Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

We All Go A Little Mad Sometimes, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 2

The big GMC Yukon had barely come to a halt at the base of the steps leading up to the veranda of Annie Beecher's octagon house before the right-hand side of the double front doors opened, and Moped came charging down the steps to bark at them.

Rick had his window down, and immediately turned to smile at her. "Hi Moped! Hi, sweetie!"

Realizing it was someone she knew and not some bold invader, the dog immediately sat back on her haunches, her tail sounding a rhythmic drumbeat against the ground, while her tongue lolled out and she smiled at Rick.

"Everybody out!" he called, shutting off the engine and opening his door. Moped took that action as an invitation to come forward, and met Rick with a happy swipe of her tongue as he went to one knee to greet her.

"Hi, sweetheart!" the boy cooed, hugging the dog, while Moped did her best to lick his ear off. "How's my girl been?"

"She knew you were coming, somehow," a woman's voice said then. Annie Beecher came out of the house, and beamed down at them. She was in her late twenties, with long, dark hair, and the pleasant features that seemed a given in Rick's family."She's been prowling around the front door all morning!" Her eyes swept among Charlie and the others as they came around the truck to join Rick and Moped. "Hi, guys! Wow, it's great to see you all again!"

She came down the steps and extended her arms to her cousin. Rick rose to his feet and offered the woman a hug, while Moped romped among the guys, revisiting old friendships.

"It was great of you to put us up for a few days," Rick said, smiling. He looked around the property, and sighed. "You still have some color left in your trees here. Ours are mostly getting brown or barren up north."

"This is such a pretty place," Kip said, rubbing Moped's head affectionately, while the dog watched him with worshipful eyes. "Even with the trees barren, it would have a special charm to it."

Annie offered up a happy sigh. "I know that Moped and I have been happy here. It's been just the most wonderful three years!"

The golden retriever barked happily, as if echoing her master's sentiments. Welcome to my home!

"You don't know Horace," Rick said to Annie then. "He's one of our research staff. Horace, this is my cousin, Annie."

"Quite the pleasure," Horace said, offering a brief bow. While Horace had visited Annie's house in the past, when the guys were solving the mystery of her hidden otherworldly visitors, she had been away at the time. "And I must say, your home is just beautiful!"

Annie beamed at that. "Nice to meet you, Horace." She laughed, and eyed him conspiratorially then. "You look like the mature one in this group!"

"He keeps us on track," Adrian said seriously, jumping aboard the comment with a wink at Horace.

"He's a whiz!" Rick agreed, looking too innocent to be believed.

"He's our mentor, alright," Kip said breezily, eyeing Horace with a sparkle in his eyes.

Horace sighed deeply, and smiled at Annie. "They're nice young men, but they tend to wear me out, sometimes."

Everyone laughed, and Annie shook her head. "I'll just bet this bunch keeps you busy, Horace!" She motioned back at the house. "Why don't you guys come in, and take a breath?"

Charlie and the others had each brought one bag, with several changes of clothing. They retrieved them now from the Yukon, and followed Annie up the front steps and entered the house.

Charlie felt a sense of awareness at their presence flow over him as he passed through the front door, as those who had claimed the house as refuge took note of their arrival. The mood he got was one of cheer, and happiness. And, welcome.

Kippy obviously felt it, too. He smiled happily at Charlie, before turning back to Annie. "Oh, I see some new furniture! It looks lovely!"

"Just a few things here and there," Annie replied, looking pleased at the approval. "It would take me years at my income level to furnish this entire place. I just wanted to fill in a few of the most barren spots!"

"It looks great," Rick confirmed, looking around as they approached the large center staircase. "I see a number of changes." He glanced briefly at Charlie, and then back at his cousin. "Is the piano still in the library?"

"Of course. It came with the house, and it stays with the house. Right where it is, in fact. That was one of Mrs. Ravishaw's wishes, and I intend to honor it." Annie smiled happily. "And, I still might learn to play it someday!"

Charlie looked briefly at Horace, but didn't say anything more. Horace played quite well, but when he sat at the piano in the octagon house's library and launched into most any Beethoven or Mozart, the legions of blocky, other-dimensional visitors taking refuge in the house would come to listen. Many of them. If Annie hadn't seen them yet, that would scarcely be the best way to introduce them to her.

"You guys can have the same rooms you had last time, if that's okay," Annie told them, smiling. "That way you'll know where they are."

"Works for us," Rick said. "We'll probably be gone most of the day while we're here, and maybe even some at night. It was just very cool that this new job was so close to your place. We can visit with you and Moped, too!"

