Chapter 1: In the Land of the Dead
Original publication date: 2002 - 2005
Fandom: The Real Ghostbusters
Warnings: angst, character death, graphic violence, harsh language
This story is a fusion of the RGB universe with the dark world of the Crow, as it was portrayed in the television series The Crow: Stairway to Heaven. I have employed the conceit of "nebulous time," meaning that while this story takes place in the present, the Ghostbusters are basically the same age as they were in the series when it originally aired.
Disclaimer: The Real Ghostbusters belong to Columbia Pictures, DiC, Dan Akroyd and Harold Ramis, etc. The Crow: Stairway to Heaven belongs to Ed Pressman, James O'Barr, etc. No infringement of any copyright is intended nor should be implied.
This story is dedicated, with gratitude, to all who beta'd or commented. Special thanks to Epona for inspiration and brainstorming, Telepathic!Peter's "encouragement" to write more, and those scenes.
Quoth the raven, 'Nevermore.'
Edgar Allan Poe
Suspended around him, a razor-bright blizzard filling the air with sparkling shards of light as he fell. He seemed to fall forever, the glass falling with him, from a world of light and sound and life, into a realm of mist and whispers and shadows.
The landing, when it came, was less painful than he had expected. From that height-and damned if it didn't feel like he'd taken up skydiving from the moon-hitting the surface of the water should've flattened him like road kill.
Instead, he struck the shallows with enough force to knock the wind from his lungs, leaving him momentarily stunned as the glass showered down around him like knife-edged rain.
He dug his fingers into the wet sand beneath him. Then, forcing his reluctant body to respond, he pushed himself onto his feet. Every breath was a monumental effort, every movement calculated rather than instinctive. Each new sensation was a fresh shock to his system: the feel of the ground beneath him, the damp caress of the fog against his skin, the soft sounds of the water and the gentle susurration of the wind. The light was gray and shadowy. Even so, it stung his eyes, and he lifted a heavy hand to shield them. Squinting into the gloom, he tried to get his bearings.
The world that met his gaze was not even remotely familiar. Beyond the riverbank where he found himself, towering evergreens stretched in every direction. Overhead, the sky was bluish-gray and free of clouds, which made the weirdly muted quality of the light seem even stranger. And all around, drifting beneath the trees like a host of silent phantoms, was the fog.
A thought, cynical and sarcastic, wafted across his consciousness, 'Even the movie 'The Fog' didn't have this much fog.'
Now where had that come from? Not exactly a useful observation, but somehow...it felt right. He probed that conclusion, but whatever had prompted it had slunk back into hiding in the dim recesses of his brain. With a mental shrug, he straightened, trudged slowly up the sandbar, and stood staring into the darkness lurking beneath the trees.
A raucous caw shattered the silence, and he jumped as if stung.
He looked up sharply, and frowned when he spotted the culprit-a large black bird sitting on one of the overhanging branches. It regarded him smugly with beady eyes. His frown deepened.
"You think that's funny, beak-face?" The sound of his own voice, an irritated tenor, seemed out of place in this hushed landscape. He glared at the bird, daring it to comment.
It tilted its sleek-feathered head as if studying him, then gave another harsh cry and leapt from its perch. Broad wings left swirling eddies in the fog as it soared over his head, gliding deeper into the trees, its rough voice calling imperiously for him to follow.
He hesitated, but something within-some new instinct-urged him to obey. Another glance around only confirmed his limited options. He had no idea where he was or how he had gotten there or how to get back...to where, exactly? He didn't know where he would come from, either. But a part of him thought that he needed to go back there, wherever 'there' was. He had something important he needed to do. If only he could remember what it was...
He sighed with frustration, green eyes narrowing as they tracked the flight of dark wings through fog and shadow. And shrugged, again.
And followed the crow.
He pushed aside the low-hanging branches obscuring the deeply worn rut etched into the forest floor. The crow flew just ahead of him, leading him onward. As he forced his way beneath the trees, dripping evergreen needles dumped their payloads of icy moisture down the neck of his shirt and plastered his hair to his skull. Impatiently, he pushed lank brown hair out of his eyes-and stumbled to a shocked halt.
Without warning, the ground had dropped away in front of him. There was a bridge, old by the looks of it, and narrow, with waist-high handrails on each side. It spanned a wide-and distressingly deep-chasm that made his stomach twist just looking at it. Far below, the river coiled like a silver snake as it twined through a rocky, jagged break in the towering trees. The crow flew out onto the bridge and settled on one of the railings. From its perch, it fixed him with an impatient eye. And then it cawed.
For a bird, it managed to sound surprisingly derisive, as if it knew he hated heights and was goading him, challenging him to step onto the bridge. The ancient-looking, rickety-as-hell bridge he would rather single-handedly face a demon than cross.
As if reading his thoughts, the damned bird cawed at him again, more insistently this time. Again, he felt that instinctive impulse to obey. It wasn't a feeling he particularly enjoyed. In fact, he hated it-almost as much as he hated heights. Almost as much as he hated the certain knowledge that he was going to go out there anyway.
Taking a deep breath, he ventured onto the bridge. It swayed and bounced with every step, creaking alarmingly beneath his weight and doing absolutely nothing to bolster his confidence in its structural integrity. One hand clutching each of the rails in a death-grip, he inched forward, sliding his feet along the boards, toward the center where the bird waited. One good gust of wind could easily send him crashing over the side to plummet toward the rocks below.
Okay, so not a happy thought. He shied swiftly away from it, swallowed hard as his stomach did a slow roll, and tried not to look down. Exactly why was he doing this, again?
The bird ruffled its feathers, stretched out its neck, and favored him with another brassy croak.
Oh yeah. That was why. Stupid bird. And stupid him for listening to -
Wait. Why had he phrased it like that? It implied that the damn thing was talking to him-worse, that he was somehow understanding it. And that couldn't be right.
Suddenly cautious, he studied the crow. It was big, he realized uneasily, watching it watch him with those oddly knowing eyes. His memory wasn't currently the most reliable, but he was fairly sure birds shouldn't be able to project quite that much intelligence. It was creepy as hell. Like he had stumbled into an Alfred Hitchcock movie or an 'animals take over the world' episode of The Twilight Zone.
Only...that had almost happened once, hadn't it? And he-no, they had stopped it. He and his friends. The friends he couldn't quite remember. The friends who weren't here, when he so desperately needed them. The friends who had left him alone.
He didn't like to be alone. He might not remember much else, but of that he was certain. 'Alone' meant abandoned, unwanted. Unworthy.
He fell back a step, his stomach knotting, then stopped as the bridge shuddered beneath him. He froze, hands white-knuckled on the railings.
At the unexpected voice, he jerked his head up and found that he was no longer alone on the bridge. A tendril of memory uncoiled in his mind, a red lash of agony against the overwhelming darkness. No. No, it couldn't...it didn't happen. Not like that.
But the proof stood before him.
"Dad?" His voice cracked on the word. Like the swift strike of a scorpion's tail, memory stung him with images of the man standing before him. From childhood onward, they flickered past-rapid-fire impressions of broken promises, lonely Christmases, forgotten birthdays.
And didn't that make for a fun edition of 'This Was Your Life', starring a father who was never there when Peter needed him. He had grown into a man who expected to be let down, who looked out for number one, and who trusted no one with the real Peter Venkman. Not even himself.
He would have stayed that way-or worse-if it hadn't been for...Who? He could feel the essence of the memory, sense the emotions tangled up in it, but the details refused to materialize. But there was someone, a man he had trusted with his very soul. And it most definitely wasn't the man standing before him.
Charlie Venkman, resplendent in his customary bad suit and bow tie, held his arms wide, as if he expected Peter to rush into them. When Peter simply continued to stare at him, Charlie sighed with disappointment and let his arms fall back to his sides.
"Son, I know things haven't always been the best between us. But you gotta know..." He reached out and caught Peter's shoulders in a tight grip. "You gotta know I've always loved you."
You certainly had a funny way of showing it, Peter thought sourly, although he permitted the contact. Aloud, all he said was, "I know, Dad."
Charlie scrutinized his face for an eternal moment, then gave a resigned shrug and released him. "Are you okay, Peter?"
"Okay?" Peter jerked away from him as if burned. He swept an arm around in a broad, angry gesture. "Does this look like 'okay' to you? 'Cause, off-hand, I'd say this is about as far from okay as it gets!"
Looking shocked by the outburst, Charlie held out a placating hand.
"I just wanted to make sure you were..." He faltered under the blowlamp of his son's outraged glare, let his hand drop. Speaking more to himself than to Peter, he murmured, "You'll be okay. You always are."
At those words, something inside Peter shriveled. That had always been Charlie's rationale, hadn't it? Peter did okay without him, so Charlie needn't show up unless it was convenient for him. Never mind that his son might want to see him, might need him. The concept of responsible parenting didn't exactly fit into the elder Venkman's worldview. Peter hated to think of the kind of man he might have turned out to be if not for...
Again, he ran up against the roadblock in his mind. It only made him angrier.
"What are you even doing here, Dad?" he demanded, suspicion narrowing his eyes. "What is it you want from me this time?" He choked out a bitter laugh. "At least I know it can't be bail money."
"Don't 'now, Peter' me!" he shouted, his anger making him forget all about his precarious position on the swaying bridge. "I can't believe this. How dare you?"
His rising voice agitated the crow and its rusty shriek startled him into silence. As he watched, it ruffled its feathers then fixed the elder Venkman with an icy regard. Following its gaze, Peter was shocked to see that Charlie's face had blanched whiter than the ever-present fog.
Confused by what he heard in his father's voice, Peter frowned at him. "Yeah, so? What about it?"
"It's..." Charlie shrugged, an all-too-familiar shiftiness slanting across his face. "You hear things, legends..."
"Since when?" Peter countered, suspiciously. "What are you talking about?"
"Look, son..." Still staring warily at the crow, Charlie ran a trembling hand over his balding scalp. "This place, it...Time's not the same here. I've talked to some people, heard things."
Skeptical, Peter crossed his arms and scowled at his dad. "About crows."
Charlie nodded slowly. "They...These birds ain't normal, son." He gave a humorless chuckle. "Well, nothing here's exactly normal, if you catch my drift. But these things-"
The crow voiced a raucous protest at this slander, its midnight wings beating the still air. Charlie back-peddled hastily. "No offense, no offense! Just repeating what I been told."
"And what is that exactly, Pop?" Peter demanded. He gestured, taking in the bird, the bridge, the incredible landscape. "If you know where we are, what's going on-"
"You know where we are, son," Charlie said quietly. "You know what happened."
Instantly, Peter shook his head in denial. No. No, he didn't want to know, to remember. It was too painful. But...He had to, didn't he? Because there was something he had to do. Something vitally important. Something to do with the friends he couldn't quite remember.
Through clenched teeth, he grated, "Just. Tell. Me."
Suddenly, his father couldn't seem to meet his eyes.
"We're in the land of the dead, Peter," Charlie said, his gravelly voice surprisingly gentle. "We're dead."
The denial was automatic, but half-hearted. Peter moaned. No...But he had known; a part of him had known from the beginning. New impressions crashed into him, assaulted his senses with bits of shattered memory, like the jagged pieces of a broken window.
The shrill of an alarm. A woman's scream, cut abruptly short. His feet pounding on the metal stairs. His heart pounding as he ran. Desperation choking the breath from his lungs. And pain and fear and blood.
So much blood.
He clenched his fists as emotion threatened to overwhelm him along with the memory. Because he knew. Dear God, he knew... Knew he hadn't gotten there in time. Knew they were dying, dying in pools of their own blood because he had failed them. He knew they were dead, all dead, because of him.
Knew it was all his fault.
"No!" The scream was torn from his throat. From its nearby perch, the crow echoed him with its own mournful cry.
His father's hand on his arm steadied Peter when he staggered. Choking on fresh anguish, Peter tore himself from the visions and from his father's touch. Barely aware of his surrounding, he clung to the railing and fought against the horror threatening to destroy his soul. Finally, he sagged, and would have fallen if Charlie hadn't grabbed him. He lifted bleak eyes to meet his father's concerned gaze.
"It's not right," Peter whispered, barely forcing the words past the tightness in his chest. "Not...right."
Charlie's grip on him tightened. He pulled Peter into a sudden hug, as fierce as it was unexpected. Then the crow cried out again, and Charlie stepped back, letting Peter read the trepidation in his eyes.
"You can set things right, Peter. There's a way." The old man's gaze flickered to the bird. "But there's a steep price to pay."
A way to make things right? Peter doubted that. The pain inside him was too raw to be denied any longer. Nothing could make that right. Nothing. But... He found himself unable to turn away from that tiny sliver of hope. If there was even the slightest chance, he had to take it. No matter the cost.
"How?" he started to ask, only to break off as he realized he was alone again. Startled, he spun around but there was no sign of his father. "Wait, Dad! I need-"
I need you.
The words died unspoken in his throat, and Peter made a strangled sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob. Some things never changed. Certainly not his dad. Charlie's disappearing act was nothing new, if perhaps a trifle more dramatic. In some perverse way, it was almost comforting. Almost.
A sound made him turn to find the bird watching him expectantly. Peter glared at it. "You still here? Why don't you fly away home before I bake you into a pie?"
Undeterred by the threat, it tilted its head and regarded him with solemn eyes. It hopped nearer, watching him closely as if to make certain it had his attention. Then it leapt from its perch and glided toward the distant river.
Fighting his vertigo, Peter followed its progress-and was somehow not surprised when the bird vanished, mid-flight, in a blinding flash of light that seemed to warp reality around it. He had suspected there was something unnatural about his feathered friend; the David Copperfield act just confirmed it.
Drawn to the railing against his will, he pondered the path the crow had taken. The ground hadn't gotten any closer; it was still a hell of a long way down. But something-that nagging insistence that he had a job to do-was urging him over the rail. Urging him to follow the damn bird.
"Like hell," he grated, hands clenching convulsively on the railing. Little Petey Venkman was many things, but suicidal was not one of them. And then he realized what he had thought, and felt a broken laugh rattle in his throat. Staring down at the still-rippling air where the crow had disappeared, he whispered, "Can I go home, now?"
Home. The word burned him like acid. Home...Was it possible? Could the crow lead him home? He shook his head, considering. He was already dead. What the hell did he have to lose?
Without giving himself time to think, Peter pulled himself up and over the railing, and flung himself into open space. The wind howled past him as he plummeted, far faster than his earlier free-fall. He screamed in fear and rage and defiance...
Then the crossrip shimmered like quicksilver around him, swallowed him whole in a burst of light. And then the light was gone and there was nothing but darkness.
Chapter 2: Those Left Behind
We call that person who has lost his father, an orphan; and a widower that man who has lost his wife. But that man who has known the immense unhappiness of losing a friend, by what name do we call him? Here every language is silent and holds its peace in impotence.
Winston piled the last of the pancakes onto the platter, then carried it out to a table already neatly set for three. Three places, where there should've been four. His eyes burned and he roughly scrubbed the back of one hand over them, turning away from the empty place at the table.
"Winston?" Ray's subdued voice came from the kitchen doorway. "You gonna get Egon?"
"Yeah. He in the lab?" It wasn't really a question. These days, Egon was rarely anywhere else, unless it was the hospital. Winston didn't even wait for Ray's nod, merely turned and headed up the stairs to the third floor. "I'll get him."
Yeah. He'd need it, too.
It had always been Peter dragging Egon out of the lab and into the real world. Now, with Peter gone, Egon had retreated into that familiar sanctuary, sublimating his grief in his experiments. Or so he would have them believe.
More often than not, Winston found Egon slumped before the computer or one of the lab tables, his hands idle, his unfocused gaze fixed somewhere in the middle-distance. Not working, not thinking, not anything. It frightened Winston as much as Ray's nightmares. Maybe more-at least Ray could still be counted among the living, even if his normal enthusiasm had been diminished. He could see Ray recovering, given enough time. He wasn't so sure about Egon.
Poking his head around the door, Winston saw exactly what he had expected to find-Egon Spengler, motionless in front of the computer, shoulders slumped, hands slack on the keyboard. The too-familiar sight sent a pang of despair straight through Winston. He didn't know how much longer Egon could go on like this.
Winston squared his shoulders as he stepped into the room. Maybe he didn't have Peter's knack for dealing with moody physicists, but he wasn't giving up just yet. "Hey, Egon?"
There was no response from the physicist. For one hopeful moment, Winston thought Egon might have fallen asleep at the computer. It wouldn't be the first time. Winston knew that Egon hadn't been sleeping well. Most nights, he awoke from his own uneasy dreams to find Egon's bed empty and the light shining under the laboratory door. He was about to turn-leaving Egon to catch some well-deserved Zs-when the scientist shifted in his chair. He was awake, after all.
This time, he got Egon's attention. Startled blue eyes blinked at Winston from behind red frames, then Egon's gaze sharpened as he made the effort and focused. "I'm sorry, Winston. I didn't hear you come in."
"No problem. Just came to tell you breakfast is ready and waiting downstairs." Winston summoned up an encouraging smile. "Don't worry. I only let Ray set the table."
For just a second, an answering hint of a smile touched the corners of Egon's mouth. Then he looked away, toying absently with one of the tools scattered on the workbench. His hand shook minutely, mute testimony to his weakened state. "I'm not hungry."
Winston stifled the urge to sigh - or shout. "I know. But starving yourself isn't going to do anyone any good and I know for a fact you didn't eat anything last night. If this keeps up, you're gonna waste away to nothing."
He saw the denial forming on Egon's lips and beat him to the punch, though he had to steel himself to do it. "Peter wouldn't let you do this to yourself and neither will I. You know what he'd say, if he were here."
Egon's shoulders hunched protectively, and Winston wanted to kick himself. What the hell was he thinking? He was opening his mouth to apologize when weary blue eyes met his. There was understanding beneath the still-raw grief.
"He would tell me," Egon said, in a pale imitation of his usual dry tone, "to get my 'scrawny ass out of the lab before mold starts growing on it.'"
"Yeah, he probably would."
Winston could picture it clearly. Another round in the perpetual verbal sparring that had been such an integral part of Egon and Peter's friendship. Only, it had ended, hadn't it? And Egon was like a man who had lost a vital part of himself. Winston sometimes felt as if he had lost not one friend but two, and it hurt twice as much. This time, the sigh escaped. "Lord, I miss him."
"As do I," Egon said softly.
Winston pretended not to notice the catch in the other man's deep voice or the moisture shining in his eyes. Winston scrubbed a hand over his own, suddenly stinging eyes, then cleared his throat.
"Come on, Egon. Ray's waiting. And you gotta keep your strength up - for Janine."
Resigned to breakfast, Egon nodded. With the help of Winston's hand beneath his elbow, he got stiffly to his feet. He shuffled along like an old man, hunched around a pain so great it bent his body beneath its weight. Noting every hesitation, every tremor that passed through the slender frame beside him, Winston shepherded Egon toward the door.
If we don't get some food into the boy soon, Winston thought, Egon's headed for trouble, hypoglycemia or worse. And the last thing any of them needed to deal with right now was the additional stress of illness.
"No more skipping meals for you, Egon," Winston said, sternly. "And if you don't clean your plate, next time I'll let Ray try out that new recipe for haggis."
They had barely sat down at the table when they heard the door open downstairs and heavy footsteps clop across the brick floor. A familiar, and unwelcome, voice bellowed, "Anybody home?"
"Just what we needed." Winston groaned. A visit from Inspector Frump had never exactly been an occasion for rejoicing. Since Peter's death three months ago, it had become even less so.
Pushing his untouched plate away, Egon was the first on his feet. "I'll see what he wants."
"I'll go," Winston objected, rising to head him off. "You haven't even tasted your pancakes-"
"We'll all go."
They turned as one to look at Ray, who pushed his chair away from the table and joined them at the door. Egon nodded, and Winston gave in gracefully to the inevitable. He doubted either of them would eat a bite without him there to supervise them, anyway. "All right. Let's go."
In his usual rumpled, navy-blue suit, the police detective was waiting impatiently at the foot of the stairs. From the pinched expression on his bulldog face, Frump wasn't paying them a social call. Winston led the way down the stairs, then motioned for the detective to follow them over to Janine's desk. It never even occurred to him to use Peter's office.
"What can we do for you, Frump?" he asked, propping against the corner of the desk and crossing his arms as he studied their visitor. Not so coincidentally, his position put him between the detective and the guys.
There had never been any love lost between Frump and the Ghostbusters, though Frump usually reserved his worst enmity for Peter. Venkman had possessed a talent for rubbing certain people the wrong way and he had enjoyed honing his skills. Frump had been an irresistible target.
Today, however, Frump's customary belligerence seemed to have deserted him. In an oddly diffident tone, he said, "There's no easy way to do this..."
"What's happened?" Egon demanded, when the detective hesitated. "Have you found something? A new lead?"
Winston felt like cheering. It had been weeks -Months? Too damn long at any rate- since he had seen anything approaching this much life in Egon's eyes. He set a supportive hand on Egon's shoulder. "Yeah, Frump, this isn't helping. You got something new about Peter's case, just tell us."
"Uh, not exactly. Kinda, but not-" Breaking off, Frump shifted his bulk uneasily from one flat foot to the other. "It's, uh...Oh, hell. Venkman's grave was vandalized."
Winston's gut twisted. He felt the minute tremor that ran through Egon's body and immediately tightened his grip, prepared to support his friend-literally, if need be. "You need to sit down, Egon?"
Straightening resolutely, Egon shook his head, his gaze never wavering from the detective. When he spoke, it was in a carefully controlled voice. "'Vandalized' how?"
Apparently deciding it would be best to get it all out quickly now he'd begun, Frump said, "Someone dug up the coffin-"
"Oh, god," Ray choked out a horrified whisper.
"-and apparently made off with the body," Frump concluded, gruff but sympathetic. "There was no trace of it in the cemetery, so it looks like the perps took it with them."
Ray sounded as if he might be sick-looked like it, too, when Winston shot him a quick, concerned glance. But it was Egon who commanded his immediate attention. At the words "made off with the body," Egon's knees failed him. This time, Winston didn't ask. He simply steered Egon to Janine's chair and urged him down onto it. The shaken physicist didn't object.
"No." Oblivious to the tears streaming down his face, Ray was hugging himself and shaking his head in stubborn denial. "No, no, no..."
"Raymond." Despite his own shock, Egon reached out a reassuring hand. "It...it will be all right. We'll find-" He swallowed hard, unable to finish the sentence.
We'll find his body, Winston silently finished it for him. And they would. It was the least they could do for Peter. He joined Egon in resting a supportive hand on Ray's shoulder, but settled an angry gaze on Frump. "You got any leads on the creeps who did this?"
"Just this." From his jacket, Frump pulled out a small glass vial, and handed it to him. "Found it all over the inside of the coffin. It'll be awhile before the lab results come back, but it's weird enough that it oughta be right up your alley. I thought maybe you clow-uh, fellows might be able to come up with something useful."
Winston glanced at the proffered vial, which held about two inches of some black, granular substance that might have been ashes-or pencil shavings for all he knew. He passed it to Egon and watched the other man examine the sample. Beside him, Ray pulled himself together enough to take an interest, auburn head bent close to blond as the two conferred. Winston had never been so relieved to see them click into what Peter had always called their "mad scientists mode."
Leaving them to it, Winston walked Frump to the door. Out on the sidewalk, Frump hesitated. "On the off-chance you guys do figure out what that stuff is-"
"You'll be the first to know," Winston assured him. He fixed the detective with an unyielding look. "And I expect you'll return the favor."
Frump scowled at him, but didn't argue. "Look, Zeddemore. You know I've never been the Ghostbusters' biggest fan, and that hasn't changed, but I'm sorry about Venkman. He wasn't exactly my favorite person, but nobody deserves to die like that. Or to have this happen to them after they're gone, either."
Not giving Winston a chance to reply, Frump turned briskly on his heel and headed for the unmarked sedan waiting for him by the curb. As he opened the car door, he added, "We'll get the scum who did this. You got my word on it."
"Damn right, we will," Winston vowed softly, fists clenched at his sides. With a final nod to Frump, he turned and went back inside the firehouse.
Winston found his partners in the upstairs lab. Egon was already passing a PKE meter over the sample, while Ray looked on. The meter reacted, the screen flickering to life as it registered the spectral energy lingering in the black matter.
"What is it, Egon?" Ray asked, leaning over Egon's shoulder to study the device.
"Residuals." Delicately, Egon adjusted dials and scowled at the meter's screen. "Something powerful-Class eight or nine, negative valence."
"There's something else, too," Ray noted, frowning as he studied the readings. "Gosh, Egon. It looks like," Ray's voice dropped to a whisper, "...a class four?"
Reluctantly, Egon nodded. When he spoke, he sounded almost apologetic. "It's very faint."
"Class four?" Winston's stomach clenched. Class fours were the spirits of the formerly-human. If there was a class four reading on the strange residue from Peter's grave, did that mean... "You think it's Pete?"
"We don't know that," Egon said quickly, darting a gaze at Ray, who had gone even paler than before. Egon removed his glasses and wearily massaged his eyes. "We'll have to take further readings. At the source."
"You mean at the cemetery." Winston suppressed a groan. This day just kept getting better and better. Hadn't even had breakfast yet and now they had to go see if their dead friend was haunting his own grave. Wonderful.
Egon nodded. "I'm afraid there's no way around it. We'll need to check the...uh, site, first hand. Considering the location, the class four may not be- It may be unrelated. Background noise, if you will."
"Background noise. Yeah." Winston accepted the possibility gratefully. But he could see the awful doubt still shimmering in Ray's eyes. "C'mon, Ray, you heard Egon. Just because there's a class four doesn't mean it's-"
"But it could be," Ray interrupted. His brown eyes were wide and haunted. "What if... Spirits can't move on if they have unfinished business or... What if, with the... the body... missing, he... " He broke off, unable to finish the thought.
Winston dropped a reassuring hand on Ray's shoulder. "Let's not borrow trouble, man. We don't know what's going on, but we're gonna find out."
"Winston is right," Egon said, replacing the PKE meter on the counter. "The sooner we get to the bottom of this, the better. I'll go to the cemetery and-"
"Hang on, Egon." Although the news of the vandalism had given Egon something to focus on besides his grief, it had also left him badly shaken, a fact not lost on Winston. He shook his head. "You're in no shape to go anywhere. I'll go."
"I'll go with you," Ray said. He had regained control of his emotions and there was a stubborn set to his jaw that warned them not to argue. "You shouldn't go alone, Winston. The people who did this...might come back."
Reluctantly, Winston nodded, then turned an accessing look on Egon. "Why don't you try to get some rest while we're gone? You look wiped."
Egon shook his head. "I'll begin analysis of the sample Frump gave us."
"We'll be back as soon as we can." Ray grabbed a second PKE meter and started for the door. "C'mon, Winston. It looks like there's a storm brewing. There's no time to waste."
With a final worried glance at Egon, Winston hurried after Ray.
Chapter 3: Mourning
There is weeping in my heart
Like rain falling on the city.
Egon listened to the familiar sound of Ecto-1 departing. Then, as Winston had directed, made certain the doors were firmly locked and reset the security system. He went about the tasks mechanically, his mind already on the tests he planned to conduct on the strange substance Frump had delivered to them. He was barely aware of the sudden, heavy patter of rain striking the windows as he slowly made his way back across the garage.
Something, a flicker of half-seen motion caught out of the corner of his eye, made him hesitate. Pushing his glasses back up on his nose, Egon peered into the shadows at the edges of the room. "Slimer? Is that you?"
