there. But until I do, haunted is as good a word as any."

Charlie nodded. "The house is here in town?"

"No. It's about thirty miles northwest of here, near a little town called Jim Thorpe."

Charlie blinked in recognition. "After the athlete, right?"

Coldat's eyebrows did a little pop. "I'm surprised a young fellow like you would know who he was."

Kippy rolled his eyes at Charlie, and laughed delightedly. "He reads a lot."

"I do know who he was," Charlie agreed. "Quite a story, his life. And after."

"It was," Coldat agreed. "The town was originally called Mauch Chunk, or something like that. Derived from a local Native American term that meant Bear Place." He smiled at the idea. "It's one of the more scenic towns in the Poconos, quite beautiful, in fact. The house I purchased sits on a hillside outside of the town."

Coldat leaned back and pulled open the drawer above the knee-hole of his desk, and fished out a large photograph inside a clear plastic sleeve, which he pushed across the desktop to Charlie. "The design is called Italianate Villa, a part of the classical revival period of the 1860's. Three floors, twenty rooms, wrap-around porches on the first and second floors, lots of nice ornamental touches, plenty of room. I picked up the place at a great price, because it was in need of modernization and renovation. Still, the land and the house cost me a little over three million, simply because it's in a fairly choice area for tourism. The Poconos draw thousands of visitors, year-round. It seemed the perfect place for a bed-and-breakfast."

Kip leaned over to look at the picture. "Pretty house."

"A lot of the exterior work is completed," Coldat informed them. "We haven't had a bit of trouble with that. It's inside the house that we're having problems."

Charlie pursed his lips, staring at the photo, getting a feel for the new project. "You said you'd had five rooms rebuilt, but that they somehow reverted to the way they were before the work was done?"

The man behind the desk looked slightly unsettled. "In this day and age, who ever heard of such a thing? Hauntings are for movies and scare novels, you know?" But he nodded. "Yes, that's the problem. The remodeled rooms all reverted to their previous appearances, overnight, it seems. And now I can't get anyone to work there."

Charlie patted his chin in thought. "Wouldn't seem to matter, if any work done just goes away again."

"That's why I contacted you. Your website says you investigate such things."

Charlie smiled at that. Their multi-talented Amy had concocted a web presence for them that had managed to look utterly serious and professional while talking about subjects most people would laugh at as daft.

She needs a raise, Charlie thought idly.

Coldat steepled his hands and tapped his fingertips together, a habit that Charlie had been noticing in a lot in interesting people lately. "So, when can you start?"

"We'll have to get a few people together," Charlie said. "We have an expert on ghosts and hauntings. Might take a day or two, tops."

Coldat looked pleased at that. "That's great." He went back into the same desk drawer he'd found the picture, and produced a small ring of keys, and tossed them to Charlie. "They're marked. Let yourselves in, look around, see what you think, and then call me. I'd go with you, but I have a couple of big development meetings this week, which I still have to prepare for."

Charlie nodded. "Anyone there?"

"No. The house came with fifty-five acres, but a lot of it is vertical. Mountainside. There are no other homes around for some miles."

Kippy leaned forward. "Is there anything else around the place?"

"Nothing with people living in them. But the house only sits about a half-mile back in the woods off the main road, and there's lots of traffic by there. You won't exactly be alone."

Charlie considered that. The house was unattended and not visible from the road. "When was the last time you were there?"

Coldat frowned. "Just this past weekend. Is that important?"

Charlie shrugged. "I don't know. When you go into the house, what do you feel?"

The other man stared at him. "Feel?"

"Yes. What do you sense when you're inside the house?"

Coldat's expression rambled through several different considerations. "If you're asking me if I feel like the place is haunted, I have had no sign of it. No noises, or things moving around. No cold shivers, no feeling I'm being watched. Nothing like that. Just the evidence of my eyes, that five rooms remodeled at a cost of twelve-thousand dollars each, reverted to the way they were before they were redone. If it's not spooks, it's something equally weird." A trace of impatience entered the man's eyes. "I have a lot of money tied up in this place. Spring is just a few months away. I had hoped to start making a return on my investment by then."

Kippy smiled. "If there's something there, it won't take us long to find it. We have a few people that nothing can hide from."