Annie smiled at that. "I have to work, remember. Those cakes won't get decorated on their own! I'm here today, but I'll be gone during the week, until the early evenings."

"Halloween is Tuesday," Kippy said. "How is that going to work?"

Annie laughed. "Oh, we have some smart kids around here! They celebrate Halloween weekend locally, and I had some trick-or-treaters last night. Saturday night is the easiest night for many parents to take their littlest ones around. We'll get a second round of older kids Tuesday night. I always stock up a little extra on goodies, just because of that."

Rick gave a little, surprised shake of his head. "I wouldn't have believed there were that many kids around here. You're not exactly close to town."

"There are more kids each year, it seems," Annie countered. "This road has become popular, because there are so many creepy houses along it."

Kippy made a sound of startled disagreement. "Oh, you're kidding! The houses on this road are all beautiful!"

"Of course they are...during the day." Annie's eyes sparkled happily. "But these are period homes, and all old ones. Put a few skeletons and jack o' lanterns out, and at night they take on a different look!"

"Imagination," Charlie offered, smiling. "Both by the kids, and by the homeowners."

"Exactly." Rick's cousin seemed pleased with Charlie's assessment. "In the last few years, my neighbors seem to have gotten into the spirit of the holiday. You guys should drive along our road at night in the next day or two, and you'll see what I mean."

Adrian turned to gaze back at the front door. "I didn't notice any scary stuff on your porch."

"It's there. It's just better seen in the dark!"

Charlie looked at his watch, and cleared his throat gently. "Maybe we should put our bags in our rooms and get moving? We told Ms. Tull we'd be there around noon."

Annie squinted at them then. "Just what are you doing, if you don't mind me asking?"

"We look into things," Kippy said, smiling. "We do research for people. This one is about a house over in Preston. A woman inherited it from her brother, and now she wants to know more about the place. We're going to help her with that."

"Oh." Annie nodded approvingly. "Say, that sounds like interesting work. Do you guys get a lot of it?"

"More all the time," Rick answered. "There seems to be an awful lot of stuff out there that people want to know about!"

Charlie knew that no one would mention ghosts or goblins, but he was always just a little leery of what Rick might say on the spur of the moment. Not that Kippy was any less subject to impulse! But...they had all grown since they had been together, and it wasn't just their skwish that seemed to be maturing. The guys still played a lot, but Charlie had found confidence in their ability to do serious work when the situation called for it.

"So, we had better think about getting there," Charlie finished, smiling.

Annie pointed at the staircase. "Go to it. Moped and I will head back to the kitchen, and our book."

"What are you reading?" Kip asked. "Something Halloweenish, I hope!"

"I'll say. Psycho, by Robert Bloch." Annie grinned at their looks of surprise. "I'm a little late to the party."

Rick nodded. "I'd agree with that. That book is older than my dad!"

"Well, I'm reading it now, and enjoying it. It has just the right atmosphere for Halloween!"

Charlie grinned. "And Moped helps with that?"

"She offers moral support during the scary stuff." Annie patted the dog's head, while Moped gazed happily up at her. "She's very good at it, too!"

She turned to go, but Adrian raised a hand then. "You always read in the kitchen?"

"Sure. This time of the year, especially. It's near the hot cocoa, which covers any moral support that Moped misses." Annie waved, and patted her thigh for Moped to come along. "See you guys later tonight, maybe."

Charlie and the others smiled after her, and then climbed the steps to the next floor and found the bedrooms they had occupied the last time they had stayed there. The sense of happiness they could feel at their presence in the house made them smile. The guests surely remembered them, and were welcoming them back.

Kippy sighed happily as they placed their bags by the double bed. "It almost feels like coming home."

Charlie nodded. "I certainly feel welcome here. And not just by Annie and Moped."

Kippy came closer and put an arm around Charlie's waist. "I makes me feel like I want to be kissed."

Charlie smiled at his boyfriend. "Well, I'm the guy that can do that for you." He pulled Kippy around to face him, kissed him gently on the tip of his nose, and then full on the lips. Kippy sighed inside, and pressed his face against Charlie's. The moment went on, with neither of them seeming to want to break it.

"Oops," said a voice at the door then. Rick's voice.

"Oh, we're sorry," Adrian added immediately. "You're having a moment together."

Charlie and Kippy both turned their heads and smiled at their friends. Rick had his arm around Adrian, and Charlie had a feeling the two of them had been doing the same thing as he and Kippy, just moments ago.

Adrian sighed. "It's very romantic here. The happiness just oozes out of the walls!"

"They're happy to see us," Kippy said. "It's a very nice welcome back."

