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A Locked-Drawer Mystery

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It was, Winston realized much later, not so much a mystery as a comedy of errors.

It didn’t take a detective to realize how deeply smitten Janine was with the team brain (and that someone else could be called the team brain on a team with Dr. Raymond Stantz on it was impressive indeed). At first, Winston figured Egon for the shy type, maybe one of those nerds that didn’t ever get much chance to interact with girls. After all, Columbia didn’t go co-ed until just before they got fired, and MIT’s gender balance problems are legend. That might have explained why Egon got so flustered at her professions of affection at first, but it didn’t give him the first clue why Egon still dealt with it so poorly nearly a year later.

On the other hand, it would have taken a whole platoon of private eyes to keep track of Peter Venkman’s many girlfriends. At first, Winston hadn’t noticed so much - Peter seemed to be taken with Dana - but that didn’t survive the trauma of the rooftop on Central Park West for long; she fled back into the safety and security of her old life as soon as Peter slipped into his old bad habits. And then it was a new girl every week; some weeks it was two or three, although, Winston noted, never concurrently. His original deduction was that Peter was reacting to losing someone he really loved, but Ray explained that this was more or less the way Venkman had acted through their college years. There might have been an extra frantic edge to it now, as if he were trying to prove himself, but it was an established pattern.

“It’s almost like Pete’s trying to average out Egon somehow,” Winston mused out loud while trying to fix Ecto’s radio after its third sliming in a month.

“Tell me about it,” Janine groaned from behind her computer. “I’ve had more calls from his exes today than I have paying customers.”

Slimer drifted past, babbling excitedly about nothing in particular. Winston re-crimped a connector and stood up. “So,” he asked, “do you know what he keeps in the one drawer on his desk that locks? Ray thinks it’s old Playboys.”

“Nah, he keeps those in the top drawer.” She made a face and rolled her pencil between her fingers. “If it’s porn, it’s harder-core stuff than that. I’d guess it’s something more sentimental, though - maybe a photo of his mom.”

Winston nodded. That would make sense; Peter was far more open about his sex life than his love life - and kept his family life very close to the vest.

And it wasn’t really Winston’s business, anyway.

But at the time, he was still thinking of it as a mystery - and he really couldn’t leave one unsolved. He had to read to the very end, no matter how gory it got.

---

Egon sat back on the stairs and rubbed his eyes. “Winston,” he called up to the next floor, “I need a three-eights inch spanner and a proton-flow double-ended connector to finish repairing the proton pack. They should both be on the table in the laboratory; could you please get them for me? I don’t want to set this down while the positron stabilizer is decoupled.”

“ ‘Cause it could destabilize, and that would be bad, right?” Winston didn’t mind, although he was getting pretty good at repairing the packs on the fly himself. This one, though, had taken a pretty hard blow; the Class Seven had thrown Peter down a flight of stairs, and he’d landed pack-first. The padding between his back and the proton pack had probably saved him from breaking any limbs -or his spine, for that matter - but the fall had left both him and the pack battered and gashed. He’d certainly cracked a couple of ribs, and so Ray was sitting with him upstairs while Egon played Mr. Fix-it.

“Yes.” Egon’s voice was dry, almost flat, which meant he was more upset than he felt comfortable letting on.

Winston climbed the spiral staircase to the third floor and took the opportunity to peek in the bunkroom. Pete was lying on his stomach looking vaguely uncomfortable; Ray was holding a glass of orange juice with a straw, trying to convince Peter to drink some.

Peter wasn’t arguing with him; he wasn’t talking much at all. Winston frowned; that was a bad sign - it meant Peter was spending most of his mental energy managing his internal state. He was either in a lot of pain, or he was blaming himself for letting the bust go bad. Winston wanted to go in and tell him not to worry about it, that they’d all misjudged how quickly the demon would turn to violence and it could have been any of them that got smacked around, but he was pretty sure Ray had said all that and more already.

If it wasn’t helping from Ray, then it wasn’t going to help from him, either, he was pretty sure.

He let himself into the lab quietly. The spanner was out on the table, just where Egon had described, but the proton flow connector wasn’t. Oh, boy. Winston scratched his head and tried to re-create the layout he’d seen the last time Egon was repairing a pack up here.

