Holtzmann didn't really expect the others to give her the whole second floor, but somehow it ended up that way. Erin insisted on keeping her condo. (Abby insisted on Erin getting a goddamn cell phone.) Holtzmann doesn't know where Kevin lives, but it's far enough away that he rides his motorcycle to work every day, though he likes that thing enough that for all she knows he could live around the corner. Patty and Abby like bunking up on the third floor, as far from the containment unit as they can get; Holtzmann can hear them overhead at night, laughing like teens at a slumber party. Now that it's June and warm out, sometimes they pitch tents on the roof. It's cute.
Holtzmann generally doesn't go up to high places if she can avoid it. Even the broad, flat roof of a three-story building gives her that squirrelly feeling. For the most part, she stays on the second floor.
During the day, she does what any experimental nuclear physicist with an unlimited budget and no institutional supervision would do: hammers shit together and fucks with it until it does something like what she wants. That's actually the same thing she did when she had no budget and constant supervision, but now the odds of success are higher. She doesn't have to use aluminum casings anymore, though sometimes she does for old times' sake or just because she can't bear to waste perfectly good chromium on something that's probably going to explode. "I'm saving it for the production model" is her favorite joke, which is good because she tells it to herself all the time and she'd hate to bore herself. Fortunately, being Holtzmann has a very low chance of being boring.
At night, after dinner with the team—Erin calls them the crew but Abby calls them the team and Holtzmann, out of habit, sides with Abby—she gets on the R and heads to Ginger's. She's got kind of a fan club there now. It's awkward. Holtzmann is good with awkward but this isn't the kind of awkward she's good with. She's always been notorious; being famous is different. Sometimes she thinks about getting back on the wagon just so she can go to meetings and pretend to be anonymous.
Holtzmann hasn't gotten laid since what she's come to think of as the big kaboom. Even if she could get past the fame differential, there's no way she's going to take a date back to the clubhouse. The floors are sturdy but they creak like anything, and Abby and Patty's cackling is the least sexy soundtrack. Plus she never got around to getting a bed. And as a rule she doesn't go home with women. The odds of being shot by a jealous husband are lower than they used to be, but the odds of being shot by a jealous wife have gone way up.
No, that's bullshit, those are bullshit excuses, come on, Holtz. The thing is, there's no way to get past the fame differential. She never really had friends at Ginger's but she thought she had something like a community. Now she's got fans and they want her to sign things and they hit on her like it's a rite of passage or a challenging level in a video game. Holtzmann knows basically nothing about how to interact with other humans but she's been a woman in a graduate physics program and she knows what it's like to be a box someone wants to check off. That feeling is why she told the ivory tower to go fuck itself. That feeling does not make her inclined to fuck anyone else.
There's also the problem with the ghosts. She sees them everywhere now. Ginger's is full of them: ghost lesbians sitting at the bar and dancing on the tables, in ones and twos and groups, trading ghostly gossip and stealing sips from the living patrons' drinks. Holtzmann has no idea whether they're real or the trauma and radiation have started to make her brain melt. But no one else seems to see them, so she's pretty sure she's just going crazier.
She doesn't hallucinate ghosts at the clubhouse, so it's tempting to stay in and work 28/6. (She's been trying to tweak her sleep cycle for maximum productivity.) She likes playing pool, though, and she's very good at it even though they don't let her use her homemade cue anymore. And she can only take so much of the same four walls and the same three friends and Kevin. And she's sort of forgotten what sex is like but she remembers it used to be pretty fun. So she goes to Ginger's and drinks a lot of beer and shoots a lot of pool and says nonsensical things to cute, puzzled women and ignores the ghosts and waits for someone to remember that she's the same old Holtz who hung out there before she was a Ghostbuster, before she went to California, before she was even sure she was a dyke. It's not working, but she has no idea what else to do. Something big and cultural happened while she was hip-deep in vertex detectors at Berkeley and now straight people look gay and gay people look straight and everyone keeps talking about something called Scissr. Ginger's, as weird as things have gotten there, is her only hope.