Horace appeared behind Rick and Adrian then. "Oh. I hope I'm not intruding."

Kippy sighed, and Charlie laughed, and they pulled apart. But their hands remained clasped a moment longer, each promising more for later.

"You're fine," Charlie said, smiling at the older man. "We were just saying how happy it feels here."

Horace nodded. "I have a feeling that I want to play the piano. The thing is, I don't think it's my own feeling."

Rick leaned forward and lowered his voice. "You can't do that while Annie is here!"

"I wasn't planning to. But I do sense our friends would like to hear some music at some point while we're here."

Charlie looked around at the walls. "Annie will be out tomorrow and Tuesday. If we have time to come by here, you can play then."

Horace took a breath at that, and then smiled. "I think they're taking that as a promise."

Charlie nodded, and looked again at his watch. "Time to hit the road." But then he looked around the room, and smiled again. "But, we'll be back."

There would be time to renew otherworldly acquaintances later.

Mildred Tull's house, when they finally found it, looked much like the picture they had viewed online. It was barely visible from the road, suggesting that whoever had taken the picture used on the real estate sites had been an enterprising sort. The trees were more colorful and less full than in the photo, but the house itself still looked somehow like it would rather be elsewhere. That was kind of hard to account for, as the house was in great condition, and looked like it had been studiously maintained over its lifetime. The paint looked fresh, the white with yellow and green accents presenting vividly in what noonday sun made it through the treetops. It was beautiful - or, it would have been, in other circumstances.

The place was just too dark, too overshadowed by the omnipresent woods. The setting was irksome to Charlie's sense of right, the trees being way too close to the structure, and there being no landscaping at all. There was no grass to be seen, with the forest undergrowth growing right up to the walls of the house to either side, and nothing at all growing along the front of the place to soften the line where the house met the leaf-covered ground. It looked like the house had been brought in long after the forest had grown, and been sort of pushed into a hole between the trees. The oddity of that was almost striking, and the trees even seemed as if they resented the intrusion mightily. Some had branches that looked like they had even bent away from the house, turning at odd angles in order not to touch the white clapboard siding.

Rick summed it up nicely. "Hey, I wonder if Dracula is home," he asked, eyeing the house with a frown. He was busy doing the same sort of examination that Charlie had been doing, and perhaps coming up with the same conclusions.

There was something just wrong about the look of this place!

"Who's Dracula?" Browbeat asked, from his perch atop the middle of the front seat. He had been asked to stay in the SUV, out of sight, while they visited with Annie and Moped. Rick said he had a feeling that Moped would be enchanted with their alien friend, but that Annie would be a tough sell. They could have hauled out their story of Browbeat being a robotic project, but none of the guys had really wanted to deceive Rick's cousin. Telling a story to strangers was one thing, a necessity if the need arose to have the little flyer out in public; but, friends and family, it was just better not to let the subject come up, rather than to start a trail of lies.

So Browbeat had stayed in the back of the Yukon, happily retaking his perch when they had headed off to see Mildred Tull.

"Dracula's a spooky guy, dresses in black, has fangs," Rick said absently, still examining the house.

"He's a Moth?" Browbeat asked, sounding confused. "What's he doing on your planet?"

Kippy hooted. "I love this guy!" He reached out and gently stroked the flyer's back. "He's not a Moth. He's one of us!"

"A human legend," Adrian amended then. "Just a scary story." He waved at the house. "This place is too nice for Dracula."

"I like it," Kippy agreed, though sounding as if he had reservations. "The house is nice, I mean. The trees around it are just weird."

"They actually look like they had to make room for the house," Adrian observed, and Charlie smiled that his friend had seen the same thing he had. "It's kind of uncanny."

Rick emitted a little hiss. "Yeah, the trees were probably warned off by the vampires."

Adrian sighed. "Come on, Rick. Let's not shave the bat before we see his whiskers."

That drew smiles from everyone, even Rick.

Charlie turned to Horace. "What's your take on this place?"

The ghost hunter frowned, his eyes examining the house first, and then the trees around it. "The house is charming. The woods around it are, um...unusual." His frown intensified. "No, it's the combination that seems odd to my eye."

"In what way?"

Horace gave a little shrug. "I can separate the house from its setting in my mind's eye, and it seems fine. I can view the woods as if the house was not here, and they seem fine. It's viewed together that strikes me as odd." He turned to Charlie. "If I didn't know better, I'd say this house was just placed here recently!"

Charlie turned back to look at the house, his eyebrows rising. That was the same impression he'd had, himself!