Wait, why wasn’t he repairing the pack up here? If it was really too unstable to bring up the stairs, it would have been too unstable to bring back in Ecto’s equipment rack, right? (Especially since the last round of New York potholes had done a number on its shocks - replacing them was somewhere around #19 on Winston’s to-do list for the next time they had a dry spell.) Egon hadn’t decoupled the stabilizer until after he opened the pack up. So, if he could bring it up here to lay on a nice big lab table with clamps to steady it, why had Egon decided to fix it in the garage?

Just at that thought, Winston’s eyes lit on a filing cabinet drawer labeled in Egon’s illegible, spidery handwriting. “Gotcha,” he muttered; that was where he’d last seen Egon put a proton flow connector. He grabbed the handle and tugged.

It didn’t budge. Locked? Why?

Winston glanced around and spotted a key on the mantle, just behind the bust of Einstein. He tried it in the filing cabinet lock, and was rewarded with a satisfying click. Yanking the drawer open, Winston reached in for the connector -

And his hand encountered a manilla folder instead. He pulled it out and groped underneath it; there, that was the part he was looking for. He was about to set the folder back in when curiosity got the better of him; why was a document folder here, in the lab, in a parts drawer, instead of downstairs in Janine’s well-maintained files?

He flipped open the folder and was immediately sorry he’d done so. Sheer inertia carried him through a few flips before he caught himself and closed it. He knew magazines like that existed - someone had been hiding one around the bunker during Basic as a prank - and this one was pretty soft-core at that, but it hadn’t occurred to him that Egon, of all people, would be hiding gay porn around the firehouse.

Or a Polaroid photo of Venkman, stripped to the waist and flexing for some off-camera girl.

Carefully, Winston replaced the folder, closed the filing cabinet, relocked it, and replaced the key on the mantle. He noted that there was no dust on that corner, as opposed to the bust; the key had been used recently. “Well,” he whispered to himself, “that explains the Janine situation.” He tiptoed past the bunkroom and down the stairs, hoping not to disturb Pete and Ray.

Egon looked up as he came down the last flight. “Ah, yes. Thank you, Winston,” he said politely, as Winston handed him the spanner and connector. He immediately dove back into the interior workings of the pack, his eyes focused on the work in front of him.

Winston sat down next to him. “Can I hold that for you?”

“Ah, what?” Egon’s head came up, as if he hadn’t realized Winston was still there. He blinked, then nodded. “Actually, yes. Can you steady the accelerator end of the pack while I switch the parts out? I think the stabilizer is out of synchronization.”

“Sure thing.” Winston shifted the rounder end of the pack off of Egon’s knee and onto his own thigh, steadying it with both hands. He watched Egon carefully disconnect, replace, and reconnect four or five components, none of which was the stabilizer.

Keeping his voice low, Winston asked, “Hey - you want me to take care of this for a few minutes while you run up and check on him?”

Egon froze, unblinking. Very carefully, he asked, “Does your asking the question mean that his condition has worsened, or that mine has?”

Winston suppressed a chuckle. “You, my man. He’s in rough shape, but he’s keeping his cool, and Ray’s taking good care of him.” He gestured at the small pile of parts at Egon’s feet. “You’re taking out everything that doesn’t look like it’s 100% new, whether it’s near the dents or not.”

“The pack needs an overall rehaul,” Egon justified, “but - you’re right. I’m dithering.” He sighed, and ran one long hand down his longer face. “I should have -”

“If we’re not letting Pete blame himself for what happened, we don’t need you doing it in his place,” Winston scolded gently. “No one could have guessed ahead of time what was going to happen. The last four Class Sevens we’ve encountered were all more than willing to talk, even if we did need to bust them in the end. We didn’t know this one was going to strike first and make speeches later.” He pointed at the pack. “I can switch out these two connectors and reassemble the positron matrix. Go check up on him, and you can clean up my mistakes when you get back.”

Egon nodded, shifted the rest of the weight of the pack to Winston, and stood up, stretching. “I suspect,” he said, smiling gently, “that there will be no mistakes to correct. I will be back soon.”