Patty knows everything Holtzmann doesn't know about how people work. She hears the floor creak when Holtzmann leaves at night and has a pretty good idea of where she goes. She knows Holtzmann comes back alone and never smells like anyone's perfume. And she knows every happy couple in her family was set up by her Uncle Winston. He's got the touch. Strange hobby for a dude who runs a funeral home, but he says it does him good to know how many babies got made because he put the right man in front of the right woman at the right time.
Patty decides it's time to give him a call.
"I never matched up a lesbian before," he says, "but I got some ideas. What's she into?"
Patty purses her lips, thinking. "Spooky stuff," she says finally. "Not just ghosts, but physics stuff I can't even follow about things that ain't really there except sometimes they are and they move when you don't watch ‘em. She works with her hands, all the time. Builds things. She wants a family, like a chosen family, but I can't see her wantin' kids. She takes a lot of risks ‘cause she knows she's probably gonna die in ten years from some weird-ass cancer no one's ever heard of."
The sound of gunfire echoes up from the second floor, followed by an electrical zap and a small explosion. A bit of plaster dust sifts down from the ceiling. This happens so often they call it firehouse dandruff.
"Oh yeah," Patty says, "and she likes guns. Really, really likes guns."
"Spooky stuff, guns, and a death wish? That trims the list a bit," Uncle Winston says. "But it puts one name all the way up to the top, and I'd been meaning to introduce her to you anyway. You think your friend'd mind going out to Brooklyn?"
Patty thinks of Holtzmann's late-night walks to the R.
"Nah," she says, "I think that's fine."
"HOLTZMANN! DINNER!" Sound carries up from the ground floor perfectly well, thanks to the hole around the pole, but Abby yells anyway because... she's Abby.
"I can't!" Holtzmann yells back, wrenching at a rusted bolt on the vintage electric chair she picked up on eBay. She has plans for this baby. "Maybe tomorrow!"
"Holtzmann, you need to eat!" Erin, fretting as usual.
"I already ate this week!" She puts her back into it and the bolt finally turns a bit.
"Holtz, don't make me come up there! We all eat dinner together, that's the rule!"
Holtzmann smiles and puts down the wrench. She's learned that she can't say no to Patty, who has somehow come from entirely outside their group to turn them into a proper family. Maybe because she knows what a proper family looks like. God knows Holtzmann has no clue, and from what she's picked up, Abby and Erin's parents weren't so great either. But Patty has very clear ideas about what families do, and Holtzmann needs a real family even more than she needs to take the chair apart and see whether the disassembled components retain their PKE readings. She WD40's her hands and slides down the pole.
"Can someone tell me why we keep ordering from Zhu's?" Erin asks as they unpack the bags.
"For the chopsticks," Holtzmann suggests. As usual in the post-kaboom era, Zhu's has sent sixteen pairs of chopsticks for five people's worth of food. Holtzmann pockets the spares; they're non-conductive and extremely flammable, which comes in handy sometimes.
"We can buy chopsticks!" Erin says. "We have an infinite budget. You know what else we can buy? Better food. We're in Chinatown, for God's sake—"
"Tribeca," Patty says. "Chinatown stops at West Broadway and we're west of there."
"Fine, we're right near Chinatown, and we're definitely within delivery range of some much better restaurants. What's that place that just renovated—Shanghai Cuisine? Or how about Nyonya?"
Holtzmann considers her dumplings, decides she can eat them with her hands, and tucks away another pair of chopsticks. Then she sniffs her hands and reaches for a paper napkin to wipe off the WD40.
"I'm pretty sure Xi'an would deliver over here if we say we're the Ghostbusters."
"Come on, I just got Zhu's to understand the correct proportions for wonton soup, and now you want me to order from some other place that probably has no idea?"
Kevin opens up a white takeout box to reveal fried rice. Abby hastily hands his chopsticks to Holtzmann and gives him a plastic spoon. The last time he tried to eat rice with chopsticks, they came downstairs the next morning and he was still trying.
"Wonton soup isn't rocket science!" Erin says.
"Accurate," Holtzmann interjects around a mouthful of dumpling. "Probably harder."