"Well, that sounds kind of hard to believe," Rick decided. "I mean, I know houses can be moved, but this one certainly wasn't put on rollers and driven up that pig track of a drive we just came up. It would be too wide for Ripley Road, even!" He put the Yukon in Park, and turned to look at Charlie over the seat. "And, on that topic, it was a good thing you saw that sign, or we'd still be looking for this place."

They had almost missed Ripley Road entirely. Charlie had spied the turn when they were going past it, in fact. It was a winding length of cracked blacktop scarcely wide enough for two cars to pass each other, and the sides of the road were overgrown with weeds in a way that hid it from view from the main road, until one was looking straight down its length.

Turtle tracks, Kippy called little, out-of-the-way roads like that. And, there had been no driveways of any sort along Ripley Road when they had followed it, until they had come around a bend and Charlie had seen a short pole by the side of the road, just barely showing above the weeds, with what looked like a paper plate nailed to it, with a hastily-printed 29 on it in black magic marker. There was no mailbox, nothing to indicate that the weed-covered dirt rut beside the sign led back to someone's place of residence.

But they had followed the almost-drive, and now, here they were.

"Might as well get closer to the house," Charlie pointed out. "You can drive right up to the front of it, it looks like."

Rick did that, and turned off the engine. Up close, they could see no lawn at all before the house. It looked like someone had simply mowed the forest undergrowth to the ground and left it at that.

"Well," Kippy said, brightly, "we're here!"

No one made a move to get out. All eyes were still on the house.

"Well, let me out," Browbeat insisted. "I need to stretch my wings." He turned and gave Charlie a look of distress then. "I don't have to stay out of sight here, do I?"

"No." Charlie had already decided he would tell Mildred Tull, if she even asked, that Browbeat was a sort of drone, which they had brought so that they could view the house from above. He kind of figured that someone in their 80's wouldn't be all that up on current technology, anyway. And, the woman had said to bring whomever and whatever they needed.

Charlie opened his door and got out, and Kippy finally gave a little sigh and slid out behind him. Browbeat squeezed past them and then sailed up into the trees, making little happy noises as he moved from branch to branch.

"Well, at least they aren't swatting at him," Rick said, joining Charlie and Kip.

"You mean the trees?" Charlie smiled at that. "They're odd-looking, but they're just trees, Rick."

His friend gave him a knowing look. "Uh huh. By day, they're just trees. But, for all we know, they're stretching their branches at night and knocking on Mildred's door!"

Adrian laughed at the idea. "So that would be wood knocking on wood?"

Kippy rolled his eyes. "Can we at least act like serious investigators of goblins, banshees, and other dark things that go bump in the night?"

Rick snorted, but grinned at Charlie's boyfriend.

Adrian leaned closer then. "I just saw something move on the front door."

Everyone turned to examine the door. It was a wide, solid-looking slab, made prettier by four rectangular carved panels set low and high, with the gap between the upper and lower set home to a knocker in the center of the door, and a fairly sturdy-looking handle to the right. As seen in the picture online, a scalloped shell molding graced the door frame's crown, and there was a beautiful, circular window above that of stained-glass, that now could be seen to be of flowers.

"Where?" Charlie asked.

"In the middle, between those two upper panels."

Charlie leaned closer then. Ah. In the middle of the two panels was a small round fitting, made of brass, perhaps; surely an eye port, now covered from within. Used to inspect visitors, before the door was opened.

"I guess Mildred knows we're here," Charlie guessed. "Come on."

He led the way up the three front steps onto the covered porch, and stopped before the door. He was reaching for the knocker when the door grunted and opened inward.

"No need," said the same voice they had heard on the phone.

The woman that presented herself before them certainly did not look like she was 83-years old. More like fifty-three, Charlie thought, with interest.

She was as tall as Rick's six-feet, and slender as a beanpole. Slate-gray hair framed an unlined face dominated by piercing eyes that looked almost black. Mildred's nose was large and hawkish, her mouth a thin line that would have looked uncompromising on anyone else, but somehow made her look thoughtful, especially as her lips were just now curved slightly in a smile that was at least welcoming.

The woman was wearing a full-length flowered dress with a lacy pink belt around the waist, the pattern reminiscent of the stained-glass window above the door; and laced-up, high-top black shoes that would have looked almost military in issue, without the very feminine pointy toes and ornamental silver buckles.

Not what Charlie had expected, but then...he wasn't sure just what he had expected. A brief feeling of warmth at his chest suggested that Castor was paying attention now, and Charlie just smiled.

"Ms. Tull? I'm Charlie Boone, of Third Planet Inquiries, and these are my fellow researchers."