There was no answer, not that he'd really expected one. Cautiously, he backed toward the lockers and retrieved a PKE meter. He activated the meter, then scanned the room. Nothing, not even the barest flicker of the antennae.
Getting paranoid in your old age, Spengler? Peter's voice was so real that, for a moment, Egon half-expected the PKE meter to react. But it was only the voice of memory. He sighed softly and whispered, "Even paranoids have enemies, Peter."
Still clutching the meter, he swept the room for spectral activity, ending up at the desk in the reception area just in front of Peter's office. He stared at Janine's desk, the analytical part of his mind noting how strange it appeared without the usual clutter of everyday occupancy-no piles of paperwork waiting to be filed, no work orders, no bills or newspaper clippings or the occasional glossy magazine to combat boredom. Instead, the surface was immaculate, with nothing on the desk but the telephone. The old desk's battered wood practically gleamed under the lights. Ray had scrubbed and polished the surface until the desk was cleaner than it had been when they first acquired it, back when they had started the business.
Thinking of those early days, he almost smiled. He remembered installing their first computer, crawling around under this very desk while Janine attempted to draw him into conversation. What had they discussed? He frowned, concentrating, but all he could remember was telling her he collected spores, molds, and fungi. He had been distracted by his task, not really paying attention to her. He felt a pang of guilt as he realized how often that was the case. How often he had taken her for granted.
Despite Peter's frequent teasing to the contrary, Egon wasn't completely oblivious to the opposite sex. He simply had always found science far more comprehensible. But Janine was...an exception? He considered this. 'Exceptional' seemed a good word to describe her. He remembered all the times she had gone far beyond the call of secretarial duty. Certainly her actions that night had been exemplary. Although gravely wounded, she had still somehow managed to hit the alarm and warn them of the impending danger. If only he had realized in time what that danger was and exactly how grave...
He stared at the empty desk, trying not to remember. A thought surfaced. We'll need a new computer. The old one was unsalvageable, beyond even Ray's skills, its interior components thoroughly coated with ectoplasmA1 , its beige exterior spattered in blood.
Janine's blood, he thought. And against his will, the very images he had been fighting to keep at bay came crashing down on him like a tidal wave, drowning him in memory.
Screams echoing in his ears, Egon raced headlong down the stairs. In his haste, he missed his footing and nearly fell. He caught himself against the banister, not even stopping to completely regain his balance before plunging onward. He bypassed the last few steps, landed heavily on the floor, and flung himself toward the impossibly distant garage doors.
He had to get to Peter-
A low, muffled noise from the direction of Janine's desk interrupted his mad rush, made him spin around. What he saw momentarily paralyzed him with shock. One arm outstretched as if trying to reach the desk, Charlie Venkman lay on the floor in front of it, blood pooling darkly on the bricks beneath him. Egon's breath caught in his throat. He hurried to Charlie's side and felt for a pulse. There wasn't one.
Egon started to rise, to continue out to the street and Peter, when he heard the sound again. It was weaker this time. His own heart stuttered in his chest as he realized it must be-
He dodged around the desk and slid down beside her, barely noticing the wetness that immediately began seeping into the cloth over his knees. Shucking off his proton pack, he bent over the wounded woman, his breath hitching at the sight of the bright red blood glistening like strings of rubies across her throat and down her chest. As bad as it looked, it hardly seemed enough to account for all the blood pooled beneath her. Then he saw the gash beneath her ear, pumping out blood with each beat of her heart.
It seemed impossible that she could still be alive. But when he touched her, she moved her head feebly as if in protest and tried to lift one hand to fend him off. He caught her hand in his and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
"Janine, it's Egon. You're...you're safe, now."
The words caught in his throat, but the sound of his voice seemed to calm her. She quieted, her eyes flickering beneath half-closed lids. He doubted she was truly conscious, for which he was grateful. From the extent of her injuries, she had to be in tremendous pain. Gently, he placed her hand at her side, needing his own free in order to help her.
He searched his pockets and came up with a clean handkerchief, which he hastily folded into a makeshift bandage. Carefully, he settled it over the deepest wound and applied pressure, noting with some distress that there were similar, though thankfully shallower, wounds lower on her chest. Knife wounds? Or claws? he wondered sickly, swallowing a sudden rush of bile. On his shoulder, his own souvenirs from the intruders burned and bled sluggishly. He scarcely noticed.
"It's going to be all right, Janine," he murmured as he worked. He needed to stop the bleeding without causing any further damage, and the neck was a tricky enough area with which to contend without the additional fact that this was Janine. Or the fact that Peter was out there on the street, alone-
No, he couldn't allow himself to think about that. Janine would bleed to death without immediate attention and Peter... Peter was already-
He shied away from the thought before it was fully formed. Concentrate, damn it, he berated himself. Do what has to be done now. Peter would...Egon swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. Peter would understand.
Careful not to lessen the pressure he was maintaining over the bandage, he reached up with his free hand and fumbled along the desk until he found the telephone by the simple expedient of knocking it into his lap. It landed with a jangle and skittered off his leg onto the floor. He snatched up the receiver, immeasurably relieved to hear a dial-tone.
Cradling the receiver against his shoulder, he dialed 911.
The phone rang, startling him so badly that he cried out, momentarily confused to find himself standing alone in the garage, rather than kneeling in a pool of Janine's blood. He shook himself, a tiny shiver dancing along his spine, then focused an irrational glare on the telephone. It rang again, the shrill sound grounding him in reality. He hesitated, one hand automatically reaching for the instrument, even as the answering machine kicked in. Too late, he remembered Winston saying he had turned on the machine. Egon froze as Peter's voice sounded cheerfully in the stillness of the empty room.
"You've reached the Ghostbusters. You've got a ghost, we'll make it toast! Please leave your name and number -"
Not waiting to hear the rest of the message, Egon turned on his heel and fled back upstairs to the sanctuary of his lab.
Chapter 4: Rest in Peace?
Where the good and the bad and the worst and the best
Have gone to their eternal rest.
Edgar Allan Poe
As they strode across the uneven grass, Ray's gaze was drawn inexorably to the open wound in the earth before them. He fought its pull, turning his attention to the threatening clouds overhead, the distant trees, the dying grass beneath his feet - anything but the violated resting place of his friend. The trio of gray marble headstones caught his eye and he automatically read the names, though he knew them as well as he knew his own: Margaret Venkman, Charles Venkman.
His eyes stung and he looked away, swallowing hard against the tears lurking just beneath the surface. They had only been here once since the funeral, to oversee the setting of the headstone. Then, everything had been neatly tucked away beneath a blanket of new sod. Now...Ray swallowed again and forced himself to really look at the grave.
The vandals hadn't been tidy. Sod had been ripped away, and great clumps of drying earth and dead grass lay scattered haphazardly around the opening in the ground. Some of the dirt had gotten onto the headstones, smearing them with crumbling soil. Ray watched as Winston knelt and brushed his hand over Peter's stone, trying without much success to clean it. He dug in his pocket for a crumpled handkerchief and handed it to Winston. "Try this."
Winston nodded his thanks and used the cloth to wipe the face of the stone clean. They shared a moment's heavy silence, then Winston looked up at him. "You okay, Ray?"
Ray scrubbed the back of his hand over his eyes, unashamed of his tears but unwilling to give in to them. They had a job to do and he was determined to do it. For Peter.
"Yeah, I'm...It's just..." A helpless gesture, more eloquent than words, indicated their somber surroundings.
"Yeah, I know." Winston's gaze fell back to the disturbed earth. He picked up a handful of dirt, let it trickle through his fingers. "I know."
"Who would do something like this, Winston?"
"Damned if I know," Winston said quietly. With a last swipe at the stone, he pushed himself to his feet and dusted off his hands. "That's what we're here to find out. So...let's find out."
Ray glanced down at the PKE meter gripped tightly in his hand. His knuckles were white and he had to force himself to relax his fingers enough to begin adjusting the meter's settings. His hand trembled just a little as he switched the meter on. He was so tense, he almost dropped the thing when it immediately sang out, its shrill tone signaling a lingering spectral trace.
"What've you got, Ray?" Winston peered upside down at the meter in Ray's shaking hand. "That looks like..."
"It's the same reading Egon got off that residue," Ray confirmed, frowning as he adjusted the dials. Whatever it was, it had to be pretty powerful to still register so strongly.
"Yeah, looks like. Negative valence, just like before."
Sounding as if he'd rather not ask the question, Winston prompted gently, "And the four?"
Ray hesitated, not looking at Winston, not looking at the meter, definitely not looking at the empty grave. He studied the frayed cuff of his shirt sleeve-he'd caught it in some equipment he and Egon had been working on...before, and forgotten about it until now-and chewed nervously on his bottom lip. His eyes burned.
Winston's hand closed reassuringly on Ray's shoulder. "Ray?"
"It-" Ray forced himself to take a deep breath, then gave a reluctant nod. "Yeah, the class four is here, too."
"Oh, man." Winston studied the lowering clouds, but they offered no answers and, after a moment's stillness, he turned his gaze back to Ray. "Is it...Can you tell if it's Peter?"
"I'm not sure," Ray admitted, toying absently with one of the meter's dials. "It could be, but-"
Ray shrugged helplessly. They had biorhythms on file for all of the team, including Peter. But they had no way of knowing if a living person's signature correlated with the spectral trace of that same individual's ghost. He shuddered at the idea that this might be their chance to put the theory to the test. "I just don't know."
Winston's breath hissed through his clenched teeth. "So, what do we do now?"
I wish I knew, Ray thought miserably. To Winston, he said, "I'll take some more readings. Maybe-"
The meter shrilled to life again, startling Ray, who almost dropped it.
"What is it, Ray?" Winston asked, his voice revealing his tension as his alert gaze swept their surroundings. "Where is it?"
If the class four was Peter, it wouldn't be a threat to them. But if it wasn't Peter- Watching the readings carefully, Ray turned in a tight circle. The meter's antennae reacted as it zeroed in on the source of the psycho-kinetic energy. Ray frowned. This was no residual. Something was definitely present and it was right...
"There!" With a triumphant cry, he pointed to a spot just beyond the trio of gravestones.
Both men stared, watching with trepidation as the air seemed to thicken…and the spirit began to materialize.
Ray's grip tightened on the still-warbling PKE meter as the ghost appeared in front of them. At first, it was just a slightly denser spot in the air, a faintly-human shape hovering just beyond the open grave. Then the ectoplasmic tendrils coalesced, sharpened like a television picture coming into focus... and resolved into a familiar figure.
"Hey there, boys," Charlie Venkman said, with an uncertain smile. "How've ya been?"
"Mr. Venkman?" Ray gaped at the apparition. He didn't know whether to feel relieved…or disappointed. No matter how much it would've hurt, he had really wanted the chance to tell Peter goodbye. He swallowed hard, blinking back tears, and was grateful when Winston stepped in to take up the slack.
"What are you doing here, Charlie?" Winston asked, quietly resting a supportive hand on Ray's shoulder.
"Everybody's gotta be somewhere, Winston." The elder Venkman shot a look at the meter in Ray's hand and sighed heavily. "You boys came looking for Peter? He's not here."
At Winston's questioning glance, Ray shrugged. "The readings match. Looks like Mr. Venkman is our class four." Then, belatedly realizing how that sounded, he blurted, "No offense, Mr. Venkman."
"None taken." Charlie shoved his hands in the pockets of his plaid sports coat, rocked back on his heels, and studied the sky as if he couldn't quite meet their eyes. "You're trying to find out what happened to Peter's body?"
Ray shivered. He stared at the ugly hole in the ground and felt his jaw tighten with barely-suppressed anger. "Yeah," he ground out, the word leaving a bitter taste in his mouth.
"Yeah," Winston echoed, darkly. "You wouldn't know anything about that, would you, Charlie? Since you been hanging around and all."
"Wish I could say I did," Charlie said, voice dropping to a whisper. "My boy…"
He stared down at the desecrated grave, but from his stark expression, he was seeing something very different. "My poor boy."
"Why are you here, Mr. Venkman?" Ray asked. Charlie had sidestepped the question when Winston had asked it, but Ray wasn't ready to let it go so easily.
Ray knew that some ghosts were the product of a violent death. Some had unfinished business, something left undone that tied them to the world of the living. While Charlie Venkman had never seemed to genuinely worry about anyone or anything beyond himself, his grief for Peter appeared genuine. Of course, Ray had always known that Charlie loved Peter-in his own way. Unfortunately, Charlie's way had been haphazardous at best, and his neglect had hurt Peter deeply. And seeing Peter hurting had hurt Ray.
So there was an edge to his normally amiable voice when he added, "Mr. Venkman? You need to tell us why you're here, why you haven't moved on. What's holding you here?"
"Yeah, Charlie," Winston said, his gaze boring into the older man's shifting eyes. "If Peter's not here, why are you? Why haven't you moved on with him?"
There was a long moment of strained silence, then Charlie said, "That's just it. Peter hasn't moved on."
He ran a hand over his balding pate, his mouth a stark, white line beneath his thin moustache, and his voice broke when he added, "He can't."
Stricken, the two Ghostbusters stared at Charlie, Ray with open disbelief.
"How can you say that?" he demanded, voice sharp with rising outrage. "Peter's a good man!"
"No argument from me, Ray," Charlie said, raising his hands in surrender. "My boy's the best."
His gaze drifted back down to settle on the open grave separating them. "But there are…other forces at work here."
"What kind of 'forces'?" Winston asked skeptically. "Just what the hell are you saying, Charlie?"
Charlie stuffed his hands back in his pockets, scuffing one shiny black shoe at the clumps of earth piled around Peter's gravestone. When Charlie raised his head, Ray was stunned by the depth of grief etched on the older man's worn features. "Mr. Venkman, please-"
As Charlie opened his mouth to speak, something flew between them-a huge crow, its black wings almost brushing the top of Charlie's head. Charlie vanished, winking out of existence as if he'd never been there. The bird cawed loudly, wheeled overhead for a second low pass that sent both Ghostbusters diving for the ground and Ray's PKE meter into fresh paroxysms of alarm.
Winston rose cautiously from his crouch and turned to help Ray to his feet. Winston's stance was battle-ready, alert for another appearance of the dive-bombing bird. Over the still-shrieking meter, he yelled, "What the hell was that?"
Ray turned fascinated, worried eyes on him. "Class nine."
Chapter 5: As the Crow Flies
The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?
Edgar Allan Poe
As the first heavy drops of rain began to fall around them, the two Ghostbusters stared at one another for a full second, then...
"Follow that bird!" Ray shouted, and they were off, chasing the crow.
The huge, black bird was easy to follow as it swept low over the rain-drenched cemetery. Its raucous call split the still air, almost as if the thing were taunting them. For a moment, Winston entertained the suspicion that it was a little too easy. That the thing had them right where it wanted them, as they raced through the neat rows of tombstones, boots pounding on the sodden ground and hearts pounding in their chests.
Panting, he and Ray had almost reached the edge of the grounds, where manicured grass met gravel road, when the crow wheeled suddenly in the leaden sky. For a frozen instant, it seemed to hang suspended above them, as if getting a last, good look at them - or letting them get a good look at it. Then it gave a powerful downbeat of its massive wings and vanished into the rain. Back into the cemetery.
"Dammit!" Winston bit back a stronger curse as he squinted into the downpour. The thing had been playing with them, leading them on a wild crow chase…and away from Peter's grave. Disgusted, he slapped a hand against his leg.
"Where did it?" Ray's voice was drowned out by a sudden, shrill clamor as the PKE meter in his hand sprang to life again. "What the ?"
Before he could finish the thought, another sound - a high, inhuman shriek - cut him off, mid-sentence.
Ray would have bolted - straight for the source of the still-echoing scream, naturally - if Winston, accustomed to such behavior from his impetuous friend, hadn't grabbed him. He nodded toward the car, parked a few yards away on the gravel road. "Packs first. Then we investigate."
Ray nodded. The Ghostbusters hadn't gone on a bust since that night. But Winston had maintained their equipment in a state of readiness, just in case. You never knew when some Big Ugly might turn up with mayhem on whatever passed for its mind. That was a lesson they had all learned early on. Recent events had only served to drive that lesson home.
So, when they slid the rack out of Ecto's rear hatch, it held four fully-charged proton packs. The two men shouldered the heavy packs with the mindless ease of long-practice, Winston unlimbering his thrower while Ray shielded the PKE meter as best as he could from the rain and squinted at the readings.
Ray shook his head, frowning in uncharacteristic frustration. "These readings are... weird."
He fiddled with the dials as they jogged back into the cemetery, ignoring the rain streaming down their faces and soaking hair, skin, clothing and equipment alike.
Winston's hands tightened unconsciously on the grip of his particle thrower. "'Weird' how, exactly? 'Wait 'til Egon sees these' weird or 'Cthulu's third cousin is about to eat our brains' weird?"
"The same weird readings we got from that ash-like stuff." Ray's attention was focused almost exclusively on the meter, but he spared Winston a worried glance. "It's coming from..."
He pointed ahead and Winston groaned. They were right back where they'd started from: Peter's grave. He grimaced. "Why do I get the feeling this isn't going to be a good thing?"
Ray didn't answer. He was too busy eying the huge crow perched smugly atop Peter's headstone. The bird mantled, tilted its head to regard them with beady black eyes, then went back to peering down into the open grave.
"What the hell's it doing?" Winston demanded, only to jump when another piercing cry made every hair on his body stand on end. He aimed the thrower at the source of that inhuman wail - Peter's grave. Beside him, Ray did the same, balancing the meter in one hand, the thrower in the other.
Several moments passed, during which neither man so much as blinked. Winston tensed as he spotted movement in the inky shadows of the grave.
They both stared in disbelief as first one muddy hand then another appeared over the lip of the grave. The hands clawed determinedly at the slippery earth, as something fought its way free.
It was pitch black and he was falling, falling forever and forever in the featureless dark with nothing but the rush of his own thoughts for company. No sight, no sound, no sensation but the sense of falling - nothing but the endless dark, inside and out, and the crushing grip of an iron hand squeezing his heart.
And then there was sensation, too much sensation, as he slammed into the unforgiving earth with enough force to drive the air from his lungs and there was pain, oh god there was pain and agony and endless, fiery torment sizzling like acid along every nerve in his body and it was dark, so very dark, and it burned
He thrashed in the darkness, flailing limbs encountering slimy earth-turned-mud and icy water and the darkness was all around him and inside him and it hurt and he opened his mouth and vomited black ash and darkness and the iron fist twisted tighter around his heart and he screamed and screamed and screamed until his throat bled and his lungs emptied and there was nothing and nothing and -
From somewhere above him, the crow called.
It tugged at his frantic, confused mind, a thin silver thread in the endless nothingness. He tried to go to it, to answer its call, but his body failed him, feet sliding in the mud, hands unable to find purchase on the slippery walls of his prison. He threw his head back and screamed, but there was no sound, no sound - only his mouth, stretched raw and wide and filling with cold, cold rain and the bitter black taste of ashes.
The crow's rough voice scolded him, demanding obedience, and he clawed with mindless determination at the nearest wall until he somehow found his feet and he scratched and tore and dug his fingers into the wounded earth until they bled black and still he fought his way upward, toward the crow and the rain and away from the darkness that was trying to pull him back under and all was cold and dark and pain and the terrible, unyielding purpose growing in his silent heart.
When the top of a familiar head of brown hair appeared over the side of the grave, Ray felt his knees go weak. The PKE meter fell from his suddenly numb fingers and only Winston's hand under his elbow kept him from sinking to the ground as a confused jumble of emotions threatened to short-circuit his brain. For a long moment, he couldn't process what his eyes were telling him.
It was Peter.
It was Peter… and 'how' didn't matter, just so long as it was really Peter, fighting his way back to them. And then the hands clawing at the mud and the wet grass started to slip and fall back - and Ray leapt forward, instinct taking over where rational thought had failed.
He grabbed a handful of Peter's brown jumpsuit, dug in his heels and pulled, desperate to get Peter out of that awful hole and onto solid ground. Irrational as it might be, a part of him insisted that if he lost his grip on Peter now, it meant surrendering him back to the grave - and that, Ray would not do. Not willingly. Not without a fight.
Gritting his teeth, ignoring the cramping of his fingers, the wrenching in his shoulders, Ray yanked upward for all he was worth. For a moment, it seemed that it would not be enough. Then, with a suddenness that left him sprawled on his back, balanced like a turtle on his proton pack, he was rewarded with a double-armful of psychologist. Rolling onto his side, Ray wrapped his arms tightly around his friend, feeling the slender body tremble as if in agony.
"It's okay, Peter," he murmured soothingly, wanting desperately to do something to ease Peter's obvious distress. Ray rolled carefully to one side, then sat up slowly, cradling the shaking form of his friend. "It's okay, now. Everything's okay."
He looked up helplessly at Winston.
For his part, Winston had snatched up the fallen PKE meter and, with a certain reluctance, turned it toward the entity lying in Ray's arms. The meter shrilled, needle swinging instantly toward the high end of the scale. Winston's eyebrows shot up as he stared at the reading, then drew together in an unhappy frown as he looked back at the... being... that wore Peter's face. His free hand clenched on the stock of his thrower.
"Winston?" Ray's voice, soft and edged with concern, pulled him from his unpleasant thoughts.
"Class nine, Ray. Negative valence."
Ray looked down at the shaking body he still clutched tightly against his chest. Peter's hands were caked with mud and bits of what looked like more of that black ash, his fingers twisted in the soggy material of Ray's jacket. His head was bent, pressed against Ray's shoulder as silent sobs wracked his body. Peter shivered almost continually, as if in unbearable pain.
"It's Peter, Winston," Ray said, breathless but firm. His eyes were wide as he stared down at the brown jumpsuit, the 'no ghost' patch on the shoulder unmistakable despite the mud streaking it. He didn't need that to confirm what he already knew in his heart, though. "It's Peter, I know it is. I don't know how and, right now, I don't care. But it is him."
"I don't care!" When Peter flinched away from his outburst, Ray immediately tightened his grip, not wanting to let go. He absently rubbed soothing patterns on Peter's back and lowered his voice to whisper, "I don't care what the meter says. Class four, class nine, it doesn't matter - This is Peter and we have to help him!"
The conviction in Ray's eyes, as they bored into Winston's, couldn't be denied. Winston wasn't convinced... but he couldn't deny the ache in his heart that wanted to believe. He shut off the meter, and lowered the barrel of his thrower so that it was not, quite, aimed at the creature that might or might not be Peter Venkman.
But he didn't put the weapon away.
"All right, Ray." He stepped closer, still cautious, and studied the man in Ray's arms. If it was Peter, he was in rough shape. "Better let me look at him, then."
Ray nodded. While he was reluctant to let go of Peter, he could tell his friend needed help. The lean body shook as if palsied, hands clenching spasmodically as fresh tremors threatened to tear Peter apart from the inside out.
Ray bit his lip, then carefully lowered Peter to the ground. He kept one hand on Peter's arm, as if afraid Peter would disappear if he let go completely. "What's wrong with him?"
The question was barely a choked whisper, but Winston caught it. He shook his head as he knelt beside them. "I don't know, Ray."
He reached for Peter's wrist, intending to check his pulse. But the minute his fingers brushed Peter's skin, the other man screamed as if Winston had stabbed him.
Stunned by the unexpected reaction, both Ghostbusters could only gape as Peter yanked his arm away from the contact. As if it had been injured, he cradled his arm against his chest, rocking back and forth and keening in agony.
Winston recovered from his shock and reached for him again, but Peter scuttled frantically away from the touch, his green eyes wide and staring before they closed tightly. His back pressed hard against the headstone, Peter wrapped his arms around himself, seeming to shrink in on himself as he retreated mentally as well as physically.
It took Winston a second to find his voice and, even then, he had to swallow past a lump in his throat before he could force the words out. "...Ray. You try."
Ray gazed sadly at their friend. Peter, head down and rain dripping from his matted brown hair, was huddled against the tombstone that bore his name. He looked as if he would bolt at any moment. Movingly slowly and cautiously, as if approaching a wild, wounded animal, Ray eased toward him. He stretched out a tentative hand, just brushing his fingertips against Peter's sleeve. All the while, he crooned soft nonsense meant to reassure. "It's all right, it's all right, no one's gonna hurt you..."
His fingers closed around Peter's upper arm. He could feel the muscles tense, knotted and trembling beneath his hand. Peter's entire body was coiled and ready to flee at the slightest provocation.
"It's okay, Peter. It's gonna be okay, I promise." Ray risked a quick glance at Winston. In that same, soothing voice, he murmured, "I think I've got him. Help me - but don't touch his skin."
As Ray had done, Winston approached with deliberate care, keeping his movements slow and non-threatening. He crouched beside Peter and slowly extended his hand. Peter didn't seem entirely aware of them, anymore. His eyes were tightly shut, his breathing harsh and ragged.
Winston wrapped both hands around Peter's arm, getting a firm grip on his sleeve, then shot a look at Ray. "Now, what?"
"We have to get him to Ecto."
Between the two of them, they managed to haul Peter to his feet, though they ended up supporting most of his weight. His body sagged, as if he had used up all his strength and was teetering on the edge of consciousness. He was unresponsive, even though Ray called his name at frequent intervals, talking to him every unsteady step of the long walk back to the car.
Winston's mind raced. He kept thinking about Charlie Venkman's enigmatic words - and the class nine PKE reading. He couldn't stop seeing Peter as he clawed his way out of that open grave. If this was really Peter, how had he returned from the dead? Was he still the man they had known and loved as a brother... Or was he something else, something beyond their understanding?
Winston couldn't forget the terrible screams that had issued from Peter's mouth, and the way he had scrambled away from Winston's hand on his wrist. If this was really Peter...
The sinking feeling in Winston's gut was telling him things had just gone straight to hell.
Chapter 6: You Keep Comin' Back Again
Do you remember nothing? Are you alive or not?
T. S. Elliot
He huddled in the blanket that the man had wrapped around him. The wool slowly soaked up the water from his clothing and muffled the awful feeling of the air on his icy skin. He sat where the man had told him to, in the backseat of the big white car.
Vaguely, he was aware of the two men in the front seat, of their voices - speaking to each other, to him. But he couldn't concentrate enough to make out the meaning of the words - not when every whisper of sound, every flicker of light and shadow, every whiff of wet wool and mud threatened his overloaded senses.
Though he wasn't cold, he shivered.
He had been sliding back into the darkness when the man had grabbed him and pulled him out. He thought he might be grateful for that, but the jury was still out. He wasn't sure of anything - not where he was, who he was, what he was. All that he was certain of was the gradually lessening pain that still throbbed through every inch of his body and the faint sense of cold purpose lurking in his heart.
Although he couldn't articulate what that purpose was, he knew it was the reason he was here. He couldn't say how he knew, but he knew it as surely as he knew the crow - and that the black bird was even now keeping pace with the moving vehicle. For a second, his vision seemed to shift and he thought he could see the world through the crow's eyes as it looked down on a busy street clogged with traffic.
Then he blinked and the vision was gone.
Absently, he scrubbed muddy fingers against his wrist. When the second man had touched him there, warm brown fingers brushing against bare skin, he had seen... things.
...blood and brains and worse... a broken body splayed on the pavement, blood soaking into the asphalt... a wrenching sob behind him ...racing inside, only to find more horror, the very air thick with the stench of it, blood everywhere, painting the floor and the desk and the bodies and blooddarknessgriefpain...