"But they've been really nice to us," Abby says, "at least since we saved the city. I can't take my business away now that we're rich and famous. It just wouldn't be loyal."
Patty frowns a little, Holtzmann raises an eyebrow, and they both look at Erin, but she appears unfazed as she picks through her chow mein looking for acceptable bits of pork.
"We're not monogamously married to them," Erin says, "at least until you admit that your real motivation is your crush on Bennie—"
"I do not have a crush on Bennie!"
"—so we can at least try another place sometime."
"I'm with Erin," Patty says. "These mu shu pancakes taste like they were cut out of one of our old jumpsuits."
"What do you think, Kevin?" Erin coos.
He looks up from his fried rice with that endearing, beaming, utterly empty smile. "About what?"
"About where we order dinner from."
"I think it's a great idea. Hey, did you know that these spoons fit together?" He holds up two spoons and then carefully nests them. "It's like they're made to do that. Brilliant."
"I don't care what we get for dinner," Holtzmann says, "as long as it's not pizza with the little black olive slices that look like rubber O-rings. Those creep me out." She makes a little wiggling-fingers creep-out gesture.
"Two against one and two abstaining, that settles it," Erin says promptly.
Abby huffs and slurps her soup, but even Holtzmann can tell she's not really upset. Whatever happened between her and Erin in the portal seems to have patched things up for real, to the point where they can give each other shit and it's okay. Holtzmann feels a twinge of envy at their rapport.
In Patty's purse, her phone suddenly begins playing a hip-hop track that Holtzmann can only barely make out; her hearing damage really doesn't play well with sounds distorted by tiny speakers. It sounds like a woman is rapping something about bring your bitch so I can take her. Holtzmann adds this to the small but increasing collection of data suggesting that Patty may not be the straightest ruler in the toolbox.
Patty grabs her purse and digs through it to retrieve the phone. "Hey Unc, what's up? You do? You have? Huh. Yeah, they all here, I'mma put you on speaker."
Winston's voice comes through loud and clear enough for Holtzmann to make out if she focuses. "Hey ladies, I got a friend who could use your help. Seems she got involved in some ghosty business out in Brooklyn that messed up a bunch of her friends. She's, ah." He clears his throat. "She's in a line of work that occasionally calls for heavy weaponry, and she wants to know about supernatural self-defense. I told her I knew some folks might could hook her up."
Everyone turns and looks at Holtzmann, except for Kevin, who's discovered that the tines of one fork can be stuck between the tines of another fork.
She leans forward over the phone, grinning. "You have come to the right place, Mister Z. We have grenades. We have rifles. We have grapefruit spoons."
"Yeah, she'd dig all of that. Anyway, I told her you might be able to come over to Bed-Stuy and check her out. Uh, help her out, I mean."
"Oh yes," Holtzmann says, already heading for the stairs and deciding what to put in her duffel bag. "Someone get the address. I'll drive."
When she gets back downstairs, Patty's the only one there. She's leaning on the car and texting someone. Holtzmann misses texting, but tiny fragile electronic things don't really last long around her, so she's given up on having a cell phone.
Patty looks up. "Oh hey," she says, "Erin and Abby said they had something to do. You want me to come along?"
Holtzmann hates questions like that. There's no right answer. So she dodges. "If you're coming," she says, going around to the driver's door, "you'll probably be more comfortable on the inside of the car."
Patty shrugs and gets in. If there was a social test there somewhere in there, Holtzmann has no idea what it was or whether she passed. But Patty doesn't seem to be upset or angry, so whatever.
The door opens. Holtzmann peels out and rockets into the first turn, stomping on the gas. They get on Canal and head for the Manhattan Bridge.
Winston lives in a sweet brownstone on Hancock Street. Patty says he bought it in 1985 when he came into some money. "Back then everyone thought the neighborhood was gonna burn down," she says. "Now this place is worth a mint."
Holtzmann finds a parking spot down the block, behind an immaculate black Crown Victoria sedan with a taxi company logo on the door. Usually she doesn't care too much about dinging a bumper or two in pursuit of a spot—it's not like it's easy to find a place to park a hearse—but she can't bring herself to mar that glistening black expanse with chips of Ecto-2's white paint, so she takes her time getting them right up against the curb. She hoists her duffel and follows Patty up the stairs.