Coldat let out a short laugh. "Sounds like interesting work. Do you really get a lot of it?"

"You'd be surprised," Charlie admitted. "And business has been picking up lately, too."

"Well, if you can solve this problem for me, feel free to use me for a reference. It's not like you have a lot of competition in the field, I'll say that much."

Charlie looked at the key ring briefly before sticking it into his pocket. It looked like there were plenty of doors to be opened at--

He squinted at Coldat then. "Does this place have a name? A lot of these old properties do."

The man looked surprised, but nodded. "Actually, it does. The estate is called Osteppi House, though don't ask me why."

Kippy looked surprised. "It's not the name of the family that built it?"

"No. Of course, a complete title search came with the property. The house was built in 1867 by a man named Herbert Tasker. He was an angel."

Kippy laughed, and Charlie smiled, expecting a joke. But when one didn't come, Charlie sighed. "I hope you're not serious."

It would be a great a disappointment at this point to find out that Arno Coldat wasn't all there!

But the man just laughed. "Sorry. I am serious, but not in the way you think. In the world of start-up financing, an angel is a wealthy investor willing to back the launch of a small enterprise, in return for a stake in the profits. This usually amounts to equity in the resulting company, though the term profits covers a lot of territory. And, Tasker specialized in high-risk financing, too. He seemed to have an incredible flair for determining which ventures offered for his consideration might pay off in large dividends. By the time he built Osteppi House, he was a millionaire several times over, no small accomplishment in those days."

Kippy perked up at that. "He seemed to have a feel for which ventures would pay off?" He looked at Charlie, and the message in his eyes was clear: sounds like skwish!

"I'd call the guy a magician, actually," Coldat replied. "Once I started looking into this man's history, I got quite caught up in it." He grinned. "I have a research file on him and the house, if you'd like to see it."

Charlie brightened at that. "I would. It may save us time in researching him, ourselves."

Coldat nodded, went back to the same drawer as before, and pulled out a thick folder and slid it across the desktop. "I'd like to have it back, please. It cost me a couple of grand in fees."

Charlie had been about to pick up the folder, but stopped. "It cost two thousand dollars?"

"A little more, actually. I hired Donna Bitterman, one of our local historians, to research the history of the house for me, and that included a complete work up on Tasker and his family."

Charlie didn't know the name, but understood then. Most towns had someone who was into the history of the place, and the bigger the town, the more of these local historians there usually were. "She's good?"

"She is. A great many investors in land in these parts hire her before dumping money into a property for development. With the wealth of Native American societies that have histories here, it just wouldn't do to break ground on a new shopping mall and find out you're digging up a sacred burial site."

Charlie was surprised at that. "Has that happened?"

Coldat laughed. "No. But it could have happened. That's the point."

"Your land is clean as far as that sort of stuff goes?"

"Sure. The Lenni Lenape peoples occupied these lands at one time or another. But even they didn't settle the sides of mountains much. The plot of land that Tasker bought to put his house on only has about 19 acres out of the 55 that are suitable to build anything on. It was almost as if he wanted a place where he'd never have neighbors."

"Maybe he did," Kip said.

Coldat thought about that, and nodded. "Could be. You never know." He stood up behind his desk then, and extended his hand. "It was great to meet you fellows. I hate to run you off, but I have a meeting in a half hour. Take the file, you have the keys, and my office manager has a package of photos, and directions to the house, for you at her desk. You have my number, and ask her for hers, please. If you can't get me, and need to know something, please call Carol. She's a fountain of useful information."

Charlie stood, and grasped Coldat's hand. The man's grip was firm, and the sense Charlie picked up immediately from it was that it was also honest. Everything Coldat had told them was the truth as he knew it, and nothing had been kept back. That was all Charlie needed to decide they would take the case.

"Great. We'll get started getting the gang together, go see the house, and call you as soon as we have something to pass on."

Coldat looked happy with that. He extended his hand to Kip then, and the two shook, and exchanged smiles. Kip could elicit a smile from of a slab of rock, and Coldat seemed to linger in the handshake a moment, as if he was sensing something unusual about it. But then he just as clearly remembered that his time was limited, and let the touch end. But Kip looked satisfied, and Charlie wondered what information his boyfriend had picked up in the brief contact.