He broke away from the vision with enough force to physically sling his body sideways into the door panel. His entire body shook with revulsion... and anger. The dark thing in his heart responded, uncoiling seductive tendrils that stroked his fury, fed it. It called to him with the voice of the crow, urging him to give in, to-
A hand touched his arm and he jerked violently away, shaken from his disjointed thoughts. Distantly, he was aware of the dark thing's reluctant retreat. He looked up to find the red-haired man half-leaning over the back of the seat.
Was that his name? He couldn't remember, couldn't remember anything but the darkness and the pain... and the crow. He cocked his head, forcing his eyes to focus properly so he could study the other man, trying to find something on which he could anchor a name or a memory, but nothing came.
The man reached toward him again and Peter instinctively flinched back against the car door, the blanket held before him like a shield. Touch was... not good. It meant more of those ...visions? Memories? Whatever the awful images were, he didn't want any more of them in his head.
He stared at the man's hand, feeling the darkness reaching out for him again as his agitation grew. He hoped the guy would back off. Peter didn't want the thing in his heart to lash out at someone whose only crime was trying too hard to help.
Concern, and something that might have been hurt, flickered in the man's eyes as he pulled his hand back. "I'm sorry, Peter. I didn't mean to scare you. I won't touch you if you don't want me to. Honest."
Peter stared at him. He wasn't scared, though maybe he should be. He was a man without memory, without identity. He only had a name because this man had given him one. But fear was the farthest thing from his mind. Instead, he was angry. Hell, he was furious. Pissed at the world around him and the pain it kept inflicting on him.
But, his heart whispered, this man hasn't hurt you. Not yet.
Could Peter trust what the man said? Did he dare? Or was it simply a matter of time before he, too, caused Peter pain?
"I won't hurt you, Peter," the man said softly. His eyes were moist and he blinked rapidly, as if warding off tears. "I'm your friend. Don't you remember? It's me - Ray."
Peter shook his head slowly. Friends? The word resonated oddly with the darkness coiled around his heart. He shook his head again, more firm in his denial. No. He couldn't have friends. It wasn't... safe. For him - for them.
He started to share this epiphany with Ray- but something wrenched his attention away and the other's soft words faded into nothing as Peter tilted his head, his eyes sliding shut as he focused inward.
The sensation intensified, sending gooseflesh prickling all over his body and leaving him feeling as if something had ghosted a feather through his brain. Suddenly, the interior of the car seemed like a cage and he gasped, his eyes flying open.
The crow's vision came to him again, showing him the street, the teeming sidewalk, the towering buildings crowding out the sky. He panted as he felt it all closing in on him. In his heart, the darkness quivered with unholy anticipation. He had to get out, get away, before it broke free and-
Peter flung open the door and lunged out of the car, just as the light changed and traffic started moving again.
"Peter! No!" Reacting on instinct, Ray yanked open his own door and followed at a run. Behind him, he heard Winston grate out a heart-felt "shit!", then Ray was on the street and searching frantically for Peter.
Ignoring the blare of horns around him, Ray dodged between cars. He narrowly avoided a painful meeting with a taxi's grill, and made it to the sidewalk just in time to see the crow launch itself from atop a street sign. Breathing hard, Ray watched it vanish into the looming shadows of the skyscrapers. His hands clenched. He was really starting to hate that bird. He was sure it was doing something to Peter, maybe even controlling him somehow.
Next time, he vowed, he'd have his thrower. Then he'd see just what that bird was made of.
He started forward... and something tangled around his foot, sending him staggering as he fought to keep his balance. Looking down, he spotted the blanket Peter had been wrapped in and bent to pick it up. Clutching the discarded blanket to his chest, Ray turned in a slow circle, hoping against hope, searching the crowd. He shouted Peter's name, but there was no answer. Other than the blanket, there was no sign Peter had ever been there.
Swallowing past the tightness in his throat and ignoring the ache in his chest, Ray hurried back to Ecto-1, slamming the door shut behind him as he practically threw himself into the front seat. "He's gone!"
Winston glanced at him, then reached down to flip on the lights and siren as he slammed Ecto into an illegal turn that scattered pedestrians like startled pigeons and miraculously didn't cause a multiple car pile-up. "Then we'll just have to find him."
The rain had tapered off to a drizzle, but Peter barely felt it.
Like so much else in his mind, the city was an impressionistic blur of colors and smells and sounds, overwhelming and meaningless. His surroundings were a confusing jumble of towering buildings, exhaust fumes and car horns, and the ever-present, colorful eddy of people crowding the sidewalks. He was barely aware of the people around him, only noticing them when he collided with someone in his headlong rush. In the press of hurrying bodies, such contact was inevitable as he bounced off a hip here, a shoulder there. He flinched at the unwanted images thrown up onto the screen of his mind when he inadvertently brushed someone's hand and skin met unguarded skin. Fortunately, most people were only too willing to avoid the wild-eyed, mud-covered man lurching down the street.
Most of his focus was turned inward on the thing he could feel twisting inside him, still trying to get out. It was taking most of his concentration to keep it under control. The thing - almost another presence in his head - was the reason he had bolted from the car. He wasn't sure what it would do if - when - it escaped.
Despite his distraction, he was still aware of the crow flying above and slightly behind him. Somehow, he felt its pull, as if they were connected by an invisible thread. He could have followed it with his eyes closed. Now, however, he fought that pull. Ran from it, as he had run from the men in the car.
The bird followed him through the city, scolding him, its harsh cry calling him to heel.
It followed him down crowded streets and dank, deserted alleyways, past ritzy shops and overflowing Dumpsters. It followed him past soaring towers of glass and steel, and squatter buildings of brick and stone.
Lost in thought, Peter didn't notice the businessman in front of him until they collided. The man's umbrella went flying into the street and he turned on Peter with angry words already spilling from his mouth.
Lips pulling back in a silent snarl, Peter glared, eyes glittering from beneath a dripping fringe of mud-plastered hair. The businessman froze, then backed away, hands up in surrender. Shaking, Peter sidestepped the other man, confrontation already forgotten, then glanced up at the sky.
The crow circled lazily overhead, waiting.
It called to him…and to the thing nestled within his soul. It called to him, harsh and honest and bleak and black and cold.
Undeniable, it called to him.
Peter had settled into an almost meditative state, his body on auto-pilot as he trailed his airborne guide across the city. He had lost all track of time and place, focused solely on putting one foot in front of the other to the point that it came as something of a shock when he realized the crow had alighted. It had settled atop a neon sign attached to the brick façade of a nearby building. When it became apparent the crow wasn't going to take off again, he found himself squinting at its chosen perch.
There was something almost… familiar about that sign.
He stared at the cartoon ghost trapped in the red, international "no" symbol. Where had he...?
Of its own volition, his hand moved to finger the embroidered patch on his sleeve. He twisted to look down at it, brushing his fingertips over the design. Even covered with mud, it was clearly the same emblem as the one on the sign. He covered the patch with his palm, his mind struggling to make sense of things. The emblems were the same, but what did it mean?
Did he... belong here?
He looked up at the bird, but if it had the answers to his questions, it wasn't telling. He took a step toward it - and froze as a white-hot shock flashed up into his body through the sole of his foot. Thrown off-balance, he crashed to his knees, out-flung hands the only thing saving him from a faceful of sidewalk. The instant his hands made contact with the concrete, images surged into his mind. He had no choice but to relive the memory as it flooded his brain.
...falling to the razor tune of breaking glass, a thousand knives scything through his flesh, the choking, bitter taste of bile and blood filling his mouth, silencing his scream of fearangersorrow and he couldn't save them couldn't get to them... drowning …in blood and guilt… falling falling into darkness so deep it had no color, death wrapping black wings around him as he fell and finally, finally he could scream, but it was too late and everything was ashes and pain and falling and guiltsorrowRAGE...
He came back to himself with a choked cry. Newly regained memory burned behind his eyes. Shakily, he got to his feet. He knew who he was. And he knew something else, something so terrible, his mind didn't want to process it.
He was dead.
He knew it, in the same way he knew the crow. In his bones and blood and unbreathing flesh. Hands clenching at his sides, he glared up at the bird. "Happy now, you sadistic, black-feathered sonuvabi?"
The bird dove from its perch and flew straight at him. For a wild second, he thought it was attacking him. He threw up his arm to ward it off, but the damned thing snatched at his sleeve with its talons and he had no choice but to let it settle on his forearm. The bird favored him with a look that was entirely too self-satisfied, then looked toward the firehouse.
With a sigh, Peter made his way over and tried the door. "Locked. Guess we're not going in after all, bunky."
Seemingly unfazed, his avian companion leaned out and rapped its black beak against the wood. Peter glared at the bird. "Cut it out, Edgar Allan. I may be dead, but I refuse to be clichéd-"
A surge of darkness shut him up mid-complaint. He had a fleeting sense emptiness, desolation, icy shadows cutting through him like an arctic wind-
And then he was inside the firehouse and the crow was nowhere to be seen. Peter looked around wildly, then patted his arms and chest. He felt solid enough. So what the hell had just happened? What had that damn bird done to him?
He had gone no more than a dozen steps when he felt something prickle his senses. Moved by an impulse he didn't understand but couldn't resist, he knelt and pressed his palm to the floor...
...fearshockpain as bullets slammed into unprotected flesh, blood on his hands, in his mouth... reaching… needterrorgriefpain…Peter! ...darkness...
Peter snatched his hand back, but not before he'd felt the moment of his father's death. He snarled, fingers curving into claws as the thing inside him surged up, its tendrils reaching out into every part of him and filling him with an almost orgasmic fury.
Something cold and wet ran down his face and spattered against the front of his jumpsuit. Momentarily distracted, he touched the stain, then felt his cheek. His hand came away smeared with black tears that turned to ash on his fingertips. As he watched, all color bled from his skin, leaving him as white as the ghost on the sign out front.
What the hell was happening to him?
Almost desperately, he looked around for a reflective surface and spotted the lockers against the wall near the stairs. He remembered… There was a small mirror hanging on the inside of the door marked 'Venkman'. He wrenched open the door- and stared at a reflection he barely recognized as his own.
His face was as pale as the rest of him, a stark, bloodless white that provided a startling contrast to the black shadowing his eyes so they resembled the hollow sockets of a skull. Black streaks trailed like tears down onto his cheeks, arched above his brows, and outlined his mouth in a grotesque parody of a smile. He looked like a demented clown, a mime from hell. He bared his teeth, stretching his new, black smile even wider. The darkness in his heart was free - and it knew what it had to do.
Someone had attacked the Ghostbusters, hurt them. Tried to murder them - had murdered Peter's dad. Someone had racked up a huge cosmic debt.
And he was going to collect.
Chapter 7: Unpleasant Surprises
When matters are desperate we must put on a desperate face.
- Robert Burn
After five minutes, Egon finally realized he had been staring blankly at the same sentence for the entire time and still had no idea what it said. With a sigh, he saved his work and shut down the computer program he had been using to collate his notes. Reluctantly, he let his mind return outright to what it had been concentrating on all along.
He had run every test he could think of on the ash sample Frump had given them. So far, he had determined that it was a carbonized, organic compound and that it had absorbed PKE residuals, but that was as far as his research had taken him. With any luck, the new readings Ray and Winston were collecting would provide some clue as to the origin of the strange material.
Wondering what was taking them so long to return, he glanced at the clock. Sufficient time had passed, even allowing for traffic or -
A noise downstairs derailed his train of thought. Perhaps, Winston and Ray had finally returned. He had been lost in thought and had not heard Ecto's engine or the rattle of the garage doors, but an unauthorized intrusion—human or otherwise-would have set off the security system and there had been no alarm.
Egon hurried to the top of the stairs and peered down into the gloom of the empty garage. Ecto-1 was not in her usual space. That meant whatever he had heard, it wasn't the guys. "Slimer?"
There was a heavy silence, the silence of someone-or something-deliberately not making any noise. The hairs on the back of his neck pricked to attention as he eased down onto the first step. Pushing his glasses up on his nose, Egon raked his gaze over the room below: the bare desk, the empty expanse of floor... He saw something shift furtively in the shadows by the lockers and this time he was certain it wasn't merely the figment of a wishful imagination.
"Who's there?" he demanded. He backed up onto the landing and reached for the spare proton pack Winston had insisted they keep handy "just in case." He switched the pack on and, raising his voice over the distinctive whine of the nuclear accelerator as it powered up, added, "I warn you. I am armed."
There was a pregnant pause, during which Egon's hands tightened on the thrower. The machine hummed, the padded grip comforting against his callused palms. "Come out now, and you can explain your actions to the police. Persist, and you'll be explaining it to the business end of a particle rifle."
For a frozen moment, nothing moved. Then, out of the darkness by the lockers, a lanky form strolled almost casually into view, hands thrust into the pockets of its brown jumpsuit. Egon's breath snagged painfully in his throat.
"You neutronizing trespassers, now, Spengs?" A pause, as the impossible figure stopped on the cusp of the light from the landing. "…Not that I don't approve, mind you. After what happened, seems like the sensible thing to do."
"Who are you?" Egon demanded, though his voice was far less steady than he would have liked. "How did you get in here without setting off the alarm?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you, Egon. As for the first question…"
The man raised his head and looked up at Egon, who froze as he got his first good look at the other's face. It was Peter's face-or, rather, a gruesome mockery of it. The familiar features were as bloodless as a corpse, mouth and eyes outlined grotesquely in black.
"You..." Egon had to swallow to moisten his suddenly dry mouth. "You are not Peter. You can't be."
Something that might have been hurt flickered in the green eyes that were a perfect match for Peter's - or would have been, without the bizarre, harlequinesque markings framing them. Horror flooded Egon. Was this what had become of Peter's missing body? Had the grave robbers taken it only to return it to them in this form-a walking corpse, a soulless zombie? His stomach clenched painfully and he felt all the blood drain from his face. Black spots swam before his vision and he swayed, then grabbed the rail one-handed to keep from falling. Dear God, no. It could not be. Not Peter…
Feeling anger rising to replace the shock he grated, "What are you?"
"Damned if I know, Egon." Peter's voice was perfectly flat. And it was Peter's voice, it was-but it couldn't be. "Or maybe I'm just damned."
The imposter started to turn away, but Egon wasn't letting it get away so easily. He couldn't. No matter what it was, doppelganger or something…else… he owed it to the real Peter Venkman to deal with this. And so he would. Furious, thumb itching on the trigger, he aimed the thrower at the center of the creature's back. A hit there might not kill it, but it would certainly inconvenience it. He refused to even consider a moment longer the idea that this might actually be Peter's body, reanimated by some dark magic and sent to torment them.
"I don't know what you are or what you want, but I do know that if you don't show me your true face in the next thirty seconds, you'll be nothing but a bad memory."
The not-Peter turned back. The corner of its black-painted mouth curled in the bitter hint of a smile. "This is my face, Egon."
"It's Peter Venkman's face." When he spoke, Egon's deep voice was hoarse with strain. He had to swallow hard to get the words past the lump in his throat.
"Egon…" Beneath the tattered jumpsuit, broad shoulders slumped in what looked like resignation, then straightened. "I know I look like a Cirque du Soleil reject, but I swear to you…I am Peter Venkman."
The corners of Egon's mouth tightened - as did his hands around the thrower. "Peter Venkman's dead."
"Not arguing with you there, big guy." The thing that looked like Peter - that sounded like Peter - raked its fingers through its messy brown hair. "Dead and buried. And, let me tell ya, it hurts like hell. But I'm also back."
As Egon watched, ready to fire at the first hint of threat, the markings seemed to be absorbed into the entity's skin. Color bled into the obscenely white flesh and the wildness faded from green eyes, to be replaced by a profound weariness. Now, it really was Peter staring back at him. The illusion was so perfect, Egon found himself blinking back tears. His heart was breaking all over again.
"You are not Peter. It's not true!" It couldn't be. He didn't think his sanity could withstand the strain if the unthinkable had really happened, if the proof of it stood before him. A ghost could be put to rest, a zombie returned to its grave. But when the specter wore Peter's face…
The groan of the garage doors opening heralded Ecto-1's arrival. Egon heard the car screech to a halt beside him, but he didn't take his eyes - or his aim - off the imposter, not even when the car doors slammed and booted feet pounded toward them across the bricks.
"Egon, what are you doing?" Ray yelled, hurling himself toward the two figures locked in a stand-off. "That's Peter!"
"No, it isn't, Ray." Egon's aim was rock steady. He could do this. For Ray and Winston. For the memory of Peter. "It only looks like Peter." And moves like Peter, and sounds like Peter…
"Egon!" Ray's voice was urgent, pleading. "You weren't there, at the cemetery, when he... Look, I know it's him. Please, Egon, you gotta trust me!"
"It is doing something to make us think it's Peter," Egon said coldly. He could only hope desperately that such was indeed the case. It was a far easier hypothesis to live with than the alternative. His eyes flashed angrily behind the lenses of his glasses as he glared at the intruder. "I warn you. If you do not cease this charade at once…"
"What do you want me to do to prove it to you, Egon? Tell me and I'll do it-"
The words were earnest, but the green eyes were shuttered. Hiding their owner's pain? No, don't think like that. It's not Peter. It is not!
"-Then, if you still don't believe me, I'll never darken your doorstep again."
"Peter!" Ray's anguish was palpable. "I know it's you."
"Thanks, Ray." There was a kind of weary affection in the false Peter's voice. "But Egon's right."
The thing that looked likePeter shoved its hands back in its pockets and shrugged. Cool green eyes met Egon's narrow gaze and something disturbingly like a smirk twitched at the corners of the not-Peter's mouth. Beneath the self-mocking expression, though, Egon could see the taut muscles working along its jaw.
"You can't be too careful, after all. Especially not after what happened to Janine… and my dad. And me."
"Peter. You remember? You remember us and… everything?" There was a wealth of compassion in Ray's voice. At Peter's nod, Ray rounded on Egon with renewed determination. "Please, Egon. You've got to let us prove to you Peter is who he says he is! "
Egon risked a quick glance at Winston, who shook his head.
"Ray's convinced. Me, I'm keeping an open mind." Winston frowned. "But you do need to know what went down at the cemetery, Egon. We saw Charlie."
At the mention of Peter's father, something flickered across the not-Peter's face, an indescribable sadness that was there and gone, almost too quickly to see. But Egon had seen it… and he relented.
"All right. I'll listen," he told Ray, whose immediate, bright smile was like a stab in the heart. He would have to be the one to douse that hope by exposing this thing for the monster it was. The knowledge of his unavoidable duty lay like a crushing weight on his chest. Scowling, Egon turned back to the creature. "One move out of line and—"
"—I'm the ghost who's toast. Yeah, Egon, I gotcha." The imposter raised an eyebrow, meeting Egon's gaze with determined green eyes. "So, where do we start?"
They started with PKE readings.
"So you want to see how Peter 2.0 registers on your pet meter, Egon? Go for it."
Obviously not caring for Peter's flippancy, Egon grimaced. "I will compare your readings with those of the sample Frump gave us, as well as those retrieved from the cemetery."
Peter frowned and looked at Ray, who was digging around in one of the cupboards for the phlebotomy kit. "What 'sample'?"
As Ray explained, Egon fiddled with the knobs on the PKE meter, taking what seemed to be an unusually long time to adjust it to his satisfaction. It finally dawned on Peter that Egon was at least as nervous about the outcome of the test as he was. When Winston stepped up to hover protectively at Egon's elbow, Peter felt a surge of gratitude. He couldn't give Egon the support he needed right now, but the others wouldn't let him down.
"So Frump knows something weird's going down," Peter said, trying hard for a normal tone and failing miserably. "Let's just hope he has the good sense to stay outta the way and let the professionals handle it. And speaking of handling things, Egon, are you planning to stop communing with that meter and actually use it or would the two of you like some 'alone time'?"
Frowning, Egon aimed the PKE meter at him, but didn't switch it on. "The readings we got from the sample were most... unusual."
"Do tell." Peter scowled, reconsidering. "Or better yet, don't. Can we just get this over with, already?"
A part of him was genuinely curious about what the meter would show. A greater part of him shied away from the knowledge. When Egon still hesitated, Peter reached over and flipped on the device himself. The meter reacted instantly, alarming shrilly as it registered his presence. Tilting his head, Peter tried to read the screen upside down. On his other side, Ray shot him a reassuring look, then did the same.
"Go ahead," Peter said tightly when it became clear the physicist wasn't going to volunteer the information on his own. "What's the damage?"
It was Winston who answered. "It's reading you as a class nine. Just like at the cemetery."
Peter went pale- though, thankfully, not the inhuman white of his earlier transformation.
"A nine? But... That's not possible! I'm… I'm not…"
He sat down suddenly, only by pure chance happening to land on a chair as his legs betrayed him.
"You see why I cannot believe you," Egon said, turning off the meter and shoving his glasses back up with rather more force than was strictly necessary. "If Peter were to return, he would register as a class four or possibly-" He broke off, mouth thinning, and didn't continue the thought. "Whatever you are, you are not Peter."
The harsh words struck him like physical blows. Peter flinched, then buried his face in his hands, muffling his words. "Well, that's just peachy, Egon. Your meter says I'm not me, I'm some kind of freaky, class nine…thing. But I am me. If I'm not...Well, someone did a pretty damn thorough mind transfer job. I remember every bit of my life right up to…"
His voice trailed off into nothingness. Peter looked up, eyes glazing over as he stared into memory.
"Peter?" Ray reached out a hesitant hand. "Are you?"
Lost in his own dark thoughts, Peter didn't hear him. In a soft voice, he finished, "…right up to getting tossed out the window. I remember falling…for what seemed like forever. Then…"
When he didn't finish the thought, Winston prompted gently, "Then what, Peter?"
With a visible effort, Peter forced his attention back to the present. "I saw my dad. He… said some weird stuff. Then that damn bird brought me back."
"Bird?" Egon asked, peering at him over the tops of his frames. "What bird?"
An excited Ray pre-empted any answer Peter might have given. "You mean that crow, right? The one we saw at the cemetery. It registered as a class nine, too!"
"There was definitely something freaky about that bird," Winston agreed. "Biggest crow I've ever seen. Smart, too. It lured me and Ray away from…" He hesitated, shot an enigmatic look at Peter, then continued, "…our investigation. I'd swear it followed us when we left the cemetery, too."
"Corvids are quite intelligent," Egon said, absently. "But I cannot see what connection there can be between a crow and…"
"…little Petey Venkman," Peter supplied dryly, when it became clear Egon wasn't going to finish his sentence. "Don't look at me. Somebody forgot to give me a script for this farce."
"I think I might have an idea." Ray had a thoughtful look in his eyes. "I remember seeing something…"
"About crows?" Winston asked.
"Yeah, I think so. If I could just remember …" Ray trailed off, biting his lip as he tried to dredge up the elusive memory. "It was in one of the books I got at that auction, last year. I think."
"Go look, Ray." Winston reached over and took the phlebotomy kit from his unresisting hand. "See if you can find it. In the meantime, we'll run some more tests on contestant number one, here."
Peter rolled his eyes, strangely reassured by the jibe. "Oh, joy. I've always wanted to be a lab rat."
"Then this is your lucky day." Winston held up a hypodermic needle. "Roll up your sleeve and say 'squeak.'"
Even though Peter was willing to cooperate, his body appeared to have other plans. They quickly discovered that his heart was not beating. Which meant no pulse and no blood pressure. Which meant drawing blood via hypodermic was not happening.
Frustrated and fed-up, Peter grabbed a scalpel from the medical kit and slashed it across his arm. Vaguely surprised by how little it hurt, he squeezed the deep cut to force blood to the surface. It welled up, thick and dark, oozing from the wound like some liquid far more viscous than blood had any right to be. Peter was relieved to see it, though, since he had begun to wonder if he even had blood anymore. The minute the blood hit the air, it carbonized and Peter was left with a long streak of black ash clinging to his skin.
Without a word, Winston scraped some of the ash into a petri dish and handed it to Egon. He reached into the medical kit for a bandage, but Peter stopped him by scrubbing his hand over his arm, revealing it to be fully healed already.
"Well," Peter said flatly. "That'll come in handy."
Egon's expression was unreadable, even to Peter, who found himself suddenly unable to meet that accusing blue gaze. He sighed. Read quickly, Ray. I really want to know what I am, now…and if I'm even half as dangerous as I think I am.
Chapter 8: Questions Without Answers
Guilt is perhaps the most painful companion of death.
It was well after midnight when Peter finally escaped from the lab and sought refuge downstairs. He had been poked, prodded and subjected to every test short of actual vivisection that Egon could devise. The worse part of the whole ordeal was watching the lengths to which Egon went to avoid touching him directly, as if he found even the idea of such contact repulsive. Of course, never knowing when a casual brush against an innocent looking object -or a friend's bare hand- might trigger unwanted visions, Peter was hardly in a position to complain.
Now, Peter wandered into the deserted garage. Wary of his newfound psychometric abilities, he carefully skirted Janine's desk, certain to be a hotspot of psychic impressions, and eventually ended up in his office. He flopped down into his chair and propped his feet on the corner of the desk. Then he leaned back, hands behind his head, and stared blankly at the ceiling. He didn't know how long he'd been there when he heard hesitant footsteps and turned his head to find Winston standing at the gate that let into his office from the reception area.
"You okay, Pete?"
"Winston, m'man. Come on in. The more, the merrier," Peter said, in a decidedly un-merry tone. He watched from beneath a tangle of bangs as the other man took the chair across from his. "So… Ray's up to his eyeballs in musty old books, Egon's in the lab running tests… and you decided to keep an eye on me. Just in case. Am I right?"
"Not me." Peter heaved a sigh, slumping back in his chair and staring blindly up at the ceiling, again. "It's what I'd do. I wouldn't trust me for a minute."
"Don't go sentimental on me now, Zed." Another look, the barest slant of green eyes, before they were turned back to the ceiling. "I'm counting on you to look after those two for me."
"I always do."
Softly, Peter whispered, "Yeah. I know."
Peter closed his eyes. He was so tired, in spirit if not in body. But he didn't think any of them were going to be getting a good night's sleep tonight, no matter how much they needed it. With a sigh, he swung his feet off the desk and sat up. He plucked distastefully at his filthy jumpsuit. "I don't know about you, Winston, but I could definitely use a shower."
"Go ahead, man. I'll just go up and check on Egon." Winston got up and followed him to the stairs.
Great, thought Peter. My own personal shadow. Just as quickly, he stamped on the thought as unworthy. Winston was only doing what he felt was necessary to safeguard the guys. Peter couldn't fault him for that. Still, he didn't like being treated like a threat. Even if he did think he might be one.
Pushing that uncomfortable thought from his mind, Peter hit the shower.
Twenty minutes later, clean and dressed in his most comfortable set of worn, gray sweats, Peter wandered aimlessly into the kitchen. At the edge of his senses, he heard Winston talking quietly to Egon from the open doorway of the lab upstairs, and Ray shuffling back through the TV room with another armload of books.
Even though he wasn't hungry, Peter found himself prowling through the cupboards and digging in the refrigerator. He finally settled on heating a mug of milk, on the off-chance that the traditional drink would lull him to sleep. He dropped onto a chair at the table and stared blankly at the mug cupped between his hands. Carrying with it a faint hint of vanilla, warm steam from the milk wafted up into his face. He barely noticed the aroma; it certainly did nothing to entice him to drink. He was only slightly more aware of the heat of the ceramic mug against his palms.