The woman nodded. Her gaze moved past them a moment and her eyes darted around the woods beyond, as if making sure the coast was clear; and then she stepped back and pulled the door all the way open. "Please, come in."

There was a whir of wings then, and Browbeat sailed in from one side and came down to a landing on Charlie's shoulder. "Don't forget me!"

Charlie stopped in mid-step, a little stunned that he had forgotten about the flyer. He would have at least liked to have paved the way for Browbeat's appearance with Mildred Tull--

But the woman seemed completely unfazed by the flyer's appearance. Her smile quirked to one side, and a new note of interest crept into her dark eyes as they locked on Browbeat. And then her smiled cracked, showing strong white teeth behind. "Oh, how charming! Please, come in, all of you!"

Rick gave a surprised grunt, Kippy laughed nervously, and Browbeat tittered happily. Charlie blinked at the woman, and then led the way inside.

The entrance foyer was large, two-stories tall, with the wainscoted walls and intricate crown moldings that Charlie had come to expect in homes from this one's era. The wallpaper below the wainscoting was another flowered pattern, very striking, and somehow peaceful, which surprised Charlie, who didn't care that much for wallpaper, in general.

A massive staircase to the rear of the foyer climbed towards the second floor, accompanied by ornately carved railings, balusters, and newel posts. The walls of the staircase were adorned with more carved panels, the workmanship exquisite. Most every charm of an arts and crafts house that Charlie could think of were represented here, all in fine and dedicated detail.

"I think I'm in love!" Charlie heard Horace whisper. The man's own home was of a similar breed, and it was a beautiful place, indeed.

The moment they were all in, Mildred leaned against the door and shut it, seating it with a very solid thud. She squatted and threw a sturdy-looking deadbolt down low, then straightened and threw another one up high. Then she leaned close to the door, moved a latch, and peered outward through the eye-hole in the door. Her head moved side-to-side as she inspected the front porch and its surrounds, and then she snapped the portal closed and thumbed the latch over it.

She turned to Rick then. "Nice truck. I hope you locked it."

Rick's eyes widened. He reached into his pocket, found his key fob, and pushed the button to lock the Yukon. The horn beeped to let them know that the mission was accomplished.

Mildred nodded. "Good. Come on into the back of the house, and we can sit and talk." She turned and waved for them the follow her through an arch at the base of the staircase.

Browbeat leaned close to Charlie's ear then, and whispered, "I like her already!"

Charlie gave a little shake of his head, and just whispered a shh! for the flyer to remain quiet as they followed.

There was a fire going in the fireplace in the large back room - a parlor, Charlie was certain - when they got there. The room had tall, narrow windows, covered by fine curtains hung from elegant wooden rods, and was filled with furniture that looked to be of the same era as the house. The room was obviously a place meant for people to meet and be entertained. A wheeled serving tray near the fire held a large silver urn and a dozen china teacups, as well as napkins, a creamer, and a sugar bowl.

An overhead chandelier, now filled with electric light bulbs, glowed pleasantly, a conversion from the past, Charlie figured. Many an oil or gas lamp had undergone the change in the half-century after Tom Edison's new invention had hit the streets. Practicality - and expense - had dictated that the old fixtures be renovated to use the new form of illumination.

"Fresh batch of green tea there," Mildred said, picking up a cup of her own from a small table by a wing-back chair and taking a sip. "Just the thing for these chilly autumn days."

She turned then, and indicated the sofa and chairs arrayed before the fireplace. "Won't you please sit down? We can talk."

Everyone found a place and sat down. No one went for tea. Not just yet, anyway.

Mildred sat in the wing-back chair, facing them. Browbeat lifted from Charlie's shoulder and crossed to the woman, and hovered before her face. Mildred smiled, in no way alarmed or put off by the proximity of the flyer.

"Hi! I'm Browbeat." The little flyer did a quick three-sixty in place, and then tittered happily at their host. "I love your house!"

Mildred sipped her tea and squinted at Browbeat a moment before answering. "What a fascinating little fellow you are! Not from around here, I take it?"

Browbeat laughed. "Oh, I get around! I'm just hanging with my friends here, right now. You know how it is!"

Surprisingly, Mildred nodded her head. "I do. I like to get around, myself!"

Browbeat moved to one side, and settled onto one of the wings of her chair. "Do you mind?"

"Not at all. My wing is your wing."

Browbeat found that hilarious, and his explosion of tiny laughter made everyone smile.

Kippy cleared his throat, and leaned forward. "You're not from New York?"