They stopped on their way out to talk to Carol, the office manager. She gave them the directions to the house, as well as a small manila envelope filled with interior shots of the villa. She happily wrote down a number where she could be reached, and as Charlie left the office suite with Kip, he was having a good feeling about this new client. Coldat came across as on the level, and his office manager as very good as what she did, and happy to help. You could tell a lot about people by the other people they chose to employ.

"I liked him," Kip said, immediately after the elevator doors closed behind them. The car started a smooth drop to the ground, six floors below. "My skwish says he's honest, and what he told us was the truth."

Charlie nodded. "I got the same thing from him."

Kippy leaned forward and kissed him. "My sweet Charlie's senses have become razor sharp!"

Charlie enjoyed the kiss, and gave back what he got. And then he smiled as they drew apart. "Camera up there."

Kippy looked up, and then laughed, and waved at the camera. "I hope they enjoyed it."

They reached the ground floor, and exited the elevator. As they passed the security desk by the front door of the office building, the uniformed guard there, a cute young black man, smiled at them. "Have a nice day, gentleman."

"Thanks!" Kippy returned, waving. "We always do!"

Horace listened to the story with obvious interest. They were seated in the office activity room back at Third Planet Inquiries, which they had come to call, The Bored Room. The light in Horace's eyes was a certain sign that he was feeling a connection to the case already, which Charlie found reassuring in the extreme. Having Horace on your side when ghosts were afoot was a major plus.

"The average ghost can't make the sort of physical changes that Coldat describes as happening to these rooms," the man explained. "Even if the villa is haunted, it would have to be an extraordinary spirit of some kind in order to make such alterations to the structure of the house."

He leaned forward then, and pointed. The photos of the interior of the villa that Coldat's office manager had provided for them were lined up in rows on the glass-topped coffee table. "However, the clue to what is really happening may be right here before our eyes."

The photos had been separated by Coldat into three groups, and Horace had lined up each group on the tabletop. The first was dated from the period just after Coldat had purchased the house. These had been marked "before" the renovation. The interior looked clean and well-maintained, but just as obviously hadn't been redecorated in a very long time. The walls were covered in faded and outdated wallpaper, the floors in well-worn carpet, and the paint was just as obviously in need of refurbishing. The seven upstairs bedrooms, each with its own bath, were similarly old-fashioned, with the bathroom fixtures looking like something right out of the 1930's. Still, what was there looked to be in good shape, and there were clear signs that the old villa had been well-taken care of for its 156 years of existence.

Horace indicated the second row of photos. "And this next line, the reconstruction phase."

That line of photos showed the bedrooms in various stages of gutting, and up to completion. The plaster and lath interior walls, along with their surface electrical wiring, were removed down to the studs, and interior wiring run and switches and outlets placed into boxes behind new sheet rock. The same process was done with the ceiling. On the floors, the carpet was removed, the hardwood floorboards beneath refinished, and then the original crown molding and wainscoting refurbished, and replaced. The rooms were painted in soft neutral colors that were easy on the eyes.

The bathrooms were similarly updated with modern fixtures, and all the windows in the house replaced with modern look-alikes. It was, by every indicator, a first-class job.

"Looks like good work to me," Charlie said, nodding.

"I agree." Horace smiled. "And now these." He pointed to the last line of photos on the table.

Kippy hovered over Charlie's shoulder, peering at the pictures. "These are the rooms after the ghost remade them?"

Horace looked pleased. "Yes." Charlie leaned over the photos laid out on the table, and looked them over quickly.

"They look just like the first photos, before any work was done."

Horace nodded. He picked up the reconstruction photos and placed them in a pile nearby, and then pushed the line of 'after' photos up beneath their 'before' counterparts. Then he offered Charlie a magnifying glass. "Now, look more closely."

Charlie took the glass and bent over the photos on the table. The shots taken after the 'ghost' had done its remodeling were mostly taken from the same perspectives as the 'before' shots. And, at first glance, the rooms seemed identical to what they had looked like before they had been gutted. But--

Charlie squinted at one picture through the magnifying glass, and then moved to look at the same room in its 'before' photo. "Wait a second. In this before shot, the wallpaper is peeling in this upper corner." Then he moved the glass back to the 'after' photo, and shook his head. "But here, the wallpaper is secure."