The hesitant voice brought Peter's head around, and he spotted Ray, half-asleep and puzzled, standing in the kitchen doorway. Ray's hair was standing up in short red tufts from where he'd run his hands through it. His shirt was untucked, and he was clutching an ancient-looking tome in one hand. From somewhere, Peter dredged up a weary smile for him. "Hey, Ray."
"Can't you sleep?" Frank worry in his eyes, Ray joined him at the table. "You want something to eat? Or maybe some warm-"
He faltered as he followed Peter's pointed gaze to the untouched mug resting on the table in front of him. Dropping onto the chair beside him, Ray gave a faint chuckle. "Wow. You really were desperate, weren't you?"
With a wry grimace, Peter shoved the mug away. "Never did like warm milk, not even when Mom used to make it for me."
"I could make you some cocoa, if you'd rather have that."
Ray cocked his head, waiting. When Peter didn't say anything more, he prodded gently, "What is it, Peter? You're not—" He swallowed. "You're not… in pain or anything, are you?"
That drew a startled look from Peter. "No. Nothing like that."
Not physically, anyway. Emotionally, was another story. He could feel the anger inside him threatening to tear him apart and it hurt like hell just trying to keep it under control. Not that he was telling Ray that.
At Ray's doubtful frown, Peter added, " I'm fine, Ray. Well... As 'fine' as can be expected, all things considered." He winced at the guilt that instantly flashed across Ray's expressive features. "What happened... None of it's your fault. You gotta believe that."
"If I'd only been- Maybe I could've-"
"Ray," Peter snapped, with an underlying current of anger that startled them both. He took a deep breath, forcing it back down, and chose his next words with care. "Just...don't, okay? If you'd been there, it might've been you that got tossed out the window instead of me. And you can't think for a second I'd want that."
"No, of course not. But I-" Ray stared blankly down at the mug of rapidly cooling milk in front of him, seemingly unaware that he'd locked white-knuckled fingers around it. His voice dropped to a whisper. "I just wish-"
Peter gripped his arm, demanding his attention. "Ray, don't."
Not now. Not when the restored memory of that night was a raw wound in his mind and a darkness festering in his heart. Don't do this, he pleaded silently, feeling his free hand curl involuntarily into a fist. God, Ray, please. I don't know what I'm capable of, what I might do. And it scares the hell outta me.
Still unable to meet his friend's gaze, Ray whispered, "I'm so sorry, Peter."
In horror, Peter watched his nails darken, black bleeding up from the nail bed, the skin around them growing grave-pale. No! Not now. Not ever again! Not with the guys.
He forced his fingers to relax, then carefully moved his hands out of sight beneath the table. In a deliberately light tone, he said, "Ray, I swear to God. If you don't stop apologizing to me, I'm gonna neutronize your entire Captain Steel comic book collection and your Dopey Dog doll."
For a single shocked moment, Ray simply stared at him. Then he snorted quietly, and some of the tension went out of his body as he leaned over to give Peter a quick, fierce hug. "I've missed you so much, Peter."
"Hey, what's not to miss?" Peter favored him with an outrageous grin that didn't quite make it into his eyes, and reached over to ruffle Ray's already tousled hair.
At the familiar, scolding tone, Peter's grin slid into a more genuine smile. He nudged the mug into Ray's hands and said, "Here. Drink this, then go to bed, will ya? You need your beauty sleep, Stantz. Trust me."
"I always have." Obediently, Ray gulped the milk, then rose. When Peter made no move to join him, he asked, "Aren't you coming?"
"Nah. I'm not sleepy." Peter shrugged nonchalantly. Sleep was apparently among the many things he didn't do any more. Inconsequential things, like eating and breathing. What the hell. Breathing was overrated, anyway.
"I know it's hard, Peter. But you're here now, with us. And it... it's not all bad." Ray regarded Peter wistfully. "…Is it?"
The raw emotion in Ray's voice reached him as nothing else could have. Peter stared at him for a long moment, then shook his head. Sometimes, he thought, I really am a selfish bastard.
"No," he said, and this time, the smile made it all the way into his eyes, briefly warming their shadowed depths. It didn't last, but Ray saw it, and his answering smile did more to warm him than any amount of heated milk ever could. "In fact, Ray, some of it's pretty damn good."
He cocked a thumb toward the door. "Now, go to bed before you fall over, will ya? Even your batteries gotta run down sometime."
Laughing, Ray obeyed. Peter watched him go – and was completely unsurprised to find Winston watching him from the doorway. Peter tossed him a mock salute. "Yo, Winston. Egon uncover the secrets of the afterlife, yet?"
Winston rolled his eyes. "At least give him 'til morning. The man's a genius, but he's only human."
Unlike me. Ruthlessly, Peter squelched the self-pity. Instead, he took refuge in the familiar, if strained, banter. "Morning it is, then. But I expect results or I want my money back."
Winston sat down in Ray's abandoned chair. "No guarantees in life, m'man."
"None in death, either." Peter sighed. "You should hit the sack, too. I promise to be a good little boy."
"I think I can hang in for another hour or two." Winston's gaze fell on the empty mug Peter was toying with. "Warm milk? Didn't think you could stomach the stuff."
"I can't." Peter ran a finger around the lip of the mug as he stared into it like he was trying to read his future in the dregs. Maybe he could invent a new form of fortune telling. Call it 'dairy-mancy'. He'd be famous. Well, more famous. He shoved the cup away. "I know you've got questions. I can practically hear them clamoring to get out of your head."
"So, ask away." Peter spread his hands, as if offering him a gift. "I'm at your disposal."
Winston studied him for a second, then said, "Okay. Why don't you start by telling me what's rattling around in your head?"
"That's what I love about you, Winston. You always go straight for the jugular." His dry tone belied the narrowing of his eyes. "Don't think you really want to know the answer to that one, though."
"You think so?"
"Hell, I wish Ididn't and I am me."
"Fair enough." Winston rose and headed for the Mr. Coffee on the counter. "Regular or unleaded?"
Without waiting for a reply, Winston got the coffee from the cupboard –regular, Peter noted, with an inner smirk—and began filling the coffee maker. As he busied himself with filters and grounds and water, Winston said, "Let's try another one, then. What's the Other Side like?"
Winston shot him a look, then switched on the machine. "Very funny."
Peter shrugged. "I didn't really see much. Trees, river, fog. World's freakiest bridge. My feathered guide was more interested in getting me to take a swan dive into a crossrip than giving me the grand tour. Next time, I'm booking with a different travel agent."
Ignoring the weak joke, Winston persisted with his line of questioning. "Your dad was there?"
"There and gone. Like always." This turn of the conversation was leaving a sour taste in Peter's mouth, but he still found himself asking, "You said you'd seen him, too?"
"Yeah, at the cemetery." Winston was watching him closely. "He seemed worried about you."
"Better late than never." And you couldn't get much later than 'dead.'
Unable to argue with that, Winston chose a new tack. "Do you know who did it?"
The question froze Peter in place as nightmare images flashed like gunfire in his mind. He shook his head to clear it. When he found his voice, it was hoarse with the effort of control. "No. But I'm gonna find out."
"That's what Frump said." Winston set a full coffee cup in front of Peter. "I don't think he's having much luck, though."
"What a surprise." Peter stared at the unappetizing black liquid in his cup, then pushed it away. "We'll be lucky if he catches a clue sometime before the turn of the next century."
Winston snorted. "You think you can do any better?"
"You think I can do any worse?"
"Besides, you know me. I've never been one to sit around and let someone else fight my battles."
Winston looked at him solemnly. "That's just the point, man. Do I know you?"
Not quite knowing why he did it, Peter straightened. Without warning, he reached for the other man, not even noticing when he knocked both cups to the floor.
"Let's find out," he said, and pressed his hands to Winston's temples.
falling…falling through darkness…fog trees confusiongriefangerpain… A strange bridge stretching across a tree-lined gorge…Charlie Venkman…grief… anger old and new…
Winston let out a loud yelp as the images flooded his brain. He jerked away from Peter at the same time as the other man released him. The unexpected lack of resistance sent him crashing ass over teakettle to the floor. Winston landed in a tangle of limbs in a puddle of cold coffee, the kitchen chair half on top of him. His head throbbed, though whether from collision with the tile flooring or from whatever Peter had done to him, he didn't know.
He blinked up at Peter, crouched half out of his own chair and worry written plainly across his face, and didn't bother trying to hide the outrage in his voice. "Shit, man. What the hell was that?"
"Well, Zed…" Peter's mouth twitched. "I told you you didn't want to know what was sloshing around in my head."
Winston glared, then relented and let Peter haul him to his feet. "Yeah. You did." He dusted himself off, then shook his head ruefully. "Remind me to listen next time."
Footsteps thundered down the stairs and a pair of disheveled Ghostbusters appeared in the kitchen doorway. Egon brandished a PKE meter like a weapon, probably the first thing he had been able to lay hands on in his mad dash from the lab. Ray had apparently been preparing for bed: dressed in striped pajamas and fuzzy slippers, he had a mouthful of minty foam, the green handle of his forgotten toothbrush clutched loosely in one hand.
Ray stared at the scene with wide eyes. "Gosh! What happened? Are you guys all right?"
"Yeah, Ray, we're fine." Winston stooped and hooked a finger through the coffee cup handles. "Just had a little spill, that's all."
"Winston… Are you sure?" There was unmistakable suspicion in Egon's piercing blue gaze as it settled on Peter. "He didn't?"
"I didn't attack him, if that's what you're thinking," Peter said softly. His eyes held a wealth of suppressed emotions, but his voice was flat. "I wouldn't, Egon. I…"
"I just got a lapful of hot coffee, Egon. It's nothing." Winston dumped the cups in the sink and came back with a handful of paper towels. He began swabbing up the mess. "We're cool."
"If you are certain…" Egon did not seem convinced, but he allowed Ray to herd him back out the door, though not before tossing a last, narrow look back at Peter. Ray gave the blond scientist a push toward the stairs and tossed them a foamy smile and a cheery "goodnight, guys" over his shoulder.
When they were safely out of earshot, Winston rounded on Peter with a determined look and said lowly, "Peter, if you ever do that again, I swear I'll replace all your shampoo with Nair."
"You decide I'm me, after all?" The voice was still flat, but there was hope in those green eyes.
"Well, you may not be live, but I'm pretty sure you're not Memorex. After what you just showed me…" Winston said, running his hand over his face. He met Peter's gaze head-on. "And Ray's sure. That counts for a lot in my book."
"Besides…" He gave Peter a sly, barely-there smirk. "I've never met a ghost even half as annoying as the real Peter Venkman when he sets his mind to it. Figure that means you gotta be the genuine article."
"Thanks, Z. Really. I'm touched," Peter deadpanned. Then he grinned, though it faded almost as swiftly as it appeared. "But, like Egon said, I'm not human. Not anymore."
"I don't care what you are, just as long as you're back where you belong." His voice caught and Winston paused, as if to force his composure back into place. "Coming home to find that...Man. That was the worst night of my life."
"Wasn't exactly a barrel of monkeys for me, either, Zed."
"You know I wish I'd been there for you. Maybe if I had been, things would've turned out differently."
"It wasn't your fault," Peter said. "There was nothing you-or Ray or Egon-could've done that you didn't do the first time."
"Yeah, right." The knowing look was back in Winston's eyes. "You tried listening to your own advice, homeboy?"
In a carefully neutral voice, Peter asked, "What makes you think I'm blaming myself?"
"The fact that I'm not stupid?" Winston shot back. He shook his head. "I know you, Pete. Well enough to know when you're packing your bags for a guilt trip. And I'd say this one's a doozy."
He studied Peter's face as if reading his thoughts, then added, "It wasn't your fault, either."
"You saved Egon's life, you know."
Peter suddenly seemed to find the pattern of black and white tiles on the floor utterly fascinating. In a low voice, he mumbled, "Almost got him killed, you mean."
Winston regarded him with a mixture of brotherly exasperation and affection. "Peter, do not make me kick your ass on your first day back from the dead."
Almost reluctantly, one corner of Peter's mouth curved upward. "You and what starfleet, Zeddemore?"
"The day I need help putting you in your place, Venkman—" Winston let the mock threat hang in the air.
For a long moment, they held each other's gaze. Then something in the atmosphere shifted, some of the tension went out of Peter's shoulders, and he offered Winston the first genuine smile he had seen from Peter since this strange night began.
"I think you just did, Winston," Peter said, quietly. "I think you just did."
Eventually, Winston had convinced an exhausted Egon to retire for the night, then gone to bed as well, leaving Peter to his own devices. And if that wasn't a sign of trust, Peter didn't know what constituted one. His brooding thoughts were poor company, but he sat with them in the darkened kitchen, until the crow appeared at the window. The bird tapped on the glass, drawing this attention.
"You, again?" With a sigh, he rose and walked over to the window. "You aren't gonna leave me alone, are you?"
The bird tilted its head and studied him with one beady, black eye. He could almost hear its retort in his head. Not a chance, buddy.
Peter crossed his arms and glared at it through the glass, though they both knew how this was going to end.
"Fine," he said, exasperated, and opened the window. The bird hopped onto the sill, gave the room a once-over, then turned its attention back to Peter. It stretched its neck out, got a beakful of Peter's sweatshirt and tugged. Peter got a distinct sense of disapproval from the bird.
"What? Now you're a fashion critic?"
The crow pecked sharply at his arm.
Peter gave a muffled yelp and snatched his arm out of harm's way. He scowled at the bird. "Okay, I'll change! Anything in particular, Mr. Blackwell, or are you just not a Lions fan?"
He was almost willing to believe the bird smirked at him. Then it launched itself from the windowsill and headed for the stairs. The only thing upstairs was the lab…and the bunkroom, where three exhausted Ghostbusters now slumbered. Peter leaped to his feet and followed. He found the crow perched on the foot of Ray's bed, peering intently at the sleeping man. For one insane moment, he found himself wondering if the bird was gazing into Ray's dreams.
"Leave him alone," Peter said, in a low, determined voice. "Ray's off-limits, you got that? That goes for Egon and Winston, too."
The crow turned its head to focus its gaze on him and, for the first time, he thought he saw compassion in its alien regard. Then the moment passed and all he saw was glittering avian eyes, watching him expectantly. Well? it seemed to say. What are you waiting for?
Silently, Peter went to his closet. He had been only mildly surprised to find everything just as he had left it. Even though months had passed since his murder, the guys hadn't done much in the way of moving on. They would have to work on that, he decided.
He slid a glance at the crow. He could almost feel its impatience. Okay, they'd work on it later.
For now, he reached into the closet, his hand closing unerringly on the sleeve of a black dinner jacket. His choice was greeted with a soft clack of approval from the crow. Moving quickly but quietly, Peter pulled an armful of clothes from the closet. With a final look at the guys to make sure their sleep remained undisturbed, he retreated to the bathroom to change into dark slacks, a charcoal gray shirt and the black jacket.
No sooner had he re-entered the hallway than the crow fluttered over to land on the railing beside him. It cocked its head and stretched its wings, then gave an impatient rattle. Time to go.
Chapter 9: Unwelcome Visitor
No words can soothe him
No prayer remove him
And I will hear forever more…
-The Alan Parsons Project
Frump stamped his way up the stairs to his apartment in an even fouler mood than usual. Granted, he wasn't often in a good mood, but today had been more frustrating than most. Bad enough that every lead he'd tracked down today had dead-ended, but it was Venkman's case that had stalled out. He'd never liked the guy, but this was a matter of pride. Figures Venkman would be just as irritating dead as he was alive.
As he reached the head of the stairs, Frump paused both to pull the keys from his pocket and to check the hallway. Old cop instincts. He knew the front door was a good place for an ambush if you weren't prepared, so Frump made sure he always was. Seeing nothing, he continued to the door and unlocked it.
The instant the deadbolt slid back, Frump felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Something was wrong. He glanced over the door. There were no obvious signs of tampering and, even straining his ears, he could hear nothing unusual. But you didn't live to reach retirement age by ignoring your instincts. Frump pulled his firearm from its holster and fished a small mag-light from his pocket. Leveling the gun at the entrance, flashlight held just above the barrel, he kicked the door open and scanned the darkened room. Nothing.
Frump slid into the room, and a voice in the darkness stopped him in his tracks.
"Jeez, Frump. If that's the way you come home every night, you're gonna lose your damage deposit."
Frump's eyes widened. He knew that voice. But it couldn't be…
A faint breeze came from the kitchen, so the policeman carefully made his way to that room. In the dim light, he could see that the window was open and a dark figure leaned against the counter near the stove. The figure didn't move, didn't flinch as Frump raised the flashlight up to his face.
"Venkman," Frump growled deep in his chest.
Haloed by the flashlight, the intruder smiled. "The one and only."
Anger began to replace Frump's apprehension as he nudged the kitchen light on with his shoulder. It was Venkman all right. Same carefully styled mop of brown hair, same glittering, green eyes - same irritating smirk. New wardrobe, though. Instead of his jumpsuit or usual civvies, the Ghostbuster was dressed in dark gray and black, probably as camouflage. The fancy jacket didn't look too practical for crawling around on fire escapes or through apartment windows, but Frump chalked that up to either vanity or inexperience on Venkman's part. He was willing to lay money on it being the former rather than the latter.
"This time I've got you dead to rights, Venkman," Frump said as he took another step, still holding his old nemesis in his sights. "Breaking and entering as well as insurance fraud. I gotta admit. You did a good job faking your death. Fooled everyone."
Venkman's smirk only widened.
"Well, I'm sorry about the first, but I couldn't think of another way to meet with you discretely. As for the other..." The smirk melted away as he turned to glance out the window at something. "I only wish it had been fake. Dying hurts entirely too much. And coming back is no picnic either."
Frump snorted in derision as he reached back for his cuffs. "You really expect me to believe that? You look pretty damn healthy for a dead man."
"You know what they say. Appearances deceive."
"Pull the other one." Frump gestured with his gun. "Turn around. You're under arrest."
The infuriating smirk was back. "I'm sorry, Frumpy, but I really don't have time for this right now. So I hope you don't mind if I literally cut to the chase."
Venkman moved faster than Frump could see. Next thing he knew, Venkman had a butcher knife from the nearby block in his hand. Frump fell back a pace and leveled his pistol at the Ghostbuster's chest. "That was stupid, Venkman. Even for you. Just put it down nice and slow."
Venkman sighed and rolled his eyes. "Don't worry, Frump. I'm not gonna stick you. I just figure this would be easier than arguing with you all night."
The inspector gasped as the blade plunged down-into Venkman's chest at the perfect angle to hit the heart. He lunged forward only to be brought up short by a iron hard grip on his shoulder.
"Damn, that smarts!"
Frump tore his eyes from the knife imbedded in the psychologist's chest to the arm holding him. Venkman's arm was rock steady. He didn't seem to be having much difficulty holding him or talking with eight inches of stainless steel in his ribcage. Reluctantly, Frump looked up at Venkman's face. All color had drained from his skin, leaving it ashen white save for blackened lips and two sooty streaks that ran vertically across each eye. He...it... whatever he was, gave Frump a death's head grin.
"You wanna pull it out and check, Doubting Thomas?"
The taunt pulled Frump out of his shock. No two ways about it. Venkman was more irritating dead than he was alive. The inspector reached up with his free hand and yanked the blade out with a savage jerk.
Venkman held open the slash in his shirt to expose the wound as it closed in on itself, leaving a thin coating of ashy material behind. Frump looked down at the knife, which was also coated in the black ash, the same ash they had found all over Venkman's coffin. Part of Frump wanted to go into hysterics, but it was quickly overridden by the part that didn't want to give Venkman the satisfaction of knowing how creeped out he was.
"Okay," he finally said, shrugging off Venkman's hand. "So you really are dead."
Venkman gave a brittle laugh as he stepped back and slid up on the counter to sit on it. "As they would say in The Wizard of Oz, I am not merely dead. I'm really quite sincerely dead."
Frump scowled and tossed the knife into the sink with as much nonchalance as he could muster. "So, corpse boy, if you're dead, what the hell are you doing in my apartment?"
With a cold gleam in his eyes, the Ghostbuster leaned back against the overhead cabinet. "I'm also really quite sincerely pissed. Do you blame me?"
"Oh, I get it," Frump said sarcastically. He gave the gun in his hand a glance, then holstered it. "You went and rose from the grave for revenge. Nothin' doin', pal. That's not how we do things in my city. You can just trot back off to the Great Beyond. I'll catch the bastards who did this to you, and we'll let the courts deal with them."
Venkman sighed and gave the detective a look of unbridled disgust. "Come on, Frump. Do you think I would have come back if you could deal with the creeps on those terms?"
A raucous caw came from the window, seemingly in agreement with the Ghostbuster. Frump glanced over to see an enormous crow land on the sill. "Those are the terms the living deal with," he said stubbornly. "And you'd better not interfere with my investigation or-"
"Or you'll what?" Venkman interrupted. "You'll kill me? Lock me up? Quite frankly, Frumpy, if I want to interfere there's not a damn thing you can do to me."
Venkman's skin had returned to a more normal color, but Frump kept seeing the grave mask in his mind. He had an uneasy feeling Venkman was right. Silence stretched out as he tried to figure out a good come-back for that.
"As much as I enjoy your company," Venkman said, laying on the sarcasm with a verbal trowel. "I didn't come back from the grave just so I could drop by for a friendly chat. I want some information."
"I don't give a fuck what you want, Venkman, dead or alive."
"Nice. You kiss your mother with that mouth?" Venkman smiled thinly and leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees. "We can always do this the hard way, if you insist. But the easy way is much less messy to clean up after."
Frump swallowed hard. Without even trying, he could see the replay of that knife plunging into Venkman's chest. It wasn't much of a stretch to imagine it stabbing into his own heart, with Venkman's dead smile behind it. "I always knew you were a cold-blooded son of a bitch, Venkman. Thanks for proving me right."
"Frump, I'm not sure if what I've got in my veins even qualifies as blood. But 'cold,' I'll give you." He shrugged. "Now, about that information-"
"Go to hell."
"Maybe later." Venkman rose to a crouch, black shoes balancing easily on the battered Formica countertop. "For now, I want to know what you've got on the creeps who attacked us."
"Get used to disappointment." Despite himself, Frump edged back, only stopping when his hip hit the table behind him. He'd be damned if he was giving Venkman anything, even the fact that none of his leads had panned out. "You expect me to give you names and watch the punks turn up as freshly minted corpses? It doesn't work that way."
The Ghostbuster shook his head. "As much as I'd like to string the bastards up by their balls and feed them to terror dogs, that's not my priority."
Frump forced a sneer. "And just what is your priority, ?"
Venkman looked back at him with eyes gone as hard as diamonds. "The guys. Whoever offed me is going after them. Their safety is my only priority-and it had damn well better become yours."
"I'm a cop, not a bodyguard."
"Something happens to my buddies, you're dead meat. That's a promise."
"You threatening me, Venkman?" Frump growled, instinctively reaching for his gun. He didn't know what good it'd do against whatever Venkman had become, but he wasn't going down without a fight .
The gesture seemed to amuse Venkman, who shook his head. "Warning you."
Frump forced his hand away from his holster. "How magnanimous of you."
"Isn't it? Enjoy it while it lasts." Venkman bared his teeth. Frump would've had to be suicidal to mistake it for a smile. "Co-operation could have its benefits. Think it over, Frump. Next time we meet, I may not be in such a generous mood."
Frump made himself turn his back on the Ghostbuster as he shrugged out of his sportscoat and slung it over the back of one of the kitchen chairs.
"Yeah, I'm quakin' in my booties, Venkman. The day I can't handle a snot-nosed punk like you, dead or alive, is the day I hand in my -" He turned back, only to find he was talking to an empty kitchen. "-badge."
Frump refused to acknowledge the trembling of the hand he used to slam down the window and twist the lock. He yanked the curtains closed, then went through the apartment and turned on all the lights. He made sure the door was secure. Then he sank down onto one of the kitchen chairs. His gun on the table before him, he took out his notebook and stared blindly at his scrawled handwriting.
Here were all the notes he'd made on every futile interview, every possible lead since this damned case had fallen in his lap. All of which had come to nothing. There had to be something he wasn't seeing, something he'd missed. He was going to find it…and damn Venkman to hell where he belonged. He began to read.
It was a long time until morning.
Chapter 10: Creatures of the Night
This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.
-T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men
It was the witching hour in New York. The Big Apple might be "the city that never sleeps," but the circadian rhythm of any metropolis has its low point. With midnight past and a long, dark time until dawn ahead, this was the hour of the die-hard and the desperate. The dark underbelly of the city crawled to the surface. It reigned supreme in areas where the eternal neon had not yet reached and, even now, lurked around the edges of each decadent oasis, waiting like a tiger at a waterhole for the unwary.
And through these streets where light only served to spawn more shadows walked a man who was no longer a man.
Frump's apartment was now at least eight city blocks behind him, and Peter had slowed his break-neck pace to a walk. It was amazing how much ground a man could cover when he didn't get tired. He could keep running and be back at the firehouse long before sunrise, but Peter was reluctant to return so quickly. He needed to think. His little demonstration for the detective had been necessary and even somewhat entertaining but, now that the thrill of the moment was past, Peter found himself shaken to his soul by what he had just done. He absently fingered the slit in his shirt where he had plunged the knife in as he paced along slowly. He was back. Back from the dead, back with his friends, but at the same time, he was more separated from them than ever. He was cut off from humanity as a whole by his abilities, by the waiting darkness in his heart, by his loss of the little things that defined living itself. Simple, essential pleasures: eating, sleeping, being able to touch another without fear of the consequences.
No two ways about it. He was a freak.
The crow fluttered overhead and landed on a lamp post as Peter stopped and glared up at it. "Is this the price Dad was talking about?" he asked, bitterly. "Thanks so much for showing me the contract after I signed it."
The crow gazed down on him with a look tinged with a trace of sympathy and cawed softly as if to say, Would it have made a difference?
Peter shoved his hands into his pockets and continued stalking down the sidewalk. No, it wouldn't have made a difference. If this was the only way he could save the guys from what was surely coming, he would have taken the chance and damned the consequences. But it still burned.
With a resigned sigh, Peter turned his mind back to the important issue, finding out who the hell was responsible for the attack and fixing it so that his friends would never be threatened by them again. Frump hadn't given him anything, but the door had been opened. Once Peter had found something he could toss to the detective, he'd come around. The police did this all the time with informants. Maybe they could deal with the bastards through the proper authorities (with a little help, of course), but he wasn't counting on it. In the meantime, he needed to get home. Peter realized with a sinking spirit that he couldn't afford to move around openly once day came. After all, he was officially dead. News that a murdered Ghostbuster had risen from the grave would make headlines across the city in no time, and publicity would not be helpful in tracking down his targets.
"Great," he muttered to himself. "I'm a creature of the night whether I like it or not. Move over, Batman."
A warning cry from the crow caught his attention and, once again, the bird's vision overlaid his in a bizarre parallax. He saw himself walking down the street...and a little way behind him, two shadows emerged from the alley. Peter looked ahead and saw a stirring in the shadow of a doorway. A team of muggers, he realized, and they were moving in to surround him.
Ordinarily, it would have been time for some evasive maneuvers, but Peter found himself slowing and finally coming to a stop. The furious darkness in his heart surged forward and, this time, he let it come. Here was a legitimate target for that cold violence. Better to loose it here where it would only hurt people who had had it coming for a long time: those who preyed on the weak, the helpless, the innocents who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. A feral smile pulled at his lips and Peter knew that, hidden by the shadow he had paused in, his death-mask had come to the fore. He heard the men behind him stop a few feet away. The one ahead of him seemed to hesitate, puzzled by Peter's behavior, but took the last couple of steps to where he was a little more than arm distance from his target. The mugger gestured meaningfully with the switchblade in his hand.