Winston opens the door, his big smile at odds with his somber black suit, and Patty and Holtzmann flinch back because there's a ghost floating right behind him. Then Holtzmann flinches a second time because Patty sees the ghost too, and that means it's not a hallucination at all.
"Uh, Unc," Patty says, "I don't wanna freak you out or nothin', but there's a—"
The ghost smiles and waves. "Hi," he says, "I'm Riley Washington."
"Riley's a buddy of mine," Winston says. "We go way back. He sure ain't harmless, but he won't hurt you. Come on in."
The warm summer evening gives way to the cool dim hall, and then they're in the living room and Holtzmann forgets all about the ghost. There's a short, slender woman sitting on Winston's black leather couch and Holtzmann would burn down her own lab for the chance to watch her bend over a pool table. Her salt-and-pepper hair is slicked back. A Bluetooth earpiece perches on one ear, its blue light masked by black paint. She's in an excessively sharp dark brown suit that's cut to hide underarm holsters, and the shine off her wingtips could fry ants. When they come in, she looks at the duffel first, and then at Holtzmann, and then at Patty. Threat assessment complete, she looks at Holtzmann again, in a personal way this time, and their eyes meet like protons colliding.
"This is Reza," Winston says.
"Holtzmann," Holtzmann says, because her odds of fucking everything up right now are lowest if she says the fewest possible words and also stands very still and maybe never does anything ever again, just in case.
"Hi, I'm Patty, Winston's niece," Patty says, and Holtzmann actually jumps because she forgot Patty was there. There was something else she forgot... oh shit, the ghost. Where did he go? She looks around and spots him over by the well-stocked bar against the wall. She's pretty sure Winston's a Baptist and Baptists aren't supposed to drink, but they probably aren't supposed to consort with ghosts either. As long as there's a beer for her in the bar fridge, she doesn't care.
Riley's emptying a tiny bottle of Jack Daniels into a shot glass. He floats over to the couch and sits down next to Reza. She ignores him—no, that's not right, Holtzmann realizes. She doesn't see him. She sees the shot glass, and follows its movement across the room, but she doesn't see the ghost.
"You don't see him," she blurts out, because she's just that fucking smooth, good work, Holtz.
"I don't," Reza says. Her voice is cigarette-husky. Holtzmann wants to rub against its lower frequencies like a cat. "And that's one of the things I'm hoping you can help me with."
"I don't need your help with nothin'," Riley says cheerfully. "I'm just hanging out."
Winston laughs. Reza frowns at him. "I told you," she says, "when he talks you need to repeat it for me."
"He says he's just here to hang out," Winston says, "and to save him the time of telling the truth and then me repeating it, here's the deal, ladies: Riley's working for the New York City Council of the Dead and they want to know all about you."
"But I ain't sure how much I want to tell them," Riley interjects, with Winston quietly repeating for Reza like a ghost-to-English translator, "because me and the Council are not on such great terms just at the moment. The official take is that you all are a menace and need to be stopped. But frankly I think you did a shit-hot job despite not havin' the first fuckin' clue about what you're dealing with. I'd shake your hands if it wouldn't give you the heebie-jeebies."
Patty crosses her arms. "I already got them and you all the way over there," she says. "Uncle Winston, pardon my French, but what the hell is going on?"
An hour later, Holtzmann has acquired a beer, a bit of her cool, some answers, and a lot more questions. Apparently New York's been swarming with ghosts this whole time, and Rowan's gizmos just made a few of them more visible and tangible to everyone. Some living people can see ghosts if they've been attacked by one or had a brush with death, which describes a lot more people than it used to, but most still can't. The ghosts can only interact with the world of the living if they try really, really hard, and smaller things are easier for them to lift, hence the tiny bottles of booze on Winston's bar. The Council of the Dead is some sort of ghost organization trying to control the interactions ghosts have with humans—"but we are some uncontrollable motherfuckers," Riley says—and they're freaking completely out about Rowan and the Ghostbusters and Erin and Abby's book. Meanwhile, Riley and Reza were involved in a battle against some whole other kind of supernatural evil shit that no one seems to want to talk about very much.