Horace clapped his hands together. "Bravo. And if you look closely at all five of the rooms that were remodeled, you will find small discrepancies like that in each one. Wallpaper that was peeling or split, that is restored in the later photo. Paint that is chipped or peeling in the early picture, but repaired in the later one. Even dirty spots on the carpet in the first photo, but gone in the second."

Kippy turned to stare at the ghosthunter. "What does it mean? It seems a reversal of what you'd expect. The rooms seemed to get better after the ghost was done with them."

Horace sat back in the sofa and smiled. "That's because the rooms were not restored to exactly the way they were before the renovations. They were restored to the way they were at a somewhat earlier period than that, perhaps even years."

"Why?" Charlie asked. "Why not return them to exactly what they were?"

"Memory, Charlie. Memory is not perfect, not even for spirit beings." He pointed at the photos. "The rooms were returned to the way someone, or some spirit, remembered them. Not to the way they actually were before they were remodeled. Which opens the door to another possibility."

Charlie and Kippy exchanged looks, and Kippy grinned. "Don't you just love to watch a pro in action?"

Charlie laughed, and Horace looked slightly embarrassed.

"What's the other possibility?" Charlie asked.

Horace leaned forward and dropped a fingertip on one of the 'after' photos. "That the rooms have not actually been changed at all. Only that they appear to have been changed.":

"You mean, like an illusion?" Kip asked, staring in wonder at the photos.

Charlie shook his head. "An illusion might fool the eye, but it couldn't fool a camera."

Horace smiled. "It could if it's the type of illusion someone like Gretchen can perform."

Kippy gasped. "Your genius loci?"

"Yes." Horace looked a little amazed, himself. "Some spirits can fool the mind, by causing it to think it sees or hears something that isn't really there. Others, like Gretchen, have the power to change the way light reflects off surfaces, effectively providing whatever imagery they wish for the sighted to see. It's how they protect their private locations from interlopers, especially of the human variety."

A light turned on in Charlie's mind then. "Like Maddy did at the Tallfield place. The house and grounds looked positively gloomy until Rance and Eleanora got to know us. Maddy then decided she could show us the real thing!"

"Exactly," Horace agreed, nodding. "And it was quite convincing, too, wasn't it?"

"It was," Charlie agreed. "Even if we felt something about the place was off." He frowned then. "But that sort of change wouldn't be tactile, would it? If you touched an illusion like that, wouldn't you know it wasn't real?"

"You would," Horace agreed. He pointed at the photos. "Notice how the last group of photos are all taken from doorways, just like the first group? To photograph the entire room?"


Horace smiled. "We need to call Arno Coldat and ask him if anyone actually went into any of the rooms and touched things, or whether they were so unnerved by the apparent changes that they simply stood in the doorways and looked."

"I can do that," Charlie agreed.

Just then the door to the activity room opened, and Ricky and Adrian came in, followed by a buzz of small wings as Browbeat zipped in behind them. The flyer spotted Charlie and the others seated at the table, and buzzed straight over to them, his small face filled with happiness. "Friends! You're back!"

Kippy patted his shoulder, and Browbeat tittered happily and settled in for a landing. "So, how did it go?" the little flyer asked. "Is this another adventure, just waiting to happen?"

Kippy made an effort to look serious. "It looks like it. Not that you'd be interested, I'm sure."

Browbeat's golden eyes widened, and a look of astonishment crossed his small features, before suddenly being replaced by glee. "Aw, you're pulling my legs!"

The humans erupted into laughter, and Browbeat grinned around at them, and then broke into one of his own distinctive laughs. "You guys sure are fun!"

"So, what's the verdict?" Rick asked, sitting down beside Charlie. Adrian plopped down beside his boyfriend, and leaned across Rick's lap. "Are we taking the case?"

Charlie glanced at Kip, who simply smiled; and then he nodded. "I think so."

They filled in the others on what they had learned visiting Coldat, and showed them the pictures.

Adrian reached across Ricky and Charlie to pat Kip's knee. "What did you sense about this Arno Coldat?"