"Okay, buddy. I think you know the drill," the punk said. "Time to pay your street rent."
Peter took half a step forward, just enough out of the shadows to where the mugger could see him clearly. His lips parted into a friendly grin made chillingly grotesque by the markings.
"So sorry," he said with mock regret. "I'm afraid I left my wallet in my other pants."
The punk was unimpressed. "Great, we've got a goth comedian," he sneered. "Let me put it this way, Marilyn Manson. Either you cough up some green, or you'll be coughing up your own blood."
Peter glanced behind him at the other two attackers. The one on his right had a switchblade of his own. The other was brandishing a telescoping, steel baton known as an Asp. Peter felt the dark tide of anger cresting within him, but decided to give the muggers at least one warning.
"Come on, guys. Believe me, you don't want to do this."
"Your funeral, retard," said the man with the Asp, and he brought it whistling down in a blow meant to smash Peter in the temple.
But Peter wasn't there. Quick as a shadow, Peter stepped toward his attacker, catching the arm and hand that wielded the weapon and driving the palm of his free hand into the man's nose with resounding crack. As the thug staggered back, blood streaming down his face, Peter deftly twisted the baton from his hand and spun to face the man's partner who was lunging in with his knife. Peter sidestepped with an ease that was almost ridiculous. He laughed out loud as he turned and gave the mugger enough added momentum to send him crashing into a lamp post.
"Owww, that's gotta hurt!" he said sardonically and turned back to the remaining mugger. "Hope you boys have a good insurance plan."
The dark fury was singing in him now, transmuting to near ecstasy. He twirled his captured baton in a small circle, then lunged forward. The punk tried to dodge but was far too slow. Peter switched his weapon to a reversed grip in his left hand and drove the butt of it into the mugger's gut. The man bent forward, all air driven forcefully from his lungs and Peter's fist met his jaw with a wicked right cross. The attacker fell to the concrete, nearly unconscious.
Peter felt something impact his back and lance completely through him with a dull, fleeting pain, followed quickly by two more of the same. He looked down to see three additional, ragged holes in his shirt and the exit wounds of some high caliber bullets in his chest. He turned around slowly and looked at the mugger he'd thrown into the lamp post. The man's right arm hung limp, likely from a broken collar bone, but his left hand held a smoking, automatic pistol. The look of smug triumph on his face transmuted to horror when Peter not only failed to fall over, but shook his head and walked toward him.
"Oh, shit," Peter said scornfully. "Please don't tell me you're that stupid."
The man panicked and tried to fire again, but Peter didn't give him the chance. He leapt forward, quicker than any of them could see, and brought the Asp crashing down on the man's forearm. The mugger screamed as the bones snapped. He dropped the gun and stumbled away. Behind Peter, the other two were beating a hasty retreat. Peter let them go. He glanced up at the lamp post where the crow now perched. The bird gave him an approving caw, and Peter smirked.
"Well," he said, "if I'm stuck being a freak, I might as well play it for all it's worth."
He started to toss the baton away, but some inner prompting stopped him. Instead, he collapsed the Asp and put it in his pocket. He glanced at the gun lying on the concrete for a moment and contemplated taking it as well.
Nahhh, he finally said to himself It's probably hot, and been used in other robberies. Last thing I need is for someone else's dirty work to be linked to me.
He looked down at the state of his clothes. The dinner jacket and slacks had definitely not been designed with street fighting in mind and probably would have been totaled without the big, gaping bullet holes.
"Looks like I need a better wardrobe if I'm gonna do this Night Avenger job," he quipped.
The crow croaked again, spread its wings and glided down to the sidewalk where it nudged something with its beak. Peter went over to investigate. It seemed that the gunslinger had been packing more than heat. A large roll of bills held together with a rubber band lay against the post. Peter reluctantly picked it up, and, after a moment, put it in his pocket. Money from thefts, drug deals, who knows what else. It would be pretty much impossible to locate the other victims and return it, so he might as well use it. He wasn't going to ask the guys to bankroll him. Not now.
A distant siren brought all his senses to full alert. Looked like someone had finally reported the gunshots.
Peter sprinted to the nearest alley and took a flying leap, snagging the first landing of a fire escape and hauling himself up. Moving with a silence which still amazed him, he scaled the stairs and took off across the top of the roofs. He hurtled the gaps between them, his fear of heights forgotten or submerged for the moment.
Overhead, the crow soared on the air currents. There was still a few hours until dawn. Just enough time to get outfitted and get home. He had more than enough money, and Peter didn't think the locks, alarms and security cameras of the stores were going to be a problem.
Chapter 11: Long Night
On the royal road to Thebes
I had my luck, I met a lovely monster,
And the story's this: I made the monster me.
- Stanley Kunitz
The crow had departed, going back to whatever dimension freaky ass birds like it haunted, leaving Peter to tuck away his new acquisitions for later. The guys were still asleep, unaware of his wanderings, and he intended to keep it that way. No sense adding to their worries, right? Left to his own devices once more, Peter changed out of his ruined clothing and tossed the evidence of his adventure in the trash. That task accomplished, he found himself prowling the firehouse in search of something to fill the time until morning.
It was amazing just how long a night was when you didn't sleep, didn't even get tired. He had no desire for a late-night snack or even a lousy glass of water. There were no bodily functions for him to attend to, no reason to stretch out on the four-poster bed when he was denied the surcease of dreams. There was only memory to occupy him and, at the moment, it was poor company. So he drifted from room to room like a silent phantom, seeking a distraction from his morbid thoughts. He avoided the hot spots in the garage-he wasn't looking to get that distracted-and somehow ended up in the basement alongside the containment unit.
He ran a practiced eye over the tell-tales; everything was in the green. His skin prickled as he stood next to the quietly humming unit, the fine hairs on his arms and at the back of his neck lifting. Tentatively, he reached out a hand and flattened his palm against the warm red metal -and was nearly blown across the room by the psychic backlash. When he scrambled to his feet, his grave mask was firmly in place and every heightened sense was on alert. Psychic hairs were metaphorically standing at attention all over his body, right along with the real ones.
"Holy hell," he breathed, flexing his numb and tingling fingers. His nailbeds were black, his skin bloodless and cold. The look in his green eyes wasn't entirely sane-and what looked out through them wasn't entirely Peter Venkman. In fact, right now, it wasn't Peter Venkman at all. "Brothers and sisters, can you feel the power!"
Cautiously, he approached the containment unit again, careful this time not to make physical contact though he held one hand mere millimeters from the metal. He could feel the spirits trapped inside the unit. Feel them calling to him. He flexed his fingers once more, feeling the inhuman strength of them, feeling the darkness writhing at his fingertips. The darkness wanted to come out and play.
A too-wide smile stretched his black-limned mouth. Eyes glittering with dark amusement, he leaned closer to the containment unit and in a lilting voice whispered, "Not now, children. But, if you're good, you might get a treat later."
He didn't have to look through the viewer to know that the spirits inside the unit were howling for his blood-or, at least, the icy black stuff sitting sluggishly in his veins. They could sense his power, sense the faint scent of life clinging to the human soul within him. And they wanted it. Wanted to feast on blood and power and life and undeath. They wanted what he could give them, even if they had to take it by force. They weren't the first; they wouldn't be the last.
He cocked his head slightly, remembering a night three months ago, a night of painragesorrow. A night of death. A night of rebirth.
He touched his temple, where the bullet hole had been; his chest, where the Y-incision had gaped. Every inch of him was whole again- trauma healed, scars banished by a magic as dark and ancient as death, as timeless as love. Nothing merely mortal could kill this body. Not again. Not as long as they were whole-as long as he was bound to his bird. There were rules, after all. Rules that even his kind obeyed, no matter how they might chafe.
And power like his was definitely not free for the taking. If anyone tried…Well.
His fingers flexed in anticipation and he smiled, a faintly manic gleam in his grave-shadowed eyes. Then they'd see just how much fun playtime could really be.
Slumped over his kitchen table, Frump stared at his case notebook. One hand toyed with a stubby, tooth-marked yellow pencil as he stared at his own cramped handwriting on the page before him. A cold cup of coffee sat forgotten on the table beside him. His shirt sleeves were rolled up to his beefy elbows, his eyes were bloodshot and, sometime around three a.m., his temper had taken a sharp left turn at Albuquerque.
Irritated with direction of his own meandering thoughts, Frump scrubbed his free hand over his face and swallowed a yawn. He was getting punch drunk from lack of sleep, but there was the ghost of an idea haunting the back of his mind and he refused to give up and head for bed until the damn thing was out in the open where he could grab it. There had to be something he was missing, something important. Something he could use to send Peter Venkman back to the grave where he belonged.
Even though the apartment was warm enough, Frump shivered as if from a sudden chill. Try as he might, he couldn't forget their confrontation. Like a recurring nightmare, it kept playing over and over in his mind.
The dead Ghostbuster shoving that fucking butcher knife into his own chest. The bloodless wound closing as Frump watched in horrified disbelief. Venkman's face ghastly white and leering with that gallows grin, something dark and wild lurking behind those ice-green eyes.
Reflexively, Frump glanced again at the window, reassuring himself that it was still tightly closed - and locked. He didn't want any more unexpected pop-ins by obnoxious, reanimated corpses. He wondered sourly if Venkman had dragged himself out of his coffin for the express purpose of making Frump's life miserable. If so, he was doing a damned fine job of it.
Icy talons raked his spine as the reality hit him all over again.
A dead man had stood in this kitchen and threatened him.
Knives didn't work against a dead man; guns were probably little better. Maybe the department should start issuing crucifixes and silver bullets as standard equipment. Or would even that ward off something like the unholy monster Venkman had become? Certainly Frump's badge and the threat of jail time would no longer suffice as deterents. How the fuck was he suppposed to protect himself -protect his city- from something that wouldn't stay dead? And what was he going to do if it decided to come after him for real?
For the first time in a very long time, Frump was afraid. And that pissed him off.
Bile and hatred rose in his throat, but it was the bile alone that made him bolt for the sink. When he had coughed up the last bitter dregs of his coffee, he rinsed his mouth with tepid, chemical-tasting water from the tap - and damned Peter Venkman to hell.
Chapter 12: What Am I?
It is extraordinary how the house and the simplest possessions of someone who has been left become so quickly sordid. Even the stain on the coffee cup seems not coffee but the physical manifestation of one's inner stain, the fatal blot that from the beginning had marked one for ultimate aloneness.
In the eastern windows, the sky was just lighting up with the rising sun when Peter wandered back into the TV room, plopped down onto the sofa, grabbed the remote, and began flipping through the channels. With a vague sense of horror he discovered that early a.m. television programming consisted almost exclusively of talk shows, infomercials, and ancient reruns. He stumbled across a black and white show that featured cardboard tombstones and rubber bats on very visible strings. For a few minutes, he amused himself by playing "spot the boom mike."
When the novelty wore off, he switched off the set and tossed the remote back onto the coffee table. He sat for a moment, dreading the coming day. Then the realization hit him. Every day, every night, was going to be as long as the one he had just endured - longer, if he had to spend it cooped up in the firehouse where he couldn't be spotted by the public at large. He shuddered. It was sobering to realize how much time there really was to fill every day when you were denied such basic human activities as eating and sleeping. Not wanting to think about it any more, he shot to his feet and began prowling the room again.
Briefly, he pondered the stereo. But music, too, lacked appeal. Maybe reading would take his mind off things for awhile... Crossing the room to one of the firehouse's many bookcases, he idly ran his fingers over the spines of the books packed sardine-like into the shelves lining the wall-psych, physics, and engineering texts stuffed cheek-to-jowl with assorted Westerns, mysteries, and esoteric volumes of occult lore. The familiar jumble barely registered at first. Then it hit him: all of his books, from Abnormal Psychology to The Brackett Brand, were still there, just as all his clothes were still in his closet, all his junk was still piled in the office downstairs.
Nothing had changed.
Everything had changed.
A sudden, unexpected pain made him glance down at his hands. He was surprised to find his fingers curled tightly, short nails digging into his palms deeply enough to draw blood. He forced his hands open and watched sourly as the crescent-shaped wounds healed between one blink and the next. There was no trace of injury, not even blood.. Only fleeting pain and a faint residue of black ash marked where the wounds had been. Disgusted, he wiped his hands on his pants, eliminating the latest evidence that he wasn't the man he used to be. Hell, he wasn't sure he was any kind of man, now. Except the dead kind.
He found himself staring at the neat rows of books, unwanted reminders of the life he had lost. Their sheer normality mocked him. Suddenly, it was more than he could bear. The ever-present darkness, lurking beneath the surface of his emotions, swirled up and out, crashing through the thin barrier of his self-control.
Face locked in an angry rictus, a wordless snarl vibrating in his throat, he tore at the books, sent them crashing to the floor until the shelves were empty and his hands closed impotently on bare wood. Only then did he stop, panting with fury, and survey his handiwork. The former contents of the bookcase lay scattered at his feet, an unholy mess-rather like the one inside his head.
Way to go, Dr. Venkman, he thought, eyeing the aftermath of his tantrum- and the black streaks bleeding up into his nails from the nailbed. That seemed to be happening a lot lately, as did these bursts of temper. Tear up the firehouse and turn into a freaking undead mime. Next thing you know, you'll be doing that 'walking against the wind' shit and then…well, there's really no hope for you, then.
Suddenly weary beyond words, he slumped against the shelf and rested his forehead on the wood. He could feel the darkness boiling inside him. The relief he had felt when fighting the muggers had been an all-too-temporary thing. Maybe he should go play with Frump again… No, not even that smug bastard deserved what Peter's darkness wanted to do to him.
"Pete? You okay, man?"
Peter tensed, instinctively ducking his head further as he straightened just enough to cross his arms and tuck his hands out of sight beneath them. He didn't want Winston to see him like this. The first time, with Egon, had been bad enough; he didn't really think he was up for a repeat performance. He forced the unpleasant memory away as he fought to get himself back under control.
"Winston. Hey," Peter said finally. "Just doin' a little light reading."
"Yeah, looks like it," Winston said dryly, surveying the damage.
One shoulder lifted in a shrug, Peter shuffled his feet, sending books skittering across the floor. "You know how it is, Zed. I couldn't pick just one."
"Uh-huh." Winston shook his head. "What really happened? Looks like a bookmobile exploded in here."
Peter risked a glance at him. When Winston merely returned the look, Peter realized with a surge of relief that his appearance had returned to normal. "Sorry I woke you."
"No sweat, man." Winston surveyed the pile of books at their feet. With a minute shake of his head, he reached out to settle a hand on Peter's shoulder. "C'mon, I'll help you clean this mess up and we'll-"
Instinctively, Peter shied away from the contact. He regretted it immediately, as the other Ghostbuster stared at him in surprise.
"Pete? What is it? Did I hurt you?"
"You were never this skittish before," Winston said, gaze narrowing, though whether with suspicion or concern (or a little of both), Peter was uncertain.
Peter gritted his teeth, still struggling with his inner darkness. He wasn't sure he was winning. "Let's just say that invading Dr. Venkman's personal space is not exactly a winning survival strategy and leave it at that. Okay?"
He knelt and started gathering up books, slapping them on the shelves with more force than was strictly necessary.
"Say what? I know that wasn't what it sounded like, so why don't you tell me exactly what it was?" Winston's tone brooked no argument.
Peter turned back to the mess on the floor, grabbed another book and shoved it into place. No way he was getting out of this with anything less than full disclosure. He sighed. It was disconcerting that he had to draw in a breath specifically for that purpose. He pulled in another lungful of air so he could speak, but his voice still sounded thin and strange to his ears. "No, it wasn't a threat."
"I didn't think you were that stupid. So, what was it?"
Peter shelved the last of his Westerns and slumped to sit on the floor, his back against the bookcase. "Sometimes, I …see things." He thumped his bent knee lightly with his fist. "Images, visions, whatever. They're psychic impressions of strong emotions, mostly. When I touch certain things or..."
"Yeah." He swiped a hand over his face, raked his fingers through his hair, then dared to meet the other man's dark gaze. "Nothing personal, okay?"
"I was beginning to wonder," Winston said with a strained attempt at lightening the mood. "The only time you haven't jumped away from me was when you pulled that Max Headroom stunt on me."
"Yeah. Sorry about that. And this." Peter shrugged sheepishly. "Things were weird enough without me bringing my personal Psychic Friends Network to the table."
Winston squinted at him. "Funny. You don't look a thing like Dionne Warwick."
In spite of himself, Peter laughed. It wasn't that funny and, frankly, it wasn't much of a laugh. But after a second Winston's smirk split into a full-blown grin and the two of them settled into a companionable silence as they reshelved the books.
By the time the other Ghostbusters awoke, Peter and Winston had breakfast ready and waiting for them. Ray expressed surprise, not only at seeing Peter up before anyone else but also for the fact that he had cooked. Egon simply looked at the food, then turned on his heel and disappeared into the lab. Winston heaved a long-suffering sigh, grabbed some toast and a glass of orange juice, and pursued him.
When they had eaten, the others joined Egon in the lab. The empty juice glass sat forgotten on the table beside his computer and he had apparently eaten all the toast. Peter wondered briefly if that meant Egon had decided Peter wasn't trying to poison any of them or if Egon had just been so absorbed in his work that he forgot who had prepared the food. Now, Egon was deeply absorbed in something on the screen before him. When the others made their presence known, he directed Peter to a nearby stool and grabbed a PKE meter.
More tests. Peter could scarcely contain his joy. The sarcasm seemed to be spilling over a bit, too.
Slouching on the metal stool while Egon pointed the PKE meter at him for what felt like the one-millionth time, Peter reminded himself that all this testing was a good thing. No matter how bored and uncomfortable he was. He was just as eager to prove his identity to the guys as they were to have it proved and it would be a relief to finally have an answer to the burning question of the hour: exactly what had Peter Venkman become?
Egon "hmmed" as he tinkered with the dials on a PKE meter. Slouching against the nearest surface -which happened to be Ray, who patiently bore the extra weight- Peter asked in a bored drawl, "Was that a good 'hmm' or a bad 'hmm'?"
"Hmm?" Distracted, the physicist didn't even look up from his task.
Peter clapped a hand to his forehead and groaned. "You're killing me, here, Egon."
Belatedly, he realized what he had said, clued in by the sudden stillness around him. "Oops. Sorry, guys. Poor choice of words."
Ray gave Peter a shove, forcing him back upright, and Winston rolled his eyes. Egon pretended to ignore him. At least, Peter hoped he was pretending. He sighed. "Look, I know it's…awkward. But we might as well face facts. I'm among the vitally-challenged, the living-impaired. I have wrung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. If I weren't nailed to the perch, I'd be pushing up daisies."
"Maybe you're just pining for the fjords," Ray said, grinning a little.
Peter grinned back, though it quickly faded. "I know it's not what any of us, least of all me, want to hear, but- I'm dead, guys. Ignoring that little tidbit isn't gonna make it go away. The only real question is what species of spook I am."
"Definitely not a Norwegian Blue." Egon delivered the line with such dry matter-of-factness, it was a moment before Peter realized the physicist had made a joke. From the looks on Ray and Winston's faces, they were just as surprised as he was. Egon didn't seem to realize what he had done, and Peter had no intention of calling his attention to it and ruining the moment.
"I think I may have narrowed it down a bit," Egon said, retrieving a PKE meter and adjusting the display to show the readings the device had stored in its memory. "Ray, I've gone over all the readings you recorded at the cemetery. Were you aware that, in addition to the spectral traces, the meter registered the opening of a minor transdimensional crossrip?"
"Wow! Really?" Ray's eyes lit up with the excitement of scientific discovery. He took the meter and began fiddling with it as Egon had. "Let me see!"
"Want to let the rest of us in on the fun, Egon?" Winston asked. "We didn't see anything like a 'rip, but we were pretty busy with…other things at the time."
"According to the readings, the crossrip was quite small - perhaps less than 2 meters across-and it was only open briefly. The odd thing is-" Egon paused and shot a questioning glance at Ray. "Do you recall exactly where you were when you took the readings?"
"Just at the grave, Egon. We didn't go anywhere else." Funny how much easier the words came now that Peter was back with them. Ray turned to show the others the information on the small screen. "Look at this, guys! Isn't it great?"
"Sure, Ray." Peter rolled his eyes indulgently. "It'd be even greater if you would tell us what we're looking at."
"This particular dimensional crossrip does not seem to have originated in the Netherworld," Egon explained. "The energy signature is different from that normally associated with portals into that particular dimension. It's unlike anything we've encountered before."
Winston's eyes narrowed in thought. "So, if Peter came through the crossrip…"
"…He didn't come from the Netherworld!" Ray concluded, bouncing happily on his toes.
"Heck, I could have told you that. I came from…" Peter trailed off, his expression turning thoughtful. Someone had said something about that, hadn't they? He could almost hear the voice… Then it came to him, and his eyes darkened with the memory. "I was in the land of the dead. With my dad."
"The land of the dead? You mean…like heaven?" Winston asked cautiously.
Peter shook his head. "More like…a waystation. Limbo, maybe. There was this strange bridge…"
"The bridge between life and death!"
They all looked at Ray. Winston said, "I thought that was just a metaphor."
"Maybe it is. Doesn't mean it can't be real, too." A knock from downstairs interrupted him. "I'll get it!" Ray called as he dashed out the doorway.
Winston grinned. "Man, I've missed seeing that…" Then a new thought struck him and the grin vanished. "Uh, maybe I'd better go make sure he doesn't forget and take on a client or something. We're not exactly ready to go on a bust right now."
With a grin tugging at the corners of his own mouth, Peter watched Winston race after Ray. Yep, there was something right with his world when Ray was bouncing around like an enthusiastic five-year-old. Turning, he caught Egon watching him.
"I have also analyzed your psychokinetic energy readings," Egon said slowly. "They do not match those of any Netherworld entity which we have encountered before."
"Makes sense," Peter said. "Since I'm not from the Netherworld, I mean." He studied the other man's still, almost expressionless features. "You thought I was a demon."
"It did seem the most likely explanation."
Cautiously, Peter said, "But… you don't think that, now?"
"No. The readings-"
"Readings, shmeadings!" Peter threw his hands up in the air. "Damn it, Egon, what do I have to do? Rip out my heart and lay on the table for you?" Despite the angry words, Peter's eyes held more sorrow than ire.
"I assure you I have no need to inspect your viscera-"
"Oh, but I think you do!" Peter snapped. "You need to see my insides spread out so you can inspect them for the 'made in hell' label. Only it's not gonna be there, Egon, because I've been telling you the truth right from the beginning. I'm me-"
"-not some refugee from the Netherworld, and furthermore-" Peter faltered, as his brain caught up with his ears. "What?"
"I said, 'I know.'" Egon's gaze had settled on a point just above and beyond Peter's left ear, as if he couldn't quite bring himself to match Peter's gaze with his own. "I think a part of me knew right away, but…I couldn't bring myself to acknowledge it. The implications -"
"Egon!" Exasperation and relief warred briefly in Peter's expression. Cautiously, he looked up at Egon, brown hair shadowing his eyes. "…You really know it's me?"
"Yes, Peter. In fact, some of the readings show a remarkable similarity to your normal biorhythms, though overshadowed by a strong spectral signature, which should not be possible considering your current state of-"
"Spengs." Peter looked as if he didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He opted for shaking his head and settling a soft smile on his friend. "Now I know I'm home."
Before Egon could respond, the sound of three voices raised in argument echoed up the stairwell and shortly the other two Ghostbusters appeared at a gallop behind an irate Inspector Frump, who was moving at a surprisingly fast clip for such a large man. Egon shot a frantic look at Peter, obviously calculating whether or not to try and shove him under the workbench or behind a filing cabinet before he was spotted. But Frump had already barreled through the open door, and his beady gaze was focused unerringly on Peter.
"Sorry, guys," Ray panted, bending double and resting his hands on his knees. Three months of no ghostbusting had left him a bit out of shape. "We tried to stop him!"
"Don't worry about it, Ray," Peter said. "Inspector Frump and I have already gotten reacquainted."
"What?" All three of his friends favored him with glares that were variations on the theme of "how could you be so stupid?".
"Jeez, Pete," Winston muttered, wiping a hand over his brow. "Thought you had more sense than that."
Ray and Egon's admonitions overlapped. "Peter! What if somebody saw you?" "What on earth possessed you to risk-"
"Shut up, all of you!" Frump didn't seem too thrilled to be back at Ghostbusters' Central. In fact, he looked eager to say his piece and be on his way as quickly as possible. "I didn't come here to listen to you clowns argue." He spotted Peter and his expression darkened even further. He growled, "Venkman."
"Hey, Frump. Should you be out without a keeper?" Peter said, taking in the detective's disheveled appearance with a moue of distaste. "You look like something no self-respecting cat would drag in on a bet. What did you do, sleep in your clothes?"
Frump glowered at Peter, then surreptitiously attempted to smooth the wrinkles out of his jacket. He didn't have much success, which did nothing to improve his already volatile mood. "This how you greet the man bringing you valuable information? Not exactly getting on my good side, dead boy."
"You found something new on the case?" Egon asked quickly, before Peter could respond to Frump in kind.
"Looks that way." Frump's expression was unreadable as he studied Peter. "What's the matter, Venkman? Bird got your tongue?"
"I've got a bird for you-" Peter began, lazily raising a hand to demonstrate.
Hastily, Winston intervened. "What's this new information, Inspector?"
"Yeah, Frumpy. Don't keep us in suspense."
Frump snarled. "If you don't shut yer trap, Venkman-"
"What?" Peter's eyes glittered dangerously. "You're not going to do anything to me, and you know it. You're too scared I'll come rapping at your chamber door, again."
With an inarticulate roar, Frump lunged at Peter.
Chapter 13: Miscalculations
The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.
- Joseph Conrad
The almost negligent ease with which Peter side-stepped Frump's headlong charge surprised the others and gave Peter a rather nasty sense of satisfaction. So did the resounding thud Frump made as he crashed into the filing cabinets against the wall. Snarling, the detective rebounded, turning swiftly and swinging a ham-fist at Peter's head. Peter ducked aside, pivoted, and came up behind his attacker. He reached over and tapped Frump on the shoulder.
Without hesitation, Frump drove his fist at Peter's nose. With an indignant yelp of "Not the face!", Peter once again slipped gracefully out of harm's way.
"Stand still, you little fuck!" Frump roared. Panting with a combination of rage and exertion and looking as if he was on the verge of apoplexy, the detective shook an impotent fist at his tormentor as Peter backed smoothly away.
Peter was enjoying himself entirely too much. He watched a large vein throb in Frump's temple and felt himself smirking with satisfaction. In that moment, he realized he had provoked the detective in the hopes of achieving a physical altercation - and the knowledge brought him up short. As much as it pained him to admit it, Frump wasn't a legitimate target.
The thing inside him writhed with disappointment as Peter forced it back into the shadows and himself away from the policeman. Lucky for Frump he hadn't actually managed to land a blow; Peter didn't think his alter ego would have let that slide quite so easily. Frump glared at him as Peter backed up until they were on opposite sides of the lab. The others watched in various states of astonishment.