“Take your time.” Winston picked up the spanner and kept an ear out.

Ten minutes later, Ray pattered down the stairs and crouched down where Egon had been. “Looks good,” he said with a grin. “I think I’m going to have to re-tool the back facing, but the internals look great.”

Winston glanced upward. “They doing okay?”

“There’s a few things unsaid,” Ray shrugged. “You know how Peter is - he has to fill every silence, but usually not with stuff that means anything.”

“He was quiet earlier,” Winston objected.

Ray looked sad for a second. “Yeah, but that was with me.” He brightened almost instantly. “Thanks for taking care of the pack, and Egon.”

“No problem. Glad to help.” Winston stood up and headed towards Ecto. “I’m going to put one of the spare packs in the rack for the time being.”

“Sure,” Ray agreed. “Although I don’t think we’ll be able to take on anything bigger than a Class Five, with Peter down for a couple of days.”

“We’ve got two Class Twos on the schedule for tomorrow,” Winston reminded him.

Ray chucked. “Oh, Peter’s going to gripe when he remembers that. He’ll hate that we’re going without him.”

Winston glanced upwards again. Two voices, one tenor and one bass, murmured from above, but he couldn’t make out the words. Didn’t need to, either. “Yeah,” he agreed, “he probably will.”

---

A day and a half later, Winston found himself in the reception area at 5:30 am, heading towards Peter’s desk with a flashlight.

It’s not just to get a look at the drawer, he told himself. Janine needs last week’s receipts to file them, and he’s not coming down the stairs under his own power for another day or two yet.

In the back of his mind, his mother’s voice answered You’re still sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong, Winston Zeddemore, and you’re going to lose your nose doing that one of these days.

The receipts were, as he had guessed, in the middle drawer, along with business cards from a random assortment of old clients, a couple of travel invoices for out-of-town busts, and a battered old Western novel. Winston stacked them in a neat pile on Janine’s desk, and tried to convince himself to walk away, to go back upstairs and catch another forty winks, or make himself a nice breakfast with no one else to steal the toast (except Slimer, who was the king of the one-handed toast snatch).

Nope. Wasn’t going to happen. A mystery needed solving. Winston pulled the bobby pin from his pajama pocket and tried the lock on the bottom drawer. Cl-lick.

He eased it open, certain that it was going to squeak or stick. But no, it wasn’t any worse than the other drawer had been. Winston flicked the flashlight beam over the contents.

The item on top was, in fact, a Playboy, one from several years ago. Winston flipped it open. Ah, the centerfold looked a little like Dana; apparently Peter had a type. He set it aside and looked at the next one -

Red Hot American Studs.

Winston’s mouth made a silent “O” as he flipped through the rest of the drawer. The ratio of beefcake to cheesecake was about 6 to 4, at a variety of levels of raunch. And then, at the very bottom, was another Polaroid. This one was a little out of focus, and its subject clearly wasn’t posing for the camera - this had been taken either secretly or as a super-candid shot.

Egon did, Winston had to admit, have a nice ass, or at least did when he was in college. A little small for Winston’s taste, but shapely. His glasses were almost falling off his nose; he’d probably been drunk when the photo was shot.

Well, well, well. What to do with this new information? Briefly, Winston wondered if Ray knew, and quickly came to the conclusion that he probably at least suspected. If he knew for sure, he would almost certainly be actively trying to get them together.

Did they know about each other? Were they nurturing crushes in secret, or were these relics of an old flame from college, now run its course? No, if that were true on Egon’s end he wouldn’t have stored Pete’s photo with his jack-off material. He was too straightlaced to dwell on the past in that sort of prurient manner; he buried his past, not praised it. And Pete had been a fraternity jock in college - any hint of less-than-straightness on his part would have been met with rejection at best and violence at worst. Winston had been brought up religious, and there was some of that old squeamishness in him, too, but he was a reasonable person - his religious qualms were his own, not anyone else’s, and it wasn’t like Pete or Egon were born-again, anyway.

He carefully closed the drawer, jiggled the tumblers back out of place so it was at least partially locked, and headed back upstairs, a plan slowly forming.