Mildred turned her gaze on him, and showed her white teeth again in a smile. "I was born in this state, but I have been just about everywhere in my life. I decided to come back here after I inherited my brother's house." Her smile resolved into a small frown. "It isn't what I expected here, not at all."

Charlie was aware now that Castor seemed to be focused on their conversation. The sensation of warmth - really a form of mental activity - from the carved wooden dragon on his breast was always a sign that the spirit was attuned to the same thing that Charlie was.

"How so?" he asked. "It's a pretty time to be here, anyway."

Mildred turned her dark eyes on him, and then gave a little nod. "You mean the leaves? Yes, they're glorious." She sat back in her chair then. "I just wish they'd leave my house alone."

Horace turned to look at Charlie, his eyebrows propped high on his forehead. "You mean the leaves have been, um, bothering your house?" he asked, turning back to Mildred.

Charlie raised a hand. "Just a moment." He stood, and indicated his friends. "This is Horace Wingspanner, and these others are Kip Lawson, Adrian Whitaker, and Rick Travers." He smiled then. "Browbeat was the only one to remember to introduce himself properly."

"And you, of course, Charlie." Mildred nodded at each of her company, and then refocused on Horace. "Well, Mr. Wingspanner--"

"Oh, call me Horace, please," Horace interrupted.

Mildred smiled. "Well, Horace, as I said on the phone, I did get a glimpse of what has been trying to get into my house. Twice, actually."

Adrian looked fascinated. "You're saying that leaves have been trying to get into your house?"

The woman sipped her tea again, watching them. "Twice, in the early evening, when there was still just enough light to see, I managed to get to the door and peer out as the pounding was taking place. Twice I saw a man outside on my front porch."

Adrian and Kip exchanged glances, plainly confused now.

"A man made of leaves," Mildred clarified.

"Made of...leaves," Horace repeated.

"Yes. The shape of a man, but made entirely of leaves." Mildred Tull gave a little shake of her head, as if the idea still amazed her. "And these are leaves in motion, swirling about non-stop within his form. His coming is usually preceded by a sound as of the wind blowing, and the dry rustle of dead leaves against the house. Surely you have heard such autumn sounds before, yourselves?"

Charlie had, right outside his own bedroom window. The big oak out front was not at all bashful about casting leaves to every wind that came along this time of the year. The dry rustle of them against the window was always a sound Charlie had liked, a signature sound of autumn. But those leaves had never once tried to enter his house!

" on your door?" Charlie asked. "I wouldn't think something made of dead leaves would have the mass to actually do that."

Mildred smiled at that. "I like you, Charlie. You do seem to have the observations of a truly inquiring mind. Your website was not wrong there!"

It seemed a slightly odd compliment, but Charlie just smiled and went on speaking. "I mean, leaves have mass, but even a lot of them only present the individual mass of each leaf, unless they are all bound together in some way. Just ask any kid that has jumped into a huge pile of them."

"They would have to be contained in some fashion," Horace agreed. "Or--" He frowned, thinking. "Perhaps if they are simply the appearance of leaves in man form?"

"What does that mean?" Kip asked.

Horace turned to him. "If a tornado came along and picked up a huge mound of dead leaves, you would see them swirling within the cyclone. It might even make the tornado look like a huge entity made entirely of leaves. But, if that tornado then knocked your house down, it would not have been the leaves that did it, but the force of the rotating winds."

"You mean what is knocking in Mildred's door may just be, a something that picks up leaves as it moves, and that's what she sees?"

"Purely a theory," Horace said, waving a hand. "But, I can readily imagine an earth spirit that might do that very thing as it moved about a wooded property such as this." He shrugged at Charlie then. "The problem with that is that I can't sense any sort of earth spirit here."

Mildred sipped her tea, watching and listening. The woman hardly seemed fazed by any of this. That, and her ready acceptance of Browbeat, had Charlie thinking.

"You seem very comfortable with these suggestions," he said to her.

"I am. As I said, I have been around a bit, myself. I discounted the idea of an earth spirit fairly quickly. They have a very definite itch about them, one I can feel."

Charlie turned to his boyfriend. "You detect any skwish in Mildred?"

Kippy looked surprised. "Not an ounce!"

"Me, either," Adrian supplied, shaking his head.

Mildred laughed gently. "You mean that pleasing radiant energy I sense from all of you? No, I don't do that, myself. I tend to itch, though. At this late stage of life, I know what most of the itches mean. The itch I get from this man of leaves is entirely new, though. That's why I called you people."

"To interpret your itch?" Horace asked. He smiled. "How charming."

"I had a good itch when I saw your site, so I knew you were just the ones to ask about this new itch. So far, I am feeling very justified in having called you. You seem just the people for the job, if you know what I mean!"