"You here for a particular reason, Frump, or did you just miss me?" Peter asked, striving for a conciliatory tone, but unable to keep the edge from his voice. He forced himself to lean casually against the wall behind him while every taut muscle in his body urged him back into Frump's personal space. He pressed his shoulder blades into the plaster and folded his arms, his fingers curling into the soft black fabric of his shirt.
The muscles in Frump's jaw worked for several seconds before he found his voice. "So help me, Venkman- If you weren't already dead, I'd murder you myself."
"That's what I like about you, Frump. You're always ready with a kind word and a cheerful smile for everyone. You're an inspiration to us all."
Frump's hands clenched, as did his teeth. He ground out between them, "I don't have to take this shit. Especially from somebody who ought to be taking a dirt nap." From an inner pocket of his rumpled jacket, he pulled out a folded sheet of printer paper, crumpled it, and flung it in Peter's general direction. "There's your information. I hope you choke on it."
The wadded up paper bounced off Peter's chest. Frump didn't stick around to watch it hit the floor. Shoving past a startled Ray, Frump was almost at the door when he hesitated. He shot a narrow look at Peter, who hadn't moved a muscle since deciding to prop up the wall, and snarled, "Come near me again, you freak, and I'll give your pasty face a thirty-two caliber makeover."
"Ooh. Color me intimidated."
Peter didn't sound afraid. If anything, he sounded bored, which only served to heighten the detective's fury. Frump scowled over his shoulder at the others. "Do your dead buddy a favor and send him back to whatever hell he came from. And, this time, cremate his sorry ass!"
Frump stalked through the open door, his heavy footsteps thudding down the hall and onto the stairs, leaving behind three stunned Ghostbusters and one sullen-looking Peter Venkman.
Winston frowned at him, then shook his head. "I'd better go lock the door after him," he said wearily, and trudged after Frump.
"Boy. He sure was mad!" Ray observed, more to himself than the others. "Peter, that wasn't very nice, what you just did."
Peter closed his eyes briefly, and let his chin drop toward his chest, his tumbled brown hair hiding his expression from their curious, worried eyes. He shifted his weight onto one shoulder, twisting his body slightly away from them. After a moment, he sighed.
"I know," he said. Lifting his head, he directed his gaze toward the window. "I'm not very nice, Ray."
Before Ray could frame the protest Peter could imagine forming on his friend's lips, Egon demanded, "When exactly did you pay a call on Inspector Frump, Peter? And what possible reason could you have had in what I shall laughingly refer to as your mind for putting yourself at risk by doing something so foolish?"
"Last night after you guys went to bed." Peter kept his eyes focused on the window. His voice was soft, if somewhat strained. A minute shrug, the merest lifting of one shoulder. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. It's not like he could hurt me."
"Perhaps not," Egon conceded reluctantly, though his tone remained stern. "But what about the ones who did this to you? Perhaps not the gunman-you seem to possess a remarkable healing ability and you've just demonstrated heretofore unsuspected martial prowess. But what about the specters who were the man's accomplices? Should you encounter them again, could you handle them as easily as you did Frump?"
Thinking back to last night's escapades, Peter had a feeling he could. Oh, an ectoplasmic entity might prove more of a challenge than Frumpy or those clueless wastes of skin who had tried to mug him, but he guessed he could hold his own pretty well against whatever the Netherworld might throw at him. A darker part of him was eager to give it a shot.
Peter shook himself, forcing his shadow-self back. "Maybe you have a point, Egon. But-"
"No 'buts', Peter!" Egon interrupted. "Even if you do not encounter your…murderers… you must still be circumspect. The last thing we need is to find your face splashed across the tabloids under some ludicrous headline."
Peterhad already figured that one out for himself. "Yeah, Egon, I hear you. But I can't just hide out here." He shifted uneasily, only too aware of their stares burning holes in his back. "There are things I have to do."
"You don't want to know." Knowing he couldn't put it off any longer, Peter turned to face them. "Sure, I got a ticket back to the land of the living, but it's not a free ride. When the conductor comes to collect, I gotta pay my dues."
Winston had returned in time to hear this last. He demanded, "What kind of 'dues' are we talking about here, Pete? Loose change-or your immortal soul?"
That wrung a stunted laugh from him. "That's the question, isn't it?" All traces of mirth vanished. "I think I know why I'm here."
Now that he had their undivided attention, Peter smiled grimly. "I'm here to make sure that what happened to me doesn't happen to you guys. And to make sure the creeps who did this don't ever get the chance to do it again. To anyone."
"And how, exactly, do you know all this?" Egon asked cautiously. There was something wild in the green depths of Peter's eyes, something dark.
"A little bird told me."
There was a sharp caw from the window. Four pairs of eyes turned to stare at the huge black bird perched on the sill. Peter frowned at the crow. "Speak of the devil…"
"I take it the two of you are acquainted?" Egon asked, reaching surreptitiously for the discarded PKE meter. Turning off the alarm so as not to startle the crow, he switched the instrument on. Both eyebrows climbed into his hairline as the needle shot up on the display. Class nine…
"You could say that." Peter studied his feathered 'friend' with a jaundiced eye. "You know, Edgar, we've really got to stop meeting like this. People will talk."
The bird was not amused. Peter didn't know how he could be so sure of that-it was a bird, for cryin' out loud!-but there was no doubt in his mind that it was an accurate assessment. The crow launched itself from the window sill, gliding the short distance to where he stood and giving him no choice but to either extend an arm for it to land on or end up with a faceful of razor-sharp talons.
"Oof!" Peter winced as those same talons dug sharply into his arm through the sleeve of his shirt. "Anyone ever tell you you're awfully heavy for a bird? Might want to cut back on the birdseed or whatever the hell crows eat."
"Carrion," Egon said distractedly. He was still staring at the meter. "Crows are carrion-eaters."
"Oh, lovely." Peter eyed the bird balancing placidly on his forearm. "Care for a breath mint?"
The crow gave Peter a look that he had absolutely no difficulty in translating, then fluttered to the floor, where it pecked at the crumpled ball of paper Frump had thrown at him. Oh, yeah. He had almost forgotten about that…
Peter bent and scooped up the paper, smoothing it carefully so that he could read what was printed on it. He frowned at the short list of names, addresses and dates. The dates were all the same. Then he saw what had been scrawled below them in Frump's cramped handwriting. Eyes dark with fury, he looked at the crow. It stared back at him and in its ancient, fathomless gaze he saw the truth.
"Peter? What is it?" Ray's voice seemed to come from a great distance, the space between them as wide as the gulf between life and death. "What does it say?"
The hand clutching the paper shook with a sudden tremor. Somehow, Peter found the voice to whisper, "We weren't the only ones."
"What?" The sharper demand came from Winston and Egon almost simultaneously.
"Victims…targets…" Peter choked on the words. "There were others, that same night. A couple of honeymooners. A pair of adolescent twins. An entire family, for Christ's sake-mom, dad, kid and baby."
"Sweet Jesus." The words sounded like a prayer coming from Winston. Ray looked stricken, too shocked even to swear. Egon shook his head, as if to deny the horrible conclusion.
"How can you be certain they are connected to-"
"Their graves were vandalized, too." Peter held out the printed list for their inspection. "That's how Frump made the connection. Same date for all the murders, same date for the desecrations."
Winston swore, again. Ray looked around vaguely and Peter grabbed him by the collar, steering him over to one of the lab stools. "Sit down before you fall down, Ray."
Absently, Ray murmured his thanks and sank gratefully onto the seat. He hunched over, hugging himself and looking lost. In a thin voice, he asked, "How could anyone be that…that…"
"Evil?" Peter supplied. Now that the initial shock was wearing off, the anger was taking over, feeding off his outrage at the magnatitude of the crime. "I don't know, Ray. I really don't know."
As shaken as the rest of them, Egon nonetheless was trying to approach the situation logically. "Peter, does that-" He gestured to the paper still clenched in Peter's hand. "-say whether or not any of the bodies were taken from their coffins?"
Peter glanced at the list, again. He shook his head. "None of the bodies were missing."
"I know that 'hmm', Egon. You've got a theory."
"Not so much a theory as the glimmerings of a hypothesis." Egon fiddled absently with the PKE meter. "May I see the list?"
Peter handed it over and watched as Egon scanned it rapidly.
"Share with the class, Egon?" Winston prompted after a moment.
"None of the victims-or targets, as Peter said-have anything in common other than being in New York on the date in question," Egon began slowly, still thinking it through.
"No, there's something else. None of them were killed alone," Ray pointed out.
"That could simply be to eliminate possible witnesses," Winston said.
"I don't think so. At least, not entirely." Egon carefully placed the paper on the table beside the computer. "Ray, do you remember that website you showed me last night?"
Ray looked blank for a moment, then his eyes lit up with understanding. "Oh! Yeah, I printed out some of that stuff." He looked around the cluttered lab. "Where did I…?"
Scrambling to his feet, Ray dashed over to the dusty old books that, the night before, he had left stacked precariously in the corner next to the spare proton pack. Ray retrieved a particular book from the stack, then hurried back to where the others were waiting. The four of them gathered around and Ray set the thin, leatherbound volume on the table. Opening the tattered cover, he retrieved a folded piece of paper he had obviously been using as a bookmark and flattened it so they could read it. In addition to the neat letters of the computer's printer, notes had been scribbled in the margins in pencil.
"I found this website that has all kinds of legends about death and stuff. Actually, the original site seems to have disappeared, but someone had set up a mirror, so most of the information is still there if you know where to look for it."
"That's great, Ray," Peter said, trying not to sound as if he was hanging onto his patience by his fingernails. "What's that got to do with-" He tapped the list with one finger.
"Well…maybe nothing. But maybe not nothing."
"Thanks for clearing that up, Ray."
"Look, let me just read you this part-" Ray cleared his throat, then read. "'People once believed that when someone dies, a crow carries their soul to the land of the dead. But sometimes something so bad happens that a terrible sadness is carried with it and the soul can't rest.'"
"I think we all agree that multiple murder qualifies as 'bad', but-"
"'…But sometimes the crow can bring the soul back to put the wrong things right.'"
"Wait." It took a moment for the implications to sink in. "Do you mean… Whoever did this…was trying to create the conditions necessary for the legend to come true?"
"It's beginning to appear as if that is, indeed, the case," Egon said, with a frown. "Why else bother to disturb the graves of all the victims but take nothing from them?"
Winston gave a low whistle as understanding dawned. "They wanted to see if it worked."
"Great." Peter grimaced. "So, did they take my body or-"
Egon shook his head. "I believe you are wearing it or a reasonable facsimile thereof. I do not believe it was stolen by whoever is behind these terrible crimes."
"Well, that's a relief, at least." The sarcasm was forced, though the sentiment was real. Peter scowled at the book on the table in front of him. "Anything else, Ray?"
" I'm… not sure," Ray admitted.
Across the table from Ray, Egon removed his glasses and rubbed tiredly at the bridge of his nose. "We cannot even be certain it's anything more than a legend. It may have nothing to do with your ... circumstances."
'Circumstances'? Peter almost laughed aloud. Trust Egon to find a polite way of discussing 'life' as a walking dead man. "It fits, though. I followed the crow and it brought me back."
"Okay. But there's some stuff that doesn't fit," Ray argued. "After I found the legend, I remembered where I'd seen something like it before. This book came from an estate sale in England. It's the journal of a man called Mordecai Lester, who lived in the mid-nineteenth century. He claimed to have witnessed some things that… Well, let's just say he was prone to nightmares for the rest of his life. And one of the things he claimed to have seen was a man who came back from the dead."
"So far, Ray, I'm not seeing the 'doesn't fit' part."
Ray furrowed his brow as he flipped through the brittle, yellowed pages. "Mordecai says the man came back a full year after his murder. The legend on the website says the same thing: 'one year later'." He shot a glance up at Peter, leaning over his shoulder. "It's only been a few months since you-"
"Hey, I was never the patient type," Peter said, just a bit too brightly, and ignored the evaluating looks they all leveled at him. "Okay, so other than the 'one year later' part, everything else fits. Right?"
"Well..." Ray said, reluctantly. "I guess so, Peter. But we really can't be sure, yet. From Mordecai's description, Crows-"
"Crows? Why do I get the feeling you're not talking about ol' Edgar here?"
"No." Like the rest of them, Ray glanced over at the bird. As if drawn by their attention, it hopped up onto the table and peered at the open journal as if trying to read the faded sepia ink. "That's what Mordecai calls the man who came back. A Crow."
"So…Is that what you think I am? A Crow?" Judging by Ray's sharply indrawn breath, Peter hadn't quite achieved the casual tone he'd been aiming for. He watched his two favorite scientists exchange a look filled with silent communication, and sighed. "Just tell me, guys. I'm a big boy. I can take it."
"I don't know, Peter." Ray sighed, and scrubbed both of his hands through his hair, leaving it sticking up in short auburn spikes. "As I was saying, the journal gives a pretty graphic description of what Mordecai saw. Apparently, Crows have a certain, uh, distinctive appearance. But you... Well, you just look like you."
Peter tensed. "Just how 'distinctive', Ray?"
"There's a picture," Ray said, turning a page and angling the book so Peter could see it better. "Mordecai was an artist. He made this drawing of what he claimed to have seen."
Suddenly, Peter wasn't so sure he wanted to see what a Crow looked like. But, then, he already knew, didn't he? He forced himself to look at the drawing.
The artist had caught the Crow poised as if on the brink of attack, shoulders hunched and arms spread like the wings of a great bird. The stark white face with its strange black markings was all-too-familiar. Familiar, too, was the fever burning in the Crow's eyes. More and more, he thought he could feel that madness trying to consume him.
"Oh, shit," he moaned. All the starch went out of his knees and Peter sagged, catching himself against the edge of the table. Ray sprang up from his seat and pushed Peter down onto it, instead.
"You didn't see me, Ray…" Then, quieter, "Thank God, you didn't see."
"What are you trying to say, Peter?"
"I may not look like that, right now." Peter shoved the book away roughly, startling the bird into flight. He watched it with dull eyes. "But that's not saying I never do."
Ray's hand squeezed his shoulder. "Oh, Peter…"
Peter fought the irrational urge to run. He didn't want to know this, didn't want to believe. But there was a harsh core of honesty inside him that wouldn't let him bury himself in denial. Not this time. He had to face this head-on, for the sake of his friends if nothing else.
"So, that's it? I'm one of these Crow …things." Unconsciously, Peter's shoulders hunched defensively and he shivered like someone was dancing on his grave. Maybe they were.
"You are not a 'thing', Peter," Egon said firmly.
"Damn right," Winston added, just as firmly, and Ray tightened his grip on Peter's shoulder.
"Oh, yeah? What do you call it, then? I'm sure as hell not human," Peter countered bitterly . "Just ask Egon's pet meter."
Egon winced. "I told you there are some unusual anomalies in the readings, Peter. It will require further analysis before I can be certain of their significance. In the meantime-"
"Don't try to sugar-coat this, Egon. You saw me. That drawing might as well be of me!"
Glancing from one face to the other, Peter saw their concern, but he wondered if they were worried about the right things. He turned back to Ray. "What else does our pal Mordecai have to say about Crows? Do we make good housepets?"
"Um," Ray looked unhappy with the question. "…Not really."
When Peter simply stared at him, waiting for more information, Ray sighed and reluctantly continued, "He was pretty clear about that, actually. It seems that Crows aren't very sociable. Not surprising, given how they're brought into being. And they're…well, 'driven' might be putting it mildly." He looked apologetically at Peter. "Mordecai says the Crow he encountered was… dangerous."
Peter's expression froze. In a careful voice, he demanded, "Dangerous…how, Ray?"
"Well…" Ray's gaze fell. He had to swallow hard before continuing. "It killed seventeen people, including Mordecai's younger brother."
A shocked silence filled the room. Ray hastened to fill it. "There were extenuating circumstances! Even Mordecai admits that the Crow was trying to escape. You see, he belonged to this secret society and somehow they captured a Crow in order to study it and-"
"It killed seventeen people." Peter's eyes were blank chips of green ice. "If I'm a Crow, maybe I should fly away before I-"
"Don't you dare!"
In astonishment, all eyes turned to Ray, who was practically livid with wounded outrage. "Don't you even think about leaving us, Peter! Don't you dare! You do and I'll-I'll track you down and drag you back and-"
Tears welled up in Ray's eyes, but he blinked them back. He stared at Peter, who gazed back, wide-eyed with surprise. "You wouldn't hurt us, Peter. I know you won't. And…we won't let you hurt anyone else. I promise."
After a long, frozen moment, Peter's posture relaxed and he reached tentatively to place a hand on Ray's arm. Ray grabbed him in a fierce hug.
"I'm not going anywhere, Ray," Peter whispered into the fabric of Ray's shirt, feeling Ray's arms tighten around him hard enough to make breathing an issue. Well, maybe there was one advantate to not needing to breathe anymore. The shorter man lost his battle for self-control, his tears soaking into the front of Peter's shirt. For his part, Peter tightened his own grip, as if Ray were a lifeline he desperately needed to keep himself from falling back into the abyss. "And that's a promise from Dr. Venkman."
Peter just hoped neither of them had made a promise they couldn't keep.
Egon picked up the paper Frump had given them and again ran his eye down the list of victims. There was one name on the list whose grave had escaped desecration: Charlie Venkman. He glanced thoughtfully at Peter. Perhaps it was because Charlie had been interred next to his son; the vandals had opened Peter's grave first and, seeing the empty coffin, they must have known there was little point in disturbing the elder Venkman's grave as well. Or perhaps the vandals were interrupted before they could complete their grisly task. Either way, he was glad that Peter would be spared that particular horror, at least.
He glanced at the legal pad on which he had jotted notes as he studied the PKE readings, and sighed. He could only wish there was a way to spare Peter the rest. Egon breathed a soundless sigh. There was one test result in particular that Peter was not going to like.
Egon cleared his throat. "If I could continue?"
With a final, reassuring squeeze, Peter let go of Ray and settle back with a negligent wave of his hand. "By all means, Egon."
"Since we now suspect the purpose of the attacks -on us and on the others- was to create a Crow, it would behoove us to learn as much as we can about the Crow legend. And… I believe we should be prepared for another assault."
"You think they'll be coming after Peter." Winston's voice was flat.
"I'm afraid so." Egon slid a look at Peter, sitting stiffly across from him. "It seems extremely unlikely that whoever is behind this would go to such lengths to create a Crow only to fail to collect their prize."
Peter folded his arms and arched a brow. "They can try," he said, with just a trace of his old smugness.
"Yeah! We're not letting them have Peter!" Ray seconded stubbornly.
"Of course not. That's why we must be ready." Egon turned back to Winston. "If Peter can so easily bypass our current security, so might someone else. Winston, if you could enter these new settings into the alarm system?"
Winston took the piece of paper Egon tore from the legal pad and handed to him. "I'll get right on it," he said, and hurried to his task.
That left three of them in the lab. Egon continued, "In the meantime, Ray, I think you should go back to that website. See if you can find anything else about Crows - or the people who might be interested in them."
Rubbing absently at the moisture on his cheeks, Ray nodded. "I'll check out their links, too. There might be something there that we can use."
"Good thinking." Egon moved out of the way so that Ray could slide into the chair in front of the computer. "While you are doing that, I would like to collect some more readings. With your permission, Peter, I'll take PKE readings of both you and your feathered companion."
Peter spread his arms. "I'm at your disposal, Egon. But Edgar seems to've flown the coop."
"Hmm." Glancing around the lab, Egon saw that Peter was right. The bird was gone, as if it had vanished into thin air. "Can you get it to come back?"
"I don't exactly call the shots in that particular relationship, Spengs." Peter shrugged. "Edgar comes and goes as he pleases. I'm sure he'll turn up again when he's good and ready."
As intriguing as he found the bird, Egon had something else on his mind at the moment. He retrieved his meter. "We'll start with just you, then. Perhaps we should take this into the kitchen so as not to disturb Ray."
"You won't bother me, Egon," Ray began, unaware of the look Egon sent Peter over his auburn head.
Brows raised, Egon looked at Ray, then shook his head and cocked his chin toward the door. He willed Peter to take the hint; Ray needed a chance to fully recover his equilibrium and the experiment Egon had in mind would not be at all conducive to that goal. It seemed the silent communication they had enjoyed since college was still with them, because Peter nodded and managed a remarkably light tone as he deflected Ray's objection with his usual skill.
"No, that's okay, Ray. Maybe I can convince Spengs to have a snack while we're in there. A couple of pieces of toast doesn't go too far, you know."
"Oh, gosh. I forgot you didn't eat breakfast with us, Egon." Ray gave him a worried look. "You should listen to Peter. Eat something."
"Maybe I will."
"C'mon, Egon. Let's go." Peter strode past him, snagging his sleeve and towing him along to the door. Egon could not help but notice that Peter was careful to touch only the cloth. It was not the first time he had noticed this caution on Peter's part. Indeed, Ray seemed to be the only one of them that Peter was not hesitant to touch. Mulling this over, he allowed Peter to lead him into the kitchen.
As they settled at the kitchen table, Peter frowned at him. "All right, Egon. What exactly didn't you want Winston and Ray to hear?"
"I need to take some readings on your…alter ego," Egon said. "Given your reaction earlier, I thought you would prefer to do so with as few witnesses as possible."
"You want me to-?" Peter sounded incredulous. His hands clenched on the edge of the tabletop. "No."
"But, Peter, I need to-"
"No, Egon." Peter lurched abruptly to his feet and began to pace. "Trust me on this. You don't want my pale-faced buddy coming out to play."
"You wouldn't hurt me."
"Me? Never." Peter's eyes darkened. "But then the Crow's not exactly me, is he?"
Egon had suspected as much. "That is one of the reasons I need the additional readings, Peter. From what I have observed so far… I believe you may be possessed."
Peter stared at him with a sick feeling of horror twitching in his gut. It wasn't entirely unexpected. But hearing it put into words somehow made it worse. He swallowed, then forced out the word. "Possessed?"
"You don't seem surprised," Egon said. He set the meter on the table and fussed absently with one of the control knobs on the side.
Surprised? No. Pleased? Hell no. Resigned? …Maybe.
There was a time when the mere thought of possession would have sent him running for the nearest thrower and begging for a proton blast right to the heart. But he had already reached the conclusion that if it took playing host to the devil himself to keep the guys safe, he could deal with it. Just call me Linda Blair, Peter thought with a silent sigh, and sank back down onto his chair. He propped his elbows on the table and let his head fall into his hands.
"To tell you the truth, Egon… I've sensed something inside me almost from the moment I came back. Something…" Raising his head, he gestured with one hand, as if he could pluck the right words from the air. "Something dark and almost… alien. But at the same time… Somehow, it still feels like a part of me."
He risked a sidelong glance at Egon and frowned. "You don't seem all that surprised, either."
"I told you that I had analyzed the PKE readings and found something strange," Egon reminded him. "Putting that together with some of the other test results… Possession is the logical conclusion."
"Wonderful." Peter let his head drop back so that he could stare briefly at the ceiling. "It's not like with Watt, though."
For a moment, both were silent, remembering when Peter had been possessed by Watt, the demon who had almost breached the containment unit while using Peter's body.
"I suspect that whatever has possessed you is a far different type of entity than Watt," Egon said at last. "Not only in origin, but in motivation as well." He watched Peter carefully as he added, "Have you sensed anything about it other than its 'darkness'?"
Peter opened his mouth to deny it, then hesitated. Hadn't he been aware of a sense of purpose not entirely his own? And don't forget that lurking mania. "A little. I think… I think it wants what I want, only it doesn't particularly care about the consequences. Like with Frump. A part of me wanted to tear his head off and, if I had let it, the Crow would've."
"So you can control it."
"Don't go all smug on me, Egon." Peter reached over and toyed with the PKE meter, spinning it in a small circle with one finger. "I've controlled it so far, but it's not always the easiest thing in the world. Who knows? Maybe it's letting me do it."
"What about when you are…" With one long finger, Egon drew a painted smile in the air in front of his own mouth.
"It's like someone takes off the safeties and shoves the levers all the way into the red zone," Peter said. He remembered fighting the would-be muggers, a potentially lethal dance on a dark street that had made his blood sing. For that moment, he had felt truly alive. "Letting go like that is…"
Seductive. He finished the thought silently, staring at his hands. "Let's just say that I now have a far better understanding of mania than I ever wanted, and leave it at that."
Egon looked as if he might try to force the issue, but the stubborn set of Peter's jaw seemed to convince him otherwise. "All right," Egon said quietly. "But I still need those readings."
"Which part of 'no' is eluding the grasp of your genius, Spengler?"
"I understand why you don't want to bring out the Crow," Egon said. "And, if this were merely a matter of scientific curiosity, I would let it go. But it isn't and I can't. Our safety could very well depend on it."
That got to Peter as no other argument could have. Rising, he paced from the table over to the sink while he conducted an internal debate with himself. He lost. "Damn it, Egon-"
When he turned, he saw that Egon had also risen and was holding the PKE meter in one hand. "Ready, Dr. Venkman?"
No. "As I'll ever be…" Peter sighed. "I don't even know if this will work. It's not exactly something I can flip on and off like a lightswitch."
"Just try it, Peter. If it doesn't work, we'll think of something else."
"We could always pay Frump a visit," Peter said, only half-joking. Frump had always brought out the worst in Peter; now it seemed he had a knack for bring out the Crow, as well. Still, Peter didn't think it would be necessary to take such drastic measures. Despite what he had told Egon, he was only too aware of how close to the surface his other persona was. It was keeping the Crow submerged that was the problem, not letting it out into the light.
"Let us hope it doesn't come to that," Egon said with a tiny smile. "Are you ready to try, now?"
Reluctantly, Peter nodded. He closed his eyes and concentrated on his sense of the darkness within. Hesitantly, he reached out to it and felt it welcome his touch, rising to it like water from a spring. Cold and exhilerating, its power flooded him, forcing the color from his skin and bleeding like black tears from his eyes. With it came that wild, seductive freedom and suddenly he wanted to spin and swoop and race the wind in a dance as old as time. He let himself smile his too-wide smile and opened gleaming, shadow-haunted eyes.
"Oh, I'm definitely ready," the Crow said. "How about you?"
Egon started as Peter transformed before his eyes. He was shocked by how swiftly the change had come. One moment Peter had looked perfectly normal; in the next, he was the Crow. In his eyes, there was the hint of barely contained chaos straining to be unleashed.
"…Peter?" Egon asked carefully.
"You were expecting Santa Claus?" Peter folded his arms and looked pointedly at the meter Egon had all but forgotten he was holding. "Want to hurry up with those readings? I'd like to get this over with before-"
"You guys in here?" Winston stuck his head around the door frame. His eyes widened when he saw Peter. "Egon-"
"It's all right, Winston. I'm just taking some PKE readings. Peter is assisting me."
"Uh-huh." Winston moved swiftly to Egon's side. His wary gaze never left the Crow's painted face. "Mind if I watch?"
It was too late to protest. Egon sent Peter an apologetic glance and quickly aimed the PKE meter at him. After a few minutes, he made sure the readings were stored in the device's memory and shut it down. "Thank you, Peter. That will do for now."
To his surprise, Peter did not immediately revert to his normal appearance. "Peter? Didn't you hear what I said? I'm finished."
"That's nice," the Crow said, smirking darkly. "But I'm not."
And, looking into the manic green eyes of his friend, Egon realized he had made a terrible miscalculation.
Chapter 14: Wrong Frame of Mind
I have felt the wind of the wing of madness pass over me.