"That he was telling it straight up," Kip said. He smiled then. "And, he's cute, for an older guy."

Adrian smiled. "Yeah?"

Ricky cleared his throat nosily. "Can we?"

Charlie laughed along with the others.

"You think this is a spirit of some kind, Horace?" Adrian asked. "Like maybe an earth spirit?"

"I wouldn't be surprised. It has a very familiar feel to me."

"Do I get to go?" Browbeat asked, looking around at faces, and then his eyes coming back to Charlie. "This hiding from your people stuff isn't fun!"

Kippy smiled at Charlie. "Coldat said the place was deserted. No one there. We should be able to take him with us." He leaned against Charlie's shoulder. "Right?"

Charlie nodded. "I don't see why not." He reached over and patted the little flyer on his fuzzy back. "I've been thinking about the whole issue of you being with us, anyway, and I don't see a huge problem with it. I don't think you should be buzzing along overhead when we're walking down the streets, but there is no reason to keep you completely hidden."

Ricky looked astonished. "Oh, yeah, right! Everybody has a big butterfly that looks like it mated with a bumblebee along with them these days!"

Charlie laughed at that. "No, you don't get what I mean. Browbeat is only hard to explain if people knew he was an alien life form."

Adrian laughed. "Well, yeah!"

Charlie nodded. "If we go places, and Browbeat just sits on someone's shoulder and doesn't move or talk, most people might stare, and maybe some will comment or ask questions. But most people will simply look, and keep right on going. The barrier most people have these days to involving themselves in the business of others will work in our favor here."

Ricky rolled his eyes. "Someone will ask about him, Charlie. If I got into an elevator with you, and Browbeat was sitting on your shoulder, I sure as hell couldn't keep quiet."

Charlie nodded. "And for anyone that asks, we simply say we're science majors, and that Browbeat is a robotic project."

Kippy sighed. "I hate lying to people."

Charlie nudged his boyfriend's shoulder. "Then you just keep quiet, and I'll do the lying. It's a small sin to commit to allow Browbeat to go with us. Don't you think?"

Kippy turned his head, and found himself looking right into Browbeat's big golden eyes, which had just the cutest imploring look in them. His heart melted on the spot. "Yeah." He smiled. "Welcome to the club, buddy."

Browbeat launched himself into the air. "Yay! I was getting crazy staying here in this place! I want to have some fun!"

He made a wide turn about the room, and came back to land on Kip's shoulder again. "When we're out in public, I'll do my best to be quiet and motionless, okay?"

Kippy smiled at that. "Your best?"

The little flyer tittered happily. "Well, if someone pokes me, I won't be responsible for what happens!" He turned to look at Charlie then. "Speaking of poking me, there's something you should know about."

Charlie nodded. "Go on."

Browbeat's expression became serious. "This body I'm in is a machine. The Madracorn made it for me. And...well, they didn't say, seems to have some extra features I'm just learning about."

Kippy drew his head back to stare. "Like what?"

"Well, there's this..."

Browbeat's vibrant colors slowly changed, from blue and yellow to red and black. "Whoa," Kippy whispered. Everyone stared.

"Or this," Browbeat continued, and suddenly went all black, save for the golden-yellow of his eyes.

"Uh oh," Rick said, staring. "That makes you look a little sinister!"

It was true. The color change made the flyer look like a giant wasp, or something equally potent. Something lethal, even. Not a figure they would want to show people in public.

"Maybe you'd better stay your normal colors," Charlie suggested. "I'd hate to see someone take a giant fly swatter to you!"

Everyone laughed, including Browbeat. He reverted to his friendly blue and yellow, and only then turned to stare owlishly at Charlie. "What's a fly swatter?"

"Never you mind," Kippy said, favoring Charlie with a disapproving look. "Anyone that goes after you with one, has to go through me, first!"

Browbeat's grin returned. "Oh, on that note..." The flyer lifted into the air, and hovered next to Kip. "Hit me."

Kippy's jaw dropped. "I will not!"

Browbeat tittered. "Oh, it will be okay. I promise!"

Still, Kip hesitated, until Browbeat heaved a great sigh. Or, as great a one as his small body could muster. "Oh, okay, then. Poke me!"