---

Winston hadn’t expected the timing to be so good. It was the first day Peter was recovered enough to be on desk duty, and it had been a light day - only one scheduled call, a Class Three in a family grocery who objected to a change in the produce department, and no emergency busts. Janine had left for the evening, Peter had grumbled at dinner about needing to get caught up on paperwork and headed back to his desk, and Egon had gone into the lab and closed the door.

Having found nothing decent on TV, Winston had settled in the big comfy chair in the den with a new Antonio Skillerman novel, Kachina Killer. Ray was still channel-flipping, trying to find an old movie or a cartoon to kill the time.

The yelp from downstairs and the holler from upstairs were almost simultaneous. Winston tried not to flinch, but he did take a deep breath and buried his nose farther in the book as two sets of footsteps on the stairs converged on him and Ray.

Egon waved a Polaroid in the air. “How - when did you - I don’t even remember -”

Peter was only slightly more coherent. “Becky took this photo for Liz; what is it doing here? Why did -”

“You’ve both had those for years,” Ray stated flatly, eyes still on the screen.

Egon and Peter wheeled on him. “You did this?” they gulped in unison.

“No,” Ray answered, “and I don’t know who did, either, but I’ve known you each had those two photos since, oh, ’81 or so.” He switched off the TV and turned to face them both. “I tried to explain this to you when Egon came back to Columbia from MIT, but neither of you wanted to listen. I figured you’d eventually come around to actually telling each other, when you were ready.” He paused, eyes flicking from one photo to the other with just a hint of prurient interest before setting back into Ray’s usual expression of innocence. “I don’t suppose this qualifies, exactly, but it’s close enough.”

Peter blinked. “You’re not just talking about the photos.”

“No, Peter.” Ray gave him a strangely vulpine grin. “I’m not just talking about two old photos. I’m talking about everything you’ve been thinking and feeling while looking at those photos.” He paused, watching Egon blush from neck to hairline. “Or at the real people the photos represent.”

Peter gaped like a fish. “But - I - he never - Janine -”

I never?” Egon whirled on him, nearly roaring. “I’m not the one who’s been bed-hopping since high school!”

Peter looked deeply uncomfortable. “Well, I - I never wanted to get too close to anyone, since I knew I probably wasn’t going to be able to fully commit. The job, my freedom, and - yeah - you.” His eyes found Egon’s, flicked away, and settled for Winston’s instead. “I talk a bigger game than I actually played, honestly - I’ve made out with dozens of women, but I haven’t actually gone to bed with most of them. It didn’t -” He trailed off, and looked back at Ray in desperation.

Winston offered, “You didn’t want to lead them on?”

“I haven’t been great about that,” Peter admitted. “It’s been really easy to use my adoring public as a general beard. But whenever one got too serious, I broke it off.”

“Or she dumped you when she realized you weren’t going to get serious,” Ray added.

“Yeah.” Peter looked deflated. He glanced up at Egon. “Sorry, Big Guy. I just - I kind of figured you weren’t into sex at all, or if you were -”

Egon didn’t let him finish. He swooped on him like a hawk; Peter found himself tight in Egon’s long arms, his mouth pressed against Egon’s. Now he was the one that was blushing. “Uh, guys, we -”

“You need to talk,” Winston said diplomatically. “I don’t think we’re going anywhere for the moment; you - uh - need the upstairs to yourselves?”

They didn’t actually answer; they disappeared up the spiral staircase without ever quite breaking the desperate hug. Ray turned the TV back on and upped the volume discreetly.

“Thanks,” he said, just loud enough for Winston to hear him. “I’ve been trying to get them to realize for years.”

“I’m actually not sure how I feel about that yet,” Winston admitted. “But - yeah. You’re welcome. And so are they.”

Ray toyed with the remote. “So - uh - you wanna flip a coin for who takes Janine out to console her?”

Winston chuckled. “I know I don’t see her very often, and we’re not technically exclusive, but I think Wanda might get upset. Tell you what, I’ll call her and we’ll make it a double date?”

“If Janine says yes, sure,” Ray said, blushing a bit himself.

Winston turned back to his book. At least Ray wasn’t a mystery. He was more of a science fiction novel, but, Winston reflected, some days you were in the mood for something a little more fantastic and straightforward.