That unsettling smile still in place, the Crow tilted his head and mused, "Where to start? Where... to... start?" He glanced from Winston to Egon, gaze resting on the PKE meter still clutched tightly in Egon's hand. Raising both eyebrows, he said, "Bet you wish that was a thrower, huh, Spengs?"
Winston took a single step forward, just enough to put him between Egon and the transformed Peter. "Peter? Is that you?"
"Mostly." The Crow hopped up to perch next to the sink, crossing his legs tailor fashion on the counter beneath him. He studied them both, tapping one finger thoughtfully against his chin. "Partly."
His black-painted smile parted to reveal a slash of white teeth that snapped at the air. "Not at all."
"Can't make up your mind?" Winston challenged. He stared into those glittering green eyes, searching for some sign of his friend. "Or don't you know?"
The Crow shrugged negligently, as if the matter were of no interest. "I am who I am and that's all that I am."
"Okay. Got an estimate on your departure time, Popeye?" Winston tried to ease Egon back toward the doorway. He trusted Peter, but it wouldn't hurt to have some space between them and the Crow, just in case. For Peter's sake as much as theirs.
"Ouch." Accompanied by a sorrowful shake of the head, an exaggerated expression of disappointment affixed itself to the Crow's painted face. "Are you trying to get rid of me, Winston?"
"No, man. I just don't want you to do anything you'll regret later."
"Regret?" The Crow looked thoughtful. With a tilt of his head and a dramatic gesture, he declaimed, "'Deep as first love, and wild with all regret; O Death in Life, the days that are no more.'"
Winston's brow furrowed. If this was Peter, he had clearly gone over the edge. There was a coiled energy about him as he perched on the counter as if poised for flight. Or attack. "What the devil's gotten into you, Pete?"
"Funny you should ask." Dark green eyes focused on Egon. "What has gotten into me, Egon? Do you know?"
Egon was silent, his knuckles white where he gripped the PKE meter, his lips compressed into a thin line.
"Do you?" Winston countered.
"Of course I do!" Another bird-like tilt of the head. "I've gotten into me...and, boy, am I in deep. Over my head- or in it?" A languid wave of one grave-pale hand. "I always get those confused."
Hoping to inject some sanity back into the proceedings Winston said, "You're not making a whole lot of sense, buddy."
"You'll have to forgive me. I'm very much myself, today."
Not sure he wanted the answer, Winston asked, "And who's that, exactly?"
The Crow shook his head as if trying to clear it. His black lips turned down at the corners and a pained expression flickered across his ashen features. But when he spoke, his voice retained that deep, mocking lilt. "A child of Fate, from my Mother's womb untimely ripp'd."
"You mangling Shakespeare, now?" Winston shook his head. "I take it back. You're not making any sense."
"Sanity is overrated." A brilliant, quicksilver smile, there and gone. "I should know. I'm a doctor."
"What do you want?"
"My life back." As quickly as the Crow had sobered, his flippancy returned. "Or, barring that, a week in Tahiti."
"A week in-" Winston sputtered.
"Well, really," the Crow said reasonably. "Who wouldn't want a week in Tahiti?"
"Look..." Shooting a worried look at Egon, Winston tried another tack. "Why don't you just go back to Peter's subconscious or wherever you usually hang out, and let our friend come back now. Okay?"
"I am your friend, Winston." Shadowed green eyes suddenly earnest, the Crow leaned toward him. "You don't want to see what I'm like to my enemies."
A chill scurried down Winston's spine. "Let Peter come back. Please."
"He's here. With me. We-I-he-" Confusion twisted the face beneath the death mask. "It isn't supposed to be this way." The Crow keened to himself, grimacing in pain. "Make it stop! Make it right."
"Tell us how," Egon pleaded, animation returning to his frozen features. "Tell us how to help you."
The Crow clutched at his temples with black-nailed hands and an anguished cry issued from his throat. "It hurts!"
With a sinking horror, Winston saw Ray standing in the kitchen doorway, brown eyes wide and fixed on the suffering Crow. "Stay where you are, Ray," he warned.
Too late. Ray was already halfway across the kitchen, reaching for the Crow. "Peter, what's happening to you? Are you all right? What can I do?"
The Crow's head came up as Ray touched him. Winston tensed, ready to make a dive for Ray if the Crow tried anything-and was shocked into immobility when the Crow gave a strangled sob and collapsed against Ray's shoulder. Ray's arms closed tightly around him.
"There, there, Peter," he murmured gently. "It's gonna be all right."
Winston sucked in a breath to replace the one he'd been holding and glanced at the man beside him. "You still with us, Egon?"
"...I am an utter fool, Winston," Egon whispered, his deep voice filled with self-recrimination. "This is all my fault."
Winston looked thoughtful. "I dunno, man. I'd say that 'honor' belongs to whoever did this to Pete in the first place."
Shaking his head, Egon clasped the meter to his chest like a shield. "Ray? Is Peter all right?"
After that single sob, Peter had been silent in Ray's arms. Ray shook his head urgently. "I think he's passed out or something! Help me get him down from here, will ya?"
Winston sprang into action and between them, they got Peter off the counter and into the TV room, where they stretched him out on the sofa. His complexion had regained its normal coloring, but he was so still that it sent a fresh chill down Winston's spine. His gut twisted and he was seeing Peter sprawled horribly on the pavement outside the firehouse again, the cold hard ground awash in blood and…other things. Winston shuddered. They'd had to have a closed casket at the funeral. It was almost a mercy that Charlie was dead, too. At least it had spared him the sight of his son like that.
Ray's voice pulled him out of the bad memories. "…What happened in there, Egon?"
Egon gazed guiltily at the floor. "I'm afraid that was a serious miscalculation on my part, Raymond. Peter tried to warn me, but I convinced him that the readings were necessary. I still believe that such is the case, but I should have exercised greater caution in obtaining them."
"Take it easy, Egon," Winston said, giving the physicist's shoulder a rough pat. "I'm sure Peter will understand."
"He wouldn't have hurt you," Ray said with conviction. He was kneeling beside the sofa, one hand on Peter's arm, watching him closely for any sign that Peter was beginning to wake up. Looking up at them, he said, "I've been thinking. Maybe Peter's having these problems because he came back too quickly. Mordecai's journal says it's supposed to take a full year for a Crow to come into being. What if the Crow needs that year and cutting it short… messes up the connection or something?"
Slowly, Egon said, "The Crow did intimate something along those lines. Is it possible that he has been 'reborn' prematurely?"
"I'll do another web search and see if anything similar has ever been recorded." Ray seemed momentarily excited by the prospect of scientific discovery. The he remembered the object of their discussion and sobered quickly. He looked at Peter. "This is so unfair."
"Yes. You know how Peter is. Not being entirely in control of himself must be exceedingly difficult for him," Egon agreed. "Perhaps there is some way to complete the process and stabilize the Crow personality-"
"Gosh, yeah, Egon! We should see if we can-"
"Guys, I'm as worried about him as you are." Winston had every sympathy for Peter. But that scene in the kitchen was still preying on his mind. "But remember what else that journal said? Seventeen deaths? It doesn't sound like even full-term Crows are all that stable." He dropped his gaze to Peter's still form. "Man. I never want to see him like that again. He was out of his mind."
"He was in pain." Ray's brown eyes brimmed with worry and righteous anger as he regarded Peter. "When I find out who did this to him, I'll-" He choked, his fingers tightening protectively around Peter's arm, and scrubbed his sleeve across his eyes.
Egon crouched beside him, briefly resting his arm across Ray's shoulders. "I know, Raymond. We all feel the same."
"Why Peter? He doesn't deserve this! He's a good man. He-" Ray gave up trying to speak and simply buried his face against Peter's side. Egon clasped a hand onto Ray's shaking shoulder; on his other side, Winston did the same.
"No, he doesn't deserve this," Egon said quietly. "But, with you to help him, I am certain he will get through it."
Ray straightened. His face was streaked with tear tracks, but there was fresh determination shining in his eyes. "We'll all be here for him."
"I hope Sleeping Beauty here wakes up soon," Winston said to himself. "The way he looks now, it's like he's really…" He shuddered. "Well, you know."
"It is most disconcerting," Egon said. "He does not appear even to be breathing." His voice hitched a little despite his obvious effort to maintain his usual phlegmatic tone. "I cannot help but be unpleasantly reminded of-"
"Don't, Egon," Ray pleaded, closing his eyes tightly. "I don't want to remember."
"Forgive me, Raymond," Egon said quietly. "I wasn't thinking."
Without warning, Peter went from supine to sitting bolt upright in one abrupt motion, startling them all. He blinked at them, confused gaze searching one face after another. "What happened? How did we get in here?"
"What's the last thing you remember, Peter?" Ray asked, concern evident in his tone.
"The last thing -?" Peter blanched and looked guiltily at Egon. "Uh. Sorry, Spengs. I don't know what came over me."
"Then… You do remember everything the Crow said?"
"Everything I said, you mean. Yeah." Peter's gaze fell and he ducked his head. "I told you it wasn't a good idea to invite him over. At least I didn't…I didn't hurt anyone, right?"
"No, Pete. Your sense of humor was even stranger than usual," Winston said. "But no harm, no foul."
"I'm sorry, guys." Peter focused guilty green eyes on his hands, clenched in his lap. "I didn't want any of you to see me like that."
"Yeah, I can see why," Winston said quietly. He looked from Peter's guarded gaze to Egon's guilty one, and sighed. "So what really happened in there? You want to summarize for those of us just tuning in?"
"Peter is possessed."
"Again?" Winston groaned. "We have got to get this boy a 'no vacancy' sign, pronto." Winston shot a quick look at Peter, whose face was unreadable. "So can we pull it outta him like we did with Watt?"
Egon shook his head. "When Peter was possessed by Watt, there was a discernable distinction between Peter's biorhythms and the PKE signature of the demon, thus enabling us to separate the two of them by using specially-tuned throwers. Such is not the case now. While traces of Peter's original energy signature remain, they are interwoven with, and almost totally eclipsed by, the spectral energy of the possessing entity."
"I'll take that as a 'no', man."
"He means that Peter's signature and the Crow's aren't two individual traces like they were with Watt," Ray translated. "Gosh, Egon, does that mean that Peter and the Crow spirit, or whatever it is, have somehow merged?"
"It looks that way," Egon said. "With further analysis, it may be possible to obtain a fine enough distinction to attempt separation, but for now... I'm afraid there's nothing we can do."
"Probably just as well," Peter said laconically and was instantly the focus of three surprised stares. He held up a forestalling hand. "Think about it, guys. The Crow is what brought me back to life. Take it away and what do you think you'll have left?"
It took a few seconds for his meaning to sink in, but when it did, they all grimaced at the realization that he was right. Peter nodded grimly. "Yeah. A corpse doesn't make for a very good roommate. Much as I hate to admit it, I think I'm probably better off as I am."
"I'm sorry, Peter."
Peter shrugged and reached up blindly to pat Ray's shoulder. "It was a good thought, Ray."
"Peter," Ray said, tugging lightly at his sleeve until Peter turned his head to meet Ray's gaze. "Does it still hurt?"
"What?" It took a moment for Peter to realize what he was being asked. "Oh. No. I'm all right, now."
"You sure, Pete? Had to be pretty bad to knock you out like that," Winston said.
"It was," Peter admitted slowly. Absently, he brushed his unruly hair back from his forehead. "Kinda like the mother of all migraines. But it's gone, now." He glanced again at Egon. "You get your readings, Spengs?"
It was Egon's turn to look guilty. "I, uh, believe so."
"Good. 'Cause we're not doin' that again." Peter sank back against the arm of the sofa and closed his eyes. "What I wouldn't give for a nap right about now."
"That's a good idea, Peter," Ray said. "You should try to rest."
Green eyes popped open and Peter sat up, shaking his head ruefully. "You're forgetting something - I don't sleep."
"Peter, you were unconscious for almost ten minutes," Egon informed him. "Perhaps, if you tried now, you might find that you are able to sleep for a bit."
"Well…" Peter met Ray's hopeful gaze and gave in to the inevitable. He sighed. "Okay. I'll give it a shot for Tex, here."
Ray smiled. "That's the spirit." He saw the surprised look on Peter's face and flushed sheepishly at the inadvertent pun. "Oops."
"No worries, Ray." Smirking faintly, Peter slumped back again and slung an arm across his eyes. "I can't believe you guys are actually telling me to take a nap."
Winston gave him half a smile. "Better enjoy it while it you can, m'man."
"Right." Ray nodded decisively. "You hit the sheets, Peter. We'll wake you in a couple of hours."
After half an hour of restless shifting on his bed, Peter was seriously annoyed. How was it possible that he could lose consciousness without even trying, but be unable to catch even a catnap when he wanted to? He flopped over onto his back, rolling his head on the pillow as he tried to get comfortable, but he knew it was useless. Life- or death- was supremely unfair. He could lie here till doomsday, but Death's fickle brother wasn't coming to call. He decided he would give it another five minutes, then all bets were off. No one could say he hadn't tried.
Peter closed his eyes again and concentrated on breathing in and out. What had always been reflex now took conscious thought and he focused on it to the exclusion of all else, letting his restless mind dwell on the subtle rise and fall of his chest. Soon enough, his awareness drifted back, to a certain night three short months ago…
It had been a hectic day. They had busted three slimy class fives, one right after the other, and a veritable swarm of mischievous class twos in Central Park. Now Egon was upstairs in the lab attempting to figure out what had attracted the twos to the park, Ray and Winston had gone on a last-minute emergency call in the Bronx, and Peter was disposing of the day's catch in the basement containment unit.
He set the last of the traps into the lock on the front of the unit and pulled the lever to send the ghost into containment. When the trap was clean, he removed it and tossed it into a bin in the corner. As he headed for the stairs, he yawned. More than anything, he wanted to get out of his slime-coated jumpsuit and into a hot shower. Then he'd stretch out on the couch in the TV room and doze until Ray and Winston returned with the take-out they had promised to pick up on the way home. Not exciting plans, maybe, but his plans and he was happy with them.
As he came up the stairs from the basement, he heard voices in the garage. Janine and… Was that his dad? He hadn't seen Charlie Venkman in over six months (not that there was anything unusual about that) and had to wonder what the old con-man was up to this time. His dad never turned up unless he wanted something. Despite years of experience to the contrary, Peter found himself still hoping that one of these days what Charlie wanted would be to simply spend some time with his son.
Shaking his head at his own foolishness, Peter smiled faintly. It would never happen, of course. Better to stop wishing and just accept his father on his own terms. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done.
A strange sound from the garage snapped him out of his maudlin mood. The next sound froze his blood: the echoing report of gunfire, followed by a woman's screams. Even as he broke into a run, Peter's mind was supplying him with terrifying images of what he might find. Janine. Dad. Hang on, I'm coming!
He raced up the stairs, taking two steps at a time, burst into the reception area… And slammed to a halt.
The sight that met his eyes was worse than he could have imagined. Janine's desk looked like someone had thrown a bucket of something thick and red over it - blood or slime, it was impossible to tell. Only half-conscious, Janine herself slumped across the desk, one hand straining to reach something, the other clutching at her throat. On the floor in front of the desk, Peter's father lay sprawled in an expanding puddle of his own blood. Peter felt his heart lurch. Ice spread from it to the rest of his body, freezing his limbs and numbing thought. He took a hesitant step toward his father…
The deafening clang of the alarm shattered the unnatural calm that had gripped him. Peter dragged his riveted gaze away from his father just in time to see the tail end of something bright red and dripping with ectoplasm disappear through the ceiling.
Heading upstairs. Heading toward Egon.
Shouting Egon's name, he ran for the stairs.
Peter's eyes shot open. Every instinct told him his heart should be racing and his breath coming in shallow gasps. Instead, all he felt was the cold surge of the Crow stirring inside him. He rolled onto his stomach, hands fisting in the sheet beneath him, and forced it back. Emotions roiled within him: grief and anger and painragesorrow. Not for himself, but for Janine and his father. A single tear ran down his cheek and left an ebony stain on the pillow, but he was too angry to weep.
He sat up slowly, feeling hollow. He couldn't sleep, but he could still have nightmares? Where was the fairness in that? Peter untangled himself from the covers, then sat up and glared at the bed as if it had personally offended him. "No rest for the wicked, I guess."
He sighed angrily and stared at the black spot on the pillowcase where the tear had fallen. Swiping a hand over his face, he found more of the black on his fingertips. As he watched, it turned to ash.
Can't even cry like a normal person, he thought, then gave himself a mental smack. Oh, stop feeling sorry for yourself! At least you're here. Maybe not in the way you'd want to be, but you're here. Which is more than you can say for Dad or Janine…Or thirteen year old Becky Townsend and her twin sister, Amy. Or the Gilbert family. Or newlyweds Robert and Teresa Grier. His near-photographic memory taunted him with the names from Frump's list, all murdered to make a Crow. There's nothing you can do about you. But maybe there's something you can do for them.
He thought about the drawer in his office where he had hidden his purchases: dark clothing and sturdy boots, a few other things he thought might come in handy on a nighttime excursion. When darkness fell, he would be ready. For what he planned to do, he was even willing to take the risk of releasing the Crow from its cage. Every time he let his alter ego out, it became more dominant; it was harder to come back fully to himself, to submerge that part of him again. He wondered if it would eventually take over completely, and shuddered to think what he would be like with the Crow permanently in the driver's seat.
"The captain has turned on the 'fasten your seat belts' sign," Peter said as he shoved himself to his feet. "Ladies and gentlemen, it's gonna be one helluva flight."
Following the sound of voices, Peter wandered into the kitchen without really thinking about where he was going. Finger-combing his thick brown hair back into place, he dropped onto one of the chairs at the table… and froze, remembering what had transpired here a little over an hour ago. He groaned and dropped his forehead to the table with an audible thunk. It didn't really hurt, but he muttered a reflexive "ow," anyway.
"Tryin' to knock some sense into that hard head, Pete?"
"Without much success, I presume." Egon's dry tone preceded him into the room. He had his nose buried in a meter, but he lowered it to subject Peter to a close scrutiny. "You didn't sleep."
It wasn't a question and Peter didn't even try to deny it. Egon had always been able to see right through even his best excuses, anyway.
"No. I tried, Egon, but... I think I could jog a few hundred laps around Manhattan without breaking a sweat, much less getting tired enough to doze off." He shrugged, deciding not to mention the intense reverie he had fallen into in lieu of actual sleep, and added lightly, "Hard to believe, I know, but Peter Venkman is now officially a nap-free zone."
"I haven't seen you eat or drink anything, either," Egon said thoughtfully, glancing at Winston for confirmation.
"I'm not hungry."
Peter sat bolt upright. "No more tests, Egon! Especially if it involves you-know-who."
"No," Egon said, looking away for just a second. "No more tests. I just- It would be helpful to ascertain the full parameters of your physical transformation."
Peter frowned. "If you don't mind, Dr. Spengler, I'd prefer to leave my parameters safely unascertained for the moment."
"How are you feeling, Pete?" Winston asked.
"Almost human." Peter stretched muscles that, after all he had put them through in the last twenty-four hours, should have been stiff and aching. Instead, he felt only preternatural strength and a fluid grace that would make a cat jealous. "Where's Ray?"
"On the internet. He is pursuing a line of inquiry that we formulated while you were… resting," Egon said.
"What about you, Egon? Ascertain any parameters from those readings you took?"
"A few." Egon glanced at the meter he was holding. "Further analysis will have to wait until later, however."
Peter raised both eyebrows. "Got a hot date, Dr. Spengler?"
"It's Wednesday." Egon's voice lowered. "We always visit Janine on Wednesday."
"Janine?" Peter's head snapped up in shock. "What-?"
"Her condition has not altered but, despite her doctor's prognosis, I refuse to believe that she will not regain…" Egon faltered as the look on Peter's face finally registered. "Peter? What is it?"
"Janine's alive?" Peter asked weakly.
"Oh, man," Winston said, dropping onto the chair next to Peter's. "You didn't know?"
"I thought she was-" Peter shook his head. "Last time I saw her, Big J wasn't lookin' too hale and hearty, if you know what I mean. I thought-" Another shake of the head, this time accompanied by the faintest of smiles. He should have realized, when her name hadn't been on Frump's list, but somehow he had failed to make the connection. "She's really alive?"
Peter looked up into Egon's face and didn't like what he found there. "Okay. So what's the bad news?"
Winston picked up the explanation. "Janine's in a coma. She hasn't regained consciousness since the night of the attack."
"She is on life support," Egon said, his usually phlegmatic tone softened by worry. "There are… Her brain waves do not…" He had to swallow before continuing. "At first, I surmised that her condition might have a supernatural component, but PKE readings detected only fading residuals, probably from the initial attack here at the firehouse. The doctors… They speculate that there is some manner of brain damage, but…"
"But we're not giving up hope," Winston finished for him. "Miracles happen."
As someone who had just come back from the dead, Peter didn't feel equipped to argue with him. Besides, he hoped Winston was right. "Wish I could go with you guys," Peter said softly. "But a crowded hospital probably isn't the best place for me to be, right now."
"Janine will understand," Egon said. He looked at Winston. "If you are ready, Winston? Ray has volunteered to stay here with Peter until our return."
"Hey! I don't need a babysitter, you know."
Egon raised an eloquent eyebrow, and Winston snorted. "Since when?"
"Get outta here, the both of you." Peter made shooing motions with both hands. "Go on! Janine needs you. Ray and I will hold down the fort."
One foot on the stairs, Egon hesitated. He looked back at Peter, sitting rather forlornly at the table. "You will be all right, Peter?"
"I'm aces, Egon." Peter dredged up a smile from somewhere and pasted it on. "Tell Janine Dr. Venkman says 'hi' - and that she'd better stop malingering and get back to work before I hire a replacement."
Responding to the sentiment rather than the words, Egon nodded. "We won't be long."
"Take your time," Peter said. "I'm not going anywhere."
Chapter 15: Watcher
Death is a very dull, dreary affair,
and my advice to you is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it.
-W. Somerset Maugham
Peter attempted to keep Ray company in the lab as the other worked on the internet, continuing his research into legends concerning death and crows…and Crows. Peter paged through Mordecai Lester's journal, jotting down on a legal pad anything that seemed pertinent, but it was difficult to concentrate on the faded handwriting and he soon found his attention wandering. Restless, Peter shoved the old book aside and went to gaze out the window at the busy street below filled with New Yorkers going about their daily lives, most of them never suspecting how vulnerable they were to the touch of the supernatural. Despite the fact that he made his living working with the supernatural, not even Peter had ever expected anything like what had happened to him.
He shook his head to clear it, then glanced back at Ray, still bent over the keyboard. Quietly, so as not to disturb Ray, Peter drifted out of the room. In the hall, he hesitated. Going downstairs to watch television held little interest for him and he had already proven to himself that he couldn't concentrate well enough to read. He glanced toward the bunkroom and sighed. There was always laundry…
A few minutes later, Peter was in the basement listening to the churning of the washing machine as he finished feeding it the first load of dirty clothes. He grinned faintly to himself, mildly amused at the lengths to which boredom could drive a man. First an unwilling early bird, now voluntarily doing housework - no doubt about it, death had changed him.
With the lid of the washer safely closed, Peter wandered over to sit on the metal stairs. His gaze was drawn immediately to the red-painted bulk of the containment unit across the way. Even from here, he was aware of the spirits inside it in a way he never had been before. He could feel them straining against the grid which held them captive, feel them reaching for the dark power within him, begging for it to release them.
He could feel that power laughing at them.
"Sorry, kiddies," he called softly, not sounding at all apologetic. "I don't think the Crow likes you very much. For that matter, neither do I."
A sense of the cold darkness coiling silkily around his heart in an affectionate caress, and a definite impression of approval rang in the back of his mind. Peter's eyes widened. That was new. Not daring to move, he waited, but nothing else happened. Finally, he allowed his body to relax, his mind racing. What did it mean? He had thought that the dark spirit wanted to take over, to use him for its own purposes -and if some of those purposes happened to overlap with Peter's then it was mere coincidence. But what if he was wrong?
He pressed his hand to his chest over his heart, his thoughts directed inward, and whispered pensively, "What are you, really? What am I?"
He waited in the gloom of the basement, the stillness broken only by the faint hum of the containment unit and the louder thrashings of the washing machine. He waited for a long time, but there was no answer.
Ray sat back from the computer and rubbed at brown eyes tired from hours of peering at a flickering CRT screen. His back creaked a bit as he stretched the kinks out, pushed his chair back, and headed for the kitchen. It had been long enough since breakfast that his stomach was grumbling at him, informing him it was time to go in search of food. He wondered where Peter had gotten to -and if he should try to herd him into the kitchen for a snack of his own. His first question was answered when he came down the spiral stairs and spotted the tall figure standing at the sink washing dishes. The sight was both so mundane and so unexpected that Ray simply gaped at it for a minute before finding his voice.
"Peter? What are you doing?"
Glancing back over his shoulder, Peter raised an eyebrow at him. "I'm skydiving, Ray. What does it look like I'm doing?"
"I'm not sure," Ray responded, echoing the teasing note he had heard in Peter's sarcastic retort. "I don't think I've ever actually seen you doing chores before."
"Ha, ha. Very funny." Peter finished rinsing a plate and stuck it in the drainer. He shrugged lightly. "I was bored. So sue me. You hungry? I'll make you some soup or something."
"Thanks! Soup's great." While Peter gathered a saucepan and canned soup from the cabinets, Ray busied himself pulling sandwich fixings from the refrigerator. He held up the bread and tossed a questioning look at Peter. "Want one?"
"No, thanks." Peter stirred the soup now bubbling on the stove. The warm, homey smell of chicken noodle soup filled the tiny kitchen. "So…Find anything interesting on the 'net?"
Ray nodded enthusiastically. "As a matter of fact, I did!"
A tiny smile quirked at Peter's mouth. "That's great, kid. Wanna pull up a chair and tell Uncle Peter all about it?"
"Sure, Peter." Grinning himself, Ray took his sandwich out to the table. Peter joined him a moment later, carrying a steaming bowl of soup and a glass of milk, both of which he set on the table in front of Ray. Ray frowned up at him. "Aren't you going to at least try to eat something?"
"Not right now." The off-handed denial was firm enough that Ray decided not to push the issue. Peter lowered himself onto the chair beside Ray, propped his chin on his fist, and watched companionably as Ray dug into his meal. "Glad to see you haven't lost your appetite, Tex."
Ray just smiled and shook his head, revelling in Peter's teasing. Until it was gone, Ray had never realized just how much he relied on that outward expression of the deep affection that lay between them. He had always looked up to Peter, been flattered and a bit puzzled that someone like the ever-popular Peter Venkman would have anything to do with someone like him. And to have Peter for a friend… That was a gift Ray knew he would never take for granted, again. Now, he ate the soup his friend had prepared for him and felt it warm him in more ways than one.
Their gazes met and held for a long moment. Then Peter smiled softly. "Yeah, Ray. I know. Me, too."
Satisfied, Ray finished the last of his food, then settled back in his chair. "Still want me to tell you what I found online?"
"Sure thing." If the enthusiasm in Peter's voice was a bit too obviously manufactured, neither man acknowledged it. "I'm all ears."
"Well, I went back to that website where I found the Crow legend," Ray said. "One of the links led me to a Washington State University online repository for Native American oral traditions. One of the tribes has a legend that sounds an awful lot like a Crow."