Kippy nodded. "That I can do."

He raised a hand and took his index finger and gently prodded Browbeat.

Or, he tried to.

Kip's finger rebounded from Browbeat still several inches away from his beating wings.

"Harder." the flyer insisted. "Put some force into it!"

Kippy frowned, but seemed more willing to comply now. He jabbed his finger at Browbeat this time, and once again it bounced backwards when just a few inches away from the flyer's body, and even more forcefully than before.

"Shield, of some kind?" Ricky wondered aloud, getting up. He moved closer to Browbeat, extended his arms so that the flyer was between his hands, and then tried to bring his hands together. But, several inches away from the little flyer, they bounced away again. Ricky grinned in delight, and brought his hands together slowly, until they stopped a few inches from the flyer's nearly invisible beating wings.

Rick closed his eyes, and nodded to himself. "Yep. A shield."

"Defensive shield?" Charlie asked.

"Maybe, sort of. I don't know if that's what it's intended to be. It seems designed to protect Browbeat from impacts. Its power is proportional to the kinetic energy of the impact." He laughed. "More weird alien physics."

Charlie frowned. "How so?"

Ricky opened his eyes. "It provides for a superelastic layer around Browbeat."

Charlie considered that, and shook his head. "Isn't that impossible?"

"Not if the Madracorn do it."

Adrian looked from one face to the other. "What does that mean?"

Ricky dropped his hands. "It means that anything striking Browbeat's shield, instead of engaging in a partially elastic collision in which the kinetic energy is mostly conserved - which is how normal collisions between resilient objects occur - will instead engage in a superelastic collision in which the kinetic energy is increased, releasing the potential energy on contact. The shield gives back more than it will absorb, causing anything to strike it to rebound away, without Browbeat being exposed to the force of the impact."

Adrian stared at his boyfriend. "Since when did you become an Einstein?"

Ricky grinned. "I'm not. I'm reading straight from the Magic Mechanic's Handbook. Like I said before, when I'm exposed to new skwish stuff, I get an explanation, even if it's one I don't fully understand."

Charlie blinked at that. "It's a skwish field?"

"Apparently so. It would seem our little Browbeat has some skwish, after all. At least, enough of a type to operate the tech the Madracorn built into this body."

Browbeat's large golden eyes looked amused. "I think it's just to keep me from being damaged if I'm not paying attention to where I'm going, and run into something."

Kippy's jaw dropped. "Have you ever done that?"

"No." Browbeat tittered happily now. "But at least I don't have to worry about it anymore!"

Charlie shook his head. "Anything else?"

Browbeat settled back to Kip's shoulder. "Maybe. I'm still getting a feel for all the stuff this body contains."

Kippy gave a little shake of his head. "What's it like, being in there?"

"It feels just like I'm in my own body. Except...when I feel around inside me a little, I find things I can...well, make do things." The flyer seemed to realize the explanation was vague, and performed what looked very much like a shoulderless shrug. "I know that sounds weird, but that's what it's like for me."

The door to the room opened, and Amy stuck her head inside. "Charlie, you've been at it for some hours now. Are you hungry? I can order something, if you guys don't feel like cooking." Her gaze moved to Browbeat then, and she stepped more fully into the room. "Are you having fun?"

"Yes, Amy!" Browbeat launched himself into the air and few to the woman. "You're coming with us, aren't you?"

Amy looked surprised. "Coming with you where?"

"To, uh--" Browbeat turned, and zoomed over to Charlie. "Where are we going?"

Charlie laughed. "To Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania."

The flyer turned, and zoomed back to Amy. "To...the place Charlie just said!"

Charlie smiled at the woman. "You're welcome to come along. I think you might find this case interesting."

Horace stood then, looking eager. "I really think you might! I suspect it involves a genius loci, like Gretchen."

Amy and Gretchen had become friends, and Charlie could see Amy's interest spike at that announcement. She smiled uncertainly at Browbeat, dipping and soaring excitedly in front of her, before shrugging at Charlie. "What about the office?"

"That's what we have the answering service for," Charlie replied.

Kippy also stood. "You have to get your feet wet at some point, if you want to swim in the skwish pool!"