Kippy laughed, and leaned up against Charlie. "I knew I had a good feeling about this case. I said it would be interesting, and now it seems even better than that!"

He stood up, and went to the teapot. "You want a cup, Charlie? Anyone else?"

Everyone but Browbeat accepted. Kippy filled the cups and added cream or sugar where asked, and handed them out; then he went back to sit by Charlie. Charlie looked into his cup, sighed, and took a sip. Here goes nothing!

The tea was hot and satisfying, just the thing for a chill autumn day. And, he didn't feel dizzy, or tend to keel over in any way!

Charlie laughed inwardly at the idea that the odd setting of Mildred's home had made him so wary. Even if Kip's and Adrian's skwish had failed to alert them to danger, Castor surely would have!

Mildred smiled at them. "Now that we are all relaxed, perhaps we can focus on the problem at hand."

"Pardon me," Horace said then, raising his hand. "It's entirely impolite for me to ask, and I apologize beforehand...but you scarcely seem like someone with eighty-three years under your belt." He cast a quick look at Charlie, as if apologizing to him for the impropriety of the statement, too.

Mildred smiled. "What are years? A changing of the seasons on one little planet in a great big universe." She nodded. "It isn't time that wears us out, gentleman, it's biology that lets us down."

Horace smiled at that. "Your biology would seem to be treating you well, then."

"That's been the case, thus far. " No mention of the fact that they had obviously been probing into her background for information. As if she had expected that to happen.

"Your brother that passed was an older brother?" Kippy asked.

"By quite a few years," Mildred agreed. Her eyes twinkled, but she didn't say more.

Charlie moistened his lips with his tongue, trying to get past the notion that Mildred was playing with them, to the understanding that she was focused on the reason she had called them, not her own background, which she plainly seemed disinclined to share more of at this point.

He nodded. "There are some hours before dark yet. This, uh, visitor of yours? He has never shown up during the day?"

"No. Dusk has been the earliest he has appeared, and only then on two occasions. Most of his visits are after dark."

"He just knocks on your door?" Rick asked, squinting at the woman. "That's it?"

"No. He has banged on my front door, but he often makes complete circuits of the house, rattling the latches of the doors and rustling against the windows."

Rick turned to look at the curtain-covered windows. "He hasn't tried to break in? Forcibly? You have glass in your windows, don't you?"

"The windows are quite normal," Mildred agreed. "My leafy friend has not tried to force an entry. In fact, my impression is that he seems somewhat puzzled by the house, and is testing its perimeter to see what, exactly, he is dealing with."

"Not trying to break in," Charlie repeated, softly. At his chest, he felt a a flash of interest from Castor, the implication being that the spirit found the circumstances of this investigation quite puzzling, too!

"We have plenty of time to look around outside before dark," Adrian pointed out. "Maybe we should do that first?"

"Probably a good idea," Kippy said, nodding at Charlie.

Charlie agreed. He drained the remainder of his tea, and stood up. "I guess we'll start with that, then. A look around the property?"

Mildred also stood. "There's not much to see, but that's fine. I'll let you out. Just return to the door when you want to come back inside, and I'll let you in."

Browbeat lifted from the wing of the chair and buzzed excitedly towards the front door. "Oh, boy!"

The guys each deposited their cups on the serving cart as they passed, and Charlie led them back to the front door. Mildred threw the bolts, and let them outside.

Browbeat was first out, and lifted up among the trees again, and wove his way among the boles, tittering happily. Charlie smiled, remembering a past instructional session with Max, where they had all been birds. The joy he had felt at flying that time was something he would never forget!

As soon as the door shut, Rick opened his mouth to say something, and Charlie immediately shook his head in an indication to wait. "How about we look around back first?"

But as soon as they stepped off the porch, Rick turned quickly to Charlie. "Wait a second, huh?"

He walked over to his Yukon, and walked around it slowly, as if inspecting the vehicle, then came back to Charlie and the others, smiling. "Even leaves can scratch, you know?"

Adrian laughed, and wrapped an arm around Rick's. "My hero!"

Rick looked embarrassed. "Well, it's my first car. She's my baby!"

Adrian pretended to look hurt. "I thought I was your baby!"

Kippy sighed. "And then, Rick was sleeping by himself!"

Charlie and Kip laughed, and Horace smiled.

Rick sighed patiently, and gave Adrian a quick kiss on the lips. "You're my he baby! The Yuke is my she baby!"

Adrian's eyes twinkled. "Oh, well, then."

Rick kissed his boyfriend another time. "You know what I mean!"