He paused to dig a piece of paper out of his pocket, then continued, glancing now and again at the paper to make sure he got the details right. "In 1892, a missionary and his daughter went to the Oregon Territory to convert the native tribes to Christianity. The daughter, Rebecca Morgan, fell in love with a man named Blackfeather. In spite of her father's objections, the two of them married according to tribal custom."
"Bet that went over real well with Preacher Morgan," Peter said dryly.
"About as well as you imagine," Ray said. "Morgan arranged to have Blackfeather murdered. But the thugs he hired had also kidnapped Rebecca. That night, the tribe's shaman performed a ritual to allow Blackfeather to return to avenge his murder and save his wife from the men who killed him."
"You mean he came back within twenty-four hours of his murder?"
"Yeah, so the legend goes. That's even faster than what happened to you." Ray watched Peter carefully, trying to gauge his reaction.
Peter's expression was thoughtful. "You think something like this ritual is what brought me back early?"
"It could be. The version of the legend I found didn't give any details about the ritual, but maybe somebody somewhere was able to recover the specifics. Or maybe they used a different ritual. All we can really be sure of is that something happened to bring you back now instead of a year from now."
"You're sure this Blackfeather guy was a Crow?" Peter asked, brow furrowed in thought. "The legend actually calls him that?"
"Well, no. Not in so many words." Ray toyed with the crumbs on his plate. "But I think he was a Crow, Peter. The legend even mentions the strange markings on his face and how he fought his enemies with supernatural strength. And it says his spirit guide was a raven."
"Does it say what happened to him? Afterward?"
"The story is a bit vague about that." Ray shifted uncomfortably. "Blackfeather seems to have just …disappeared, as mysteriously as he returned."
"Think that'll happen to me, too?"
The question was casually posed but Ray wasn't fooled. He reached over and gripped Peter's arm. Giving it a reassuring squeeze, Ray said, "We're not gonna let it."
With a visible effort, Peter met his eyes. He seemed to be searching for something in their brown depths and Ray held his breath, hoping against hope that, whatever it was Peter needed to see there, he would find it. Finally, Peter looked away, the barest hint of a smile curving the corners of his mouth.
"Thanks, Ray." There was a wealth of emotions in those two simple words.
Ray let his breath out in a 'woosh' and smiled at his friend. "Anytime." He gathered up his dirty dishes and took them over to the sink, then returned to the table. "I'm still looking for any references to Crows, Peter. I'm sure I'll turn up something more useful."
"An instruction manual would be nice," Peter mumbled, gazing off into the middle-distance. He sat like that for a moment longer, then pushed himself to his feet. "I'd better go see if the clothes are ready to come outta the dryer."
"You did laundry, too?" Ray goggled at him. "Gee, you really were desperate for something to do, weren't you?"
"You don't know the half of it, kid." One hand on the railing of the staircase, Peter tossed him a wink. "Give me a few minutes to fluff and fold, and I'll come up and help you in the lab."
"I could help you with the laundry," Ray offered, but Peter brushed it aside with a negligent wave of the hand.
"Nah, I got it covered. You get back to the computer. I'll see you in a few."
"Okay. If you're sure-?"
Ray watched until Peter was out of sight, then headed back upstairs to the third-floor laboratory. He was more determined than ever to find something to help Peter cope with his situation. Whatever happened, he didn't want to lose his friend, again.
Peter was halfway down the stairs when his perception of his surroundings suddenly warped, the crow's vision overlaying his own. He saw the outside of the firehouse from an odd angle, as if the viewer were perched high on a window ledge. Then the view canted downward at a sharper angle and he saw the man hidden in the shadow of the doorway of the building across the street. A cigarette burned in one hand, the other raised to smooth back long, pale hair ruffled by the wind. The lurker's gaze was focused intently on the firehouse's front entrance. The wind tugged at his open jacket, just enough for Peter to spot the gun tucked into his waistband.
Well, so much for boredom. Better take a closer look, he decided, see what their new admirer was up to. Somehow, he didn't think the guy was a cop keeping an eye on the place. In fact, he doubted the crow would've bothered to show him anything at all if the lurker was there on any kind of legitimate business. Besides, there was something almost familiar about that ratlike face…
Peter started across the brick floor, then hesitated. Just one problem: the guy had the front door under surveillance. Peter could always go out the back way, but that would just increase his chances of being spotted by some random passerby on the street as he made his way around the building to the first convenient alley, then across the street to where their watcher lurked. He frowned, pondering the dilemma, and something brushed against his consciousness, offering an answer.
With a grim smile, Peter took it.
Chapter 16: The Gift of Pain
A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.
- Oscar Wilde
An instant later, the Crow stepped from the shadows at the back of the recessed doorway. The lurker had his back to the Crow. His attention focused on the firehouse across the way, he didn't react to the Crow's silent steps as the Ghostbuster slipped up behind him and hooked an arm around his neck.
"Hey! What-!" the lurker began, only to have his shout (and his breath) cut off by the Crow's arm. Choking, he struggled in the Ghostbuster's grip.
"Uh-uh, Blondie," the Crow said cheerfully. "You're not goin' anywhere. In fact, you and I are gonna have a nice, friendly chat."
"Fuck you!" The newly-dubbed 'Blondie' clawed at the Crow's arm, then rammed an elbow back into his stomach. It was a move that would've had more impact on a man who actually needed to breathe. To the Crow it was simply a minor irritation scarcely worth noting. He tightened his grip, reaching around the other man for the gun.
Blondie beat him to it, freeing the pistol from his waistband and slamming his boot heel down on the Crow's instep in the same movement. Startled by the unexpected stab of pain, the Crow's grip loosened enough for the guy to pull free. Blondie spun on him, pale eyes made dark by pupils so dilated they almost swallowed up the watery blue of his irises. He gaped at the sight of the Crow's painted features.
"It can't be you," Blondie exclaimed, then swallowed hard. "You're dead!"
"Got it in one, smart guy."
With hands that shook, Blondie aimed the gun at the Crow. "Back off, man! I mean it!"
"You want to shoot me?" The Crow spread his arms in invitation. "Go ahead."
He took a single step forward - and Blondie's finger tightened on the trigger. Before the thug could fire, the Crow launched a powerful kick that sent the gun flying. "That's enough of that," he said, advancing again. "Ready for our chat, now, bunky?"
Bug-eyed with terror, the other man scrambled after the gun, grabbed it, then took off at a dead run.
"Guess not." Without a thought, the Crow sprinted after him.
The Crow caught up with his quarry a few seconds later as the latter dodged into an alley, obviously hoping to lose his pursuer. Blondie had latched onto a fire escape and was trying desperately to scramble up onto the ladder. The Crow grabbed the dangling legs and yanked. Blondie tumbled back to earth with a satisfying thud. He recovered quickly enough to aim the gun in the Crow's general direction and fire once. Hot lead seared through the Crow's body, a momentary distraction before he reached out almost casually and slapped the gun from the punk's shaking hand. Then the Crow swiftly grabbed the punk's arm, flipped him onto his stomach, and planted a knee in the small of the punk's back.
"You know," the Crow said conversationally, applying a modest amount of pressure to his captive's spine. "You're only making this harder on yourself."
Blondie's only contribution to the exchange was a muffled moan of pain.
"No, really." The Crow eased up, though not enough for his captive to wriggle free. "I'm actually a very reasonable man. Answer my questions to my satisfaction and I probably won't kill you."
The thin body pinned beneath him went taut as a whip and a breathless voice quavered, "W-what d'you want, man? I wasn't doin' nothin'!"
"I don't call staking out the Ghostbusters while carrying a concealed weapon 'nothing'. Want to tell me what you were really up to?" He leaned his weight into the knee. "Before you need a chiropractor?"
His captive made an inarticulate grunt in response, then sucked in enough air to spit, "Fuck you, man!"
The Crow made a buzzer noise. "Wrong answer." He grabbed the guy's arm and twisted it up between his shoulder blades as an added incentive. "Want to try for the bonus round?"
Blondie yelped and renewed his efforts to buck the Crow off his back. The Crow used his free hand to snag a handful of blond hair and yank Blondie's head back until he stopped struggling.
"Let's start with name, rank and serial number." When Blondie just gaped like a drowning fish, the Crow hissed out a frustrated breath and tried again. Through clenched teeth, he demanded, "What's your name, smart guy?"
"T-tyler. It's Tyler!"
Now they were getting somewhere. "Okay, Tyler ol' buddy. Now tell me what you were doing casing the firehouse."
"Look, man, I didn't do nothin'! Some dude paid me a c-note to keep an eye on the place for a few hours. That's all I know!" Tyler squirmed, but the Crow's hold was too secure. "Lemme go!"
"This 'dude' got a name?" the Crow asked in a tightly controlled voice. The hands that held Tyler pinned to the asphalt were stark white, the nails streaked with black. "C'mon, how much loyalty does a hundred bucks really buy these days?"
Not enough, apparently. Tyler yelped as the Crow gave his arm a twist, forcing it higher. Joints creaked under the strain, bone rubbing painfully against bone. "It was, uh, Lawson. Or Dawson. Something like that! Man, I don't know! I just do odd jobs for the dude, I don't ask for his life story or nothin'."
That caught the Crow's attention. In a silky voice, he asked, "You've worked for this guy before?"
Tyler went completely still, as if realizing he had made a serious mistake. He chewed on his split bottom lip, adding blood to the sweat and tears running down his face. "N-no…?"
"Not smart." The Crow's voice was without inflection. Face expressionless, he grasped Tyler's wrist firmly and bent it to the breaking point. "Last chance. And remember-You lie, you die."
"It was a few months ago, man! B-and-E, capped some old dude," Tyler babbled hastily, trying desperately to get away from the Crow's punishing grip. "Me and this other dude -I don't know his name, I swear! Never seen 'im before!- and a couple …Well, they looked like ghosts, man. I ain't lyin' and I wasn't trippin'. Much."
Ghosts? Suddenly the Crow knew where he had seen that skinny mug before. In a flash of red, he saw his father fall, saw Janine valiantly struggling to reach the alarm button on her desk. The Crow's entire body trembled with rage; he could barely force the words out. "Where was this 'job'?"
With a sound like a green stick breaking, the Crow snapped the punk's wrist. "That jar your memory, bunky?"
"God!" Tyler screamed and thrashed, but the Crow's grip was too firm. "Mott and Pell! The Ghostbusters' firehouse!"
The rage flowed free in a delirious rush. The Crow released Tyler's broken wrist and grabbed both shoulders, tossing the guy over onto his back. So he could see the end coming. The punk seemed paralyzed, staring up into the murderous face of the Crow, and the acrid smell of urine stung the Crow's nostrils. He wrapped both hands around Tyler's neck and squeezed-
Black mouth stretched in a rictus grin exposing clenched white teeth, green eyes shadowed and wild, the Crow jerked his head around to glare at the speaker -and froze. The last thing he had expected to see stood before him in a loud plaid suit. "…Dad?"
Charlie Venkman eased a few steps closer until he could lay a hand on the Crow's taut shoulder. The Crow was trembling with the effort it took not to simply snap the creep's neck. "Don't do this, son."
"Why not?" the Crow snapped, his pale fingers digging into the flesh Tyler's neck. "This piece of trash doesn't deserve to live! He killed you-"
"I know, Peter. I know!" Charlie's own grip tightened. "But he's not worth what killing him will do to you. Please. You gotta trust me on this one."
Trust? That was a laugh. The Crow snarled, staring down into the terrified eyes of the thing that had killed his father. He might have learned the hard way not to trust Charlie, but he still loved him, and knowing his father was dead -and that Peter hadn't been able to save him- still hurt. He squeezed harder.
"Peter! Listen to me," Charlie pleaded. "You don't want to do this."
"That's where you're wrong!" The Crow dragged his furious gaze up to meet his father's concerned one. "Give me one good reason not to ice this little punk, right here and now."
"You want a reason? I'll give you a reason!" Charlie was shouting, now. "Your immortal soul, Peter. You willing to risk that for a moment's worth of revenge you'll regret for the rest of your… That you'll regret as soon as you calm down?"
For what seemed like an eternity, neither of them moved. Then, with a feral snarl, the Crow yanked his hands away from the punk's throat. Tyler's head smacked into the asphalt, but he was too busy sucking in air and coughing violently to even flinch at the additional pain. The Crow stared down at his father's killer, the fury inside him urging him to finish what he had started. His hands clenched impotently…and, then, he remembered. Remembered what these hands could do, now. And that there were worse things than death.
He looked around briefly, located the gun, and gathered it up in both his stark white hands. Cradling the weapon, he let the violent, blood-drenched images it held flood his mind. Storing them.
Then he looked again at the killer lying on the ground before him.
The dark smile that curled the corners of his mouth was far more frightening than even the snarl had been. Catching a glimpse of it, the punk whimpered and tried to crawl away, broken wrist tucked protectively against his chest. The Crow cut the creep's legs out from under him, then knelt over him. Almost tenderly, he reached down and caught the punk's face between his open palms.
"I have something for you," the Crow whispered, still smiling as he unleashed his gift directly into the murderer's mind. "All his pain. All for you."
Charlie Venkman's murderer screamed.
Chapter 17: Skull Cowboy
"Death followed by eternity...the worst of both worlds. It is a terrible thought."
- Tom Stoppard
When Peter looked up again, Charlie was gone. He shook his head ruefully; death sure hadn't changed his dad much. Unlike the number it had done on him. A whimper drew his attention to the shivering form curled at his feet and Peter's thoughtful expression mutated into a sneer of contempt. He ripped a few strips of cloth from the punk's shirt and used them to truss him up like a Christmas goose, then dumped him out of sight behind a Dumpster. If nothing else, the little creep would make a suitable peace-offering for a certain police officer.
Peter stepped away from the mouth of the alley…and suddenly realized he was standing on a busy street in broad daylight. Oops. Chagrined, he glanced around. He didn't think he could pull off that teleportation -or whatever the heck it was- trick again so soon, and without the adrenaline rush to cancel out his fear of heights the rooftops were out of the question. With a sigh of resignation, he hunched his shoulders, ducked his head, and did his best to impersonate the Invisible Man as he hurried back to the firehouse.
For once, luck seemed to be with him and he made it back home without further incident. Once safely inside, Peter went straight to the telephone in his office. He dialed, then waited impatiently while he was connected with Frump's desk. Finally, the detective picked up. "Frump."
"Got a present for ya, Frumpy," Peter said, skipping the niceties. He rattled off the address of the alley where he had left his little 'playmate'. "Better hurry and avoid the holiday rush. Everyone's gonna want one."
"Venkman! What the hell are you talking about?"
"One of the creeps who invaded the firehouse. I left him for you, all wrapped up and tied with a bow." Peter's hand was clenched tightly around the receiver, so tightly that the plastic creaked at the abuse. "The little shit murdered my dad."
"Venkman…" Frump's voice sounded strange, almost sympathetic, before he seemed to catch himself. "This suspect... He still one of the breathing?"
"Yeah." Now that his rage had been banked once more, Peter was glad he hadn't snuffed the guy. Death, he decided, was too good for the little shit. Besides, he wanted the punk to enjoy his parting "gift" for a long time to come. Mouth curving in a contemptuous smirk, he said, "Maybe a bit worse for wear, but the little insect is definitely still among the living."
"See that he stays that way. The last thing I need is another corpse on my hands." A brief pause, then, "You got hard evidence on any of this or is it more of that ooga-booga, beyond the grave crap?"
"The murder weapon hard enough evidence for you? Just get your ass over there." Without waiting for a reply from the sputtering detective, Peter hung up the phone. He stood staring glumly at the instrument, then remarked to no one in particular, "Well, that's my good deed for the day."
"Not exactly rescuing kittens from trees or helping little old ladies across the street, is it?"
Startled, Peter nearly jumped out of his skin. He spun around to find the speaker leaning negligently against the wooden filing cabinets separating his office from the main reception area. The intruder grinned, a quick flash of white teeth in a dark face, then opened the gate and sauntered into the office, his boot heels clacking on the brick floor. He swept the office with a curious gaze, then settled comfortably in one of the wooden chairs across from Peter. "Nice place." A beat, then, in the same considering tone, "To visit, anyway."
Peter stood frozen where he was, eying the intruder. The man was about Peter's own height, with dark, oddly knowing eyes behind a pair of round, amber-tinted sunglasses. A bowler hat hid most of his short, dreadlocked hair, and a heavily fringed, black suede jacket covered his torso. In one hand, he carried a circle of thick, ivory or bone beads, carved to resemble grinning skulls, which he worried endlessly between his long, deft fingers. He looked a bit like Baron Samedi meets Brisco County.
Sheesh. Maybe they should just ditch the damned alarm system and install a revolving door. Might as well, for all the good it was doing them Finally, Peter found his voice. "Who the hell are you? And how did you get in here?"
"Moi? No door is barred against me, kemosabe," the stranger said, flashing that odd smile again. "As for who I am… I'm known by many names, but you can call me Skull Cowboy."
"Oookay." Peter wondered if he should try for the door - or the Asp still hidden in his desk drawer. Instead, he settled for folding his arms over his chest and raising a querulous eyebrow. "Cowboy, huh? So, what can I do for you, pardner?"
"Actually," Skull Cowboy said, "it's what I can do for you."
Peter's other eyebrow rose. "Oh, really. And what's that, exactly?"
Skull Cowboy shrugged languidly, moving the worry beads through his deft fingers with unhurried grace. "You have questions, no? Maybe I have answers." When Peter didn't rise to the bait, he added, "Most people in your position can't stop asking 'what am I? Why am I here? When can I go back?'"
"Most people in my position aren't Ghostbusters," Peter countered. "We're getting a handle on it fine on our own. So… thanks, but no, thanks."
The entity spread his hands. "Fair enough." He hesitated. "I should tell you, though… Your friend Janine is in danger."
Now, he had Peter's undivided attention. Peter's eyes narrowed, and he demanded, "Are you threatening her?"
"Peace, brother!" Skull Cowboy shook his head, holding up his hands to ward off Peter's anger. "Threats are not my gig."
"Then how do you know she's in danger? For that matter, how do I know you're not in league with the asshole who shot my dad?" With every word, Peter was growing angrier. He could feel the Crow stirring within him. "Maybe your good buddy Tyler was supposed to distract me while you snuck in here and did something to…" Peter bit off his tirade, mid-sentence. The last thing he wanted to do was to draw attention to Ray, who he fervently hoped was still safely upstairs in the lab.
"I am not here to hurt anyone," Skull Cowboy assured him, calmly. "I'm… a go-between. A messenger, of sorts, if you will."
Peter snorted derisively. "You tryin' to tell me you're an angel?"
When nothing more was forthcoming, Peter finally said, "Why should I listen to a word you're saying?"
"Why not?" Skull Cowboy made himself more comfortable in his seat. "It's not like listening costs anything..."
"I could always charge you office rates," Peter said shortly. As either Ghostbuster or psychologist, his time didn't come cheaply. He scowled at the intruder. "So talk, already. What do you mean 'Janine's in danger'?"
"Just what I said." Skull Cowboy fussed with his cuffs, smoothing them down over his wrists. "She's been in a coma since that night. The doctors don't know why she hasn't woken up."
"And I suppose you do?"
Peter's glare seemed to have no effect on his visitor; that realization did nothing to improve Peter's mood. He tipped his head back and demanded of the universe in general, "Is there some cosmic requirement that all supernatural entities speak in cryptic nonsense?"
"I'm pretty sure it's in the handbook somewhere," Skull Cowboy agreed, dark eyes amused behind his amber lenses.
"Must've lost my copy." Peter dipped his chin, his voice taking on a dangerous edge. "And I never had much patience to begin with, so let's cut to the chase. What's threatening Janine and what can I do about it?"
"What you do is up to you," Skull Cowboy said somberly, all traces of amusement vanishing from his demeanor. "As for the danger... Have you ever faced a wraith, Peter?"
"I'm assuming you're not talking about a bad 80s movie starring Charlie Sheen and a souped up sports car?" Peter deadpanned.
Skull Cowboy merely raised one eloquent eyebrow and waited.
A wraith? Peter wracked his memory, turning over the myriad cases the Ghostbusters had tackled over the years. Had any of them involved that particular supernatural menace? What, exactly, was the difference between a wraith and, say, a nether entity or a plain old ghost? Ray would know, but there was no way in hell that Peter was going to call his buddy down here, right now - not with a supernatural critter of unknown classification and power sitting in his office.
Memory finally tossed up the relevant card. A wraith was a particularly nasty gooper with a penchant for stealing...
"... Souls." The word hissed out between his lips. Barely aware that he had spoken aloud, Peter settled the weight of his sudden fear in the narrow gaze he directed at the other man. "Are you telling me that Janine tangled with a damned soul stealer?"
Skull Cowboy nodded. "Perhaps it's more apropos to say it tangled with her - That is one tough lady."
"What do you mean?" Peter asked, though he silently agreed with the assessment.
"I mean it didn't get all of her soul, only a portion of it."
"And if I can get it back..."
Another slow nod.
"Where do I find this thing?" Peter demanded. He could feel the Crow stirring eagerly inside his own soul. "And how do I kill it?"
"I suspect your feathered friend will help you on that one," Skull Cowboy said. "I've said all that I am allowed to..."
"Yeah, you're a regular fount of information, buddy."
An elegant shrug set the suede fringe on his jacket to dancing. "I do what I can." He leaned back more comfortably in his seat, crossing one leg over the other and resting his ankle on his knee. "You care about your friends?"
Skull Cowboy made a lazy "fair enough" gesture with one hand. "Enough to hurt them to help them?"
"You gotta be cruel to be kind, mon frere."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Peter demanded angrily. "You're outta your mind if you think I'm gonna deliberately hurt the guys-"
"Your leaving hurt them," Skull Cowboy interrupted with quiet certitude. "How do you think they'll feel when you have to go away, again?"
The anger drained out of Peter like water from a broken pot. His shoulders slumped. "So...This is a two-way ticket. I wondered." He pushed his fingers roughly through his hair, mussing the thick brown mass. "...Express train to hell."
"Your final destination's not up to me, amigo." Skull Cowboy watched him closely over the tops of his amber-tinted lenses. "That's between you and your..." he waved an airy gesture ceilingward, "...travel agent."
"And just how will my leaving help my friends?"
Skull Cowboy shrugged. The worry beads in his hand clacked and rattled as he played them through his fingers, again. "You really think hanging out with your new 'soul mate' would be good for them in the long run?"
Peter conceded the point. But... "I'll control it. Him. Me. Whatever!" He straightened, determination showing in ever taut line of his body. "I won't let the Crow -or anyone else- hurt them!"
"Big talk, bro." The beads rattled again, carved skull faces grinning madly from between nimble fingers. "But how long can you walk the walk?"
"As long as I have to."
"Forever is a long time." Skull Cowboy's expression was somber, but his dark eyes gleamed with compassion. "Take it from one who knows."
"...Forever?" Peter said faintly.
The smirk was back. Skull Cowboy arched an eyebrow. "Eternity? The long haul? You know. A very long time?" His expression softened into something like compassion. "You don't age when you're dead."
Realization hit Peter with all the subtlety of an Acme anvil from on high. "Oh."
Slim, dark fingers stilling on his worry beads, Skull Cowboy watched him closely. "You get it, now? Everyone around you will grow old and, in the fullness of time, die..."
"Everyone except me."
"We have a winner!"
Dully, Peter asked, "So... What do I have to do?"
"Do I look like 'Dear Abbey' to you?" Radiating an air of offended dignity, Skull Cowboy drew himself up to his full height and adjusted his threads. The worry beads resumed their restless cycle through his fingers. "Sorry, cuz. You'll have to burn that bridge when it falls on you."
Peter blinked. "That may be the most mixed metaphor I've ever heard. Do you try to confuse all your victims or did I just get lucky?"
"Victims? No, no. I prefer to think of it more as services rendered." Skull Cowboy spread his arms in an elegant shrug. "I'm just a messenger, compadre. I don't make the rules."
"Then who does?"
"Ah. That's beyond my pervue, I'm afraid. When you get back to the Other Side..." A smaller shrug, then, as enigmatic as the tiny smile that accompanied it. "Perhaps all your questions will be answered. Or not."
Peter raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Don't you know?"
"Moi?" Skull Cowboy spread one hand over his heart and contrived to look surprised. "Man, I just work here."
"You'll forgive me if I hope I don't see you again," Peter said flatly.
Skull Cowboy's knowing smile was tinged with sadness. "Everyone meets me sooner or later, cousin." He waved lazily as he sauntered toward the wall, then through it, fading as he went. Finally, there was nothing left of him but the gentle clacking of his worry beads and a whispered farewell on the wind. "Don't forget about your friend..."
Peter stared at the spot where the apparition had vanished. He shook his head. Looked like Egon would have to tweak those security settings, again…
Peter's head snapped around. Ray was standing rather sheepishly on the other side of the wooden file cabinets, and peering around the corner to fix Peter with a wide-eyed stare. Peter's own eyes narrowed. "How much of that did you hear, Ray?"
"Um… Most of it, I think. Sorry." Ray came around the corner, into the office. "Peter - Do you think what he said was true? About… Janine?"
"I don't know," Peter said truthfully. A part of him would rather have believed Skull Cowboy was lying - about Janine, and about Peter's future. But the greater part of him was forced to acknowledge that, if it were the truth, then Janine at least had a hope of recovery. And there was one way he knew of to find out if Skull Cowboy had been telling the truth about what had happened that night.
Before he could change his mind, he stalked past Ray out into the reception area, and slammed his hands down flat on Janine's desk.
Chapter 18: Every Feather a Murder
Crow, feeling his brain slip,
Finds his every feather the fossil of a murder.
- Ted Hughes (Crow's Nerve Fails)
Hands grabbed at his shoulders. He shrugged them away, too caught up in the agony coursing through his body to open his eyes and see who - or what - was trying to manhandle him.
Distorted images flashed through his head. Janine's desk, cluttered with papers. A manicured hand - candy apple nails and bangle bracelets - moving to turn the pages of a fashion magazine. A flicker of movement, of shadow and shape, something as red as the nails on that feminine hand flying up through the top of the desk, and then PAIN. Pain such as he/she/they had never felt before, tearing through his/her/their body. Ripping through their soul...
Something slammed into him from the side, knocking Peter clear of the desk and its psychic taint. He hit the floor, hard, and rolled instinctively to come up on top of his attacker. Drawn to the surface by his exposure to the dark memory trapped in Janine's desk, the Crow was already out and in charge of Peter's body by the time he looked down to see who had tackled him, one arm pulled back to strike.
At the last second, his thoughts cleared enough that he recognized the round, shocked face beneath him. Peter froze. Slowly, deliberately, he lowered his arm. For a long moment, neither man moved. When Peter had regained sufficient control, he sucked in a deep breath and said, "Shit, Ray. Don't do that to me. I nearly-"
"You didn't though." Ray's smile was shaky, but reassuring. "I knew you wouldn't hurt me. Not on purpose."
"Yeah, well, 'by accident' is gonna hurt just as much, buddy." Peter let himself slump bonelessly to one side, and then lay there, the cold of the brick floor seeping through his shirt and somehow grounding him. Turning his head, he saw that Ray had managed to throw them both well clear of the danger zone. "Nice tackle, though."
"Thanks. Let's never do it again. Okay?"
"Sounds like a plan to me." Reluctantly, Peter shoved himself upright. "Come on. You and I have a lot to talk about before the guys get back..."
Note: This is only part of the chapter, but it's been so long since I updated, I wanted to post something to assure everyone still reading that I have not abandoned this story. Hopefully, more to follow before too much longer.