"Yeah!" Ricky called. "Be a sport, and come along!"

Adrian rolled his eyes, but leaned fondly against his boyfriend.

Horace looked imploring now. "I think you'd have fun."

Amy laughed at that, and then smiled at Browbeat. "It's hard to refuse an invitation from such a cute guy."

Her eyes moved to Horace as she finished saying that, and the man immediately beamed back at her. "You'll go with us?" he asked, his eagerness plain.

She closed her eyes a moment, and nodded to herself. "I think I just might."

Charlie was surprised, but pleased by the response. "Then you should come in and sit down."

Once again Charlie and Kip recounted their visit with Arno Coldat, and Horace showed Amy the pictures.

She closed her eyes then, as if thinking, and when they opened again, she smiled. "It does sound like fun."

Horace clapped his hands together and smiled at Charlie. "So...when do we go?"

"I was thinking about tomorrow," Charlie said.

"Should we call Robin?" Rick asked. "My Uncle Bob is in Rochester doing a magic show, or I'd say call him. It would be nice to have a teleporter along."

"We could ask Frit and Pip," Kippy suggested. "Or Max, even."

Charlie considered that, and slowly shook his head. "I can try Robin. He may be free and want to go. But Max took the boys to Mildap to be scorzled. Remember?"

Kippy laughed. "Oh, yeah, I forgot Max said that."

Ricky turned to stare at him. "What the heck is scorzled?"

Charlie shrugged. "I haven't the faintest idea. I kind of thought Max was saying he was taking Frit and Pip to get their skwish stretched."

Ricky looked disbelieving. "Stretched?"

"It's an elf thing," Kippy said offhandedly, smiling.

"Whatever it is, Max said they'd be back in a few days." Charlie went on. "But I don't really want to wait around a few days. I'm sure that if we need any of them later, they'll come."

"So, call Robin," Kippy said, giving Charlie a little push. "Let's get this show on the road!"

Charlie smiled, and pulled out his cell. Robin was a speed dial away, and the man answered his phone immediately. "Hi, Charlie? What's up?"

"Hi. Nothing major. We're just about to start off on that job for Arno Coldat, and we thought maybe you'd like to go along?"

"That's the house that refuses to be renovated?"

"The very one. You want to go with us?"

Robin chuckled over the phone. "Let me check my calendar. Hmm., it looks like--"

There was a sudden pop in the room, and Robin appeared, his phone still pressed to his ear. "--I'm free," he finished, grinning at them.

Charlie laughed, and put his phone away. "I have got to learn that trick!"

"You probably will," Robin predicted, putting away his own cell. He rubbed his hands together then, his eyes circling the group. "So, where were we?"

Browbeat lifted off Kip's shoulder and made a beeline to Robin, pausing to hover in front of the man and grin at him. "Hi, again! I'm going, too!"

Robin smiled, his eyes shifting to Charlie a moment. "Are you, now?"

"Yes, I am. I'm going to be quiet, so people won't know I'm an alien life form."

Robin laughed. "I kind of doubt it's you speaking that would give the show away."

"Well, I'm going," Browbeat insisted. "Charlie said I could."

Robin's eyes moved around among the others, and saw no dissent there. He nodded. "It will be wonderful to have you along."

Browbeat moved closer, and landed carefully on Robin's shoulder. "I knew I liked you!"

Robin smiled, his eyes bright with humor. "I knew I liked you, too."

Everyone seemed to relax at that. Charlie and Kip again went through their account of the meeting with Arno Coldat, showed Robin the pictures, and brought him up to speed on what they had supposed thus far. The man listened attentively, and finally nodded. "I'm a little out of my depth here. Ghost-hunting sounds fun, but my experience is pretty limited. But if you think I can assist, count me in."

Charlie looked around, counting heads. "Eight of us, counting Browbeat. We can take my 4Runner. With the third row seating up, we'll be fine."

"And, once we're there, I can always move us back and forth if the need arises," Robin said. He held up his hands. "When would you like to start?"

"Tomorrow," Charlie replied. He looked around at the others. "Anything else?"

It seemed there was not.

Charlie nodded. "Okay. Everyone be here by 8:00 in the morning, and we'll be on our way."

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