"I do." Adrian relented. He smiled, and gave Rick a very nice kiss back.

Kippy sighed, and found Charlie's hand and squeezed it warmly. "I love love!"

Browbeat came sailing back then, to hover before Charlie and Kippy. "These trees are full of critters!" he whispered

"Squirrels," Kippy supposed, looking up into the branches. "Or, birds."

"Not those types of critters," Browbeat whispered. "Gonkers, I mean. Whatsits."

Charlie stared at the flyer, and then looked up into the trees. "Gonkers? I don't know the term."

Browbeat wheeled, looking up at the trees, too. "Noseeums, maybe? No, those are insects." The flyer sighed. "I've been studying your language, but I can't find the right word. Gonkers are things you can hear, and see out of the sides of your eyes, but if you look right at them, they just aren't there."

Kippy frowned. "You mean ghosts?"

Browbeat hooted. "I'm a ghost, sort of." He bobbed up and down in place. "Ghosts were people, that have passed. Gonkers are alive, at least, I think they are." He turned, looking up into the trees. "There's a lot of them, too!"

The others moved closer, and everyone looked up into the trees. Charlie inspected the long branches, and was about to say he didn't see a thing...when he did. Momentarily, out of the side of his eyes,. he saw something skitter along a length of branch. But when he turned his head to look, nothing was there.

"Hey," Rick said then. "I just saw...or, I think I saw--"

"Me, too," Adrian whispered.

"I do believe--" Horace began.

Kippy blew out a short breath, dug into a pocket, and pulled out a small notebook, and a pen. He opened the cover, and started writing. "Phantoms in the trees," he said, as the pen moved across the paper.

Browbeat tittered happily. "That's the word I was looking for!"

Charlie frowned. "Phantoms?"

"Uh huh." Browbeat sighed, and gave the treetops another quick look. "What a blast! You guys sure are fun!"

Charlie moved closer to Horace. "You have any idea what he means?"

"Maybe. Such unusual manifestations are a part of ghost lore."

"Browbeat said they were alive, not ghosts."

"Yes." Horace squinted up into a the trees again. "Ghostly apparitions are sometimes accompanied by things that live in our world, but are only partly of it."

Kippy shook his head. "Isn't that a contradiction?"

Horace winced, and nodded. "I cannot describe it better than that. They are a form of cryptid, as it were."

Adrian and Rick also moved closer. Rick narrowed his eyes a moment, and then grinned. "Isn't a cryptid like Bigfoot, or something? Or the Loch Ness monster?"

Horace looked pained. "Cryptids are any life form that is claimed to exist, by people who have mostly had eyewitness encounters with them, but which have not, or cannot, be proven to actually exist."

"Bigfoot," Rick repeated, shaking his head at the trees. "Just what we need."

Charlie gave his friend a gentle poke. "Open mind, remember?"

Rick blew out a frustrated breath. "Yeah. I will already admit this whole place is weird. And, I thought I did see something move up in the trees--"

Charlie waved a hand at him. "Want another riddle?"

"Oh, sure. What's one more?"

Kippy looked around carefully. "You see something we missed?'

"Maybe." Charlie turned and examined the house. "Mildred had the lights on inside, right?"

Kippy nodded. "Yeah."

Charlie lifted his hand then, and waved it at the structure. "You see a power line connected to this house? Anywhere?"

Everyone turned then, to stare at the house. But Charlie had already made his examination earlier. In an absolutely rural location like this, the utility poles would wind along Ripley Road. A connection would come from a pole near the end of the drive, and up along that rutted way. And, due to the length of the drive, there would probably need to be two additional poles for support located on the property itself, before connecting to the side of the house.

But, there was nothing like that, anywhere.

Rick gaped, along with the others, and then turned to stare at Charlie. "Maybe it connects around back?"

"That looks like dense forest behind the house," Horace noted. "That would be a ridiculous way to run power poles."

"Maybe it's buried," Adrian said. "They do that in lots of new neighborhoods now."

Kippy sighed. "This neighborhood was new in 1899, remember?"

Charlie nodded. "We should walk around back, though. I want to look at that carriage garage. Something else seems to be missing here."

Rick clapped a hand to his forehead in mock suspense. "What next?"

Charlie smiled at that. "Well, look around. Unless Mildred walks everywhere, which I doubt, I don't see any sort of vehicle she might drive."

Everyone turned to look ,and then Rick came closer to Charlie. "Wanna look around back?"

Charlie laughed. "Yes, shall we?"

They headed around the side of the house, while the trees moved gently in the wind, and the leaves spoke of things not quite of this world.

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