"Bugs," Reza says, packing an impressive amount of loathing into the single syllable.
"Like in Men in Black?" Patty asks. "The giant cockroach from space who wore that farmer dude like a suit?"
Reza thinks about it. "No," she says, "like the exact opposite of that."
"Wait, I want to hear more about this," Holtzmann says, intrigued. She likes bugs.
"I sure don't," Patty says. "I saw enough of them creepy critters in the subways."
"So here's the deal," Winston says as Patty knocks back the last of her drink and goes to get another one. "Everyone who's in the know thinks there's some kind of showdown comin'. Real wrath-of-God type stuff. Reza's one of the best people we've got, and she needs to be able to see what's comin' for her."
"Who's ‘we'?" Patty asks. "And how'd you get tangled up in this anyway?"
"I spend a lot of time with the dead," Winston says. "After a while they decided to start spending some time with me."
It's Riley's turn to laugh. "Don't bullshit your niece, Z. She blooded now. A soldier like us."
Winston shifts uncomfortably. "I was in the Air Force. A long time ago. And I saw some things that I really can't tell you about because they gonna be classified until the end of time. But in the 80s when New York was goin' to hell, some ghosty types decided to try to make that literal, and I got involved in stoppin' it. Didn't think much of how the Council handled that one, so I've been hangin' with the good guys like Riley ever since."
Patty's mouth is literally hanging open. Holtzmann's never seen that before. She thought it was just a figure of speech. "So what you're sayin'," Patty says slowly, "is that I am in the family business?"
Winston smiles, startled, pleased. "I suppose you are at that," he says.
Reza leans forward. "Now that everyone's caught up," she says. "You have some very powerful weapons. We want them on our side. And I need something that lets me see ghosts."
Holtzmann sucks down the dregs of her beer. "Well," she says, wiping her hand across her mouth, "the weapons we can do. Noooo problem. I'm coming up with new ones all the time! I have to keep the shiniest ones for the team, of course, but I think I can find something very shiny for you. I brought some for you to take a look at. You need small arms, big arms, targeting, explosives?"
"That's a good start," Reza says.
"And for the goggles." Holtzmann considers Reza's ineffable dapperness. "Glasses. Maybe a monocle. How that's going to work depends on why you can't see ghosts, which until just now I did not know was a thing. I can give you PKE meters, those are like smoke detectors for ghosts, but—"
Reza is shaking her head. "That's no good. I need to be able to identify friendlies and take precise aim."
"Right!" Holtzmann makes finger-guns at her before realizing just how dangerous that probably was. But fuck it, she's got the life expectancy of a mayfly anyway. And being shot by Reza... what a way to go. She's almost disappointed when Reza just gives her a little smile. "So we need to figure out what seeing ghosts, or not seeing ghosts, means from a physics perspective, which is probably the best sentence I've ever said in my life. Ha! Jesus Christ, what an amazing world this is."
Winston coughs disapprovingly, and suddenly he looks less ex-military and more like a Baptist funeral director. "I'd appreciate it," he says, "if you don't blaspheme in my house."
"Yeah," Riley says, "you never know who's listening."
They get home around midnight to discover that Erin and Abby have built a fusion-powered popcorn machine so they can have fresh popcorn while they watch shitty horror movies. Tonight the main feature is Tremors. Every time there's a jump-scare, Erin jumps a foot and Abby howls with laughter. They seem to think this is fun.
"How'd it go?" Erin asks, pausing the movie.
"I'm an arms dealer now," Holtzmann says. "Arms dealer... to the supernatural."
"That's cool," Abby says. She reaches for the remote.
"And Holtzmann made a friend," Patty announces, like Holtzmann is her kindergarten-age child just back from a play date.
Now Abby's interested. "Oh yeah? What kind of friend?"
"We aren't friends yet," Holtzmann says. "But I have a high standard for friendship. I didn't even call you my friend until the first time you let me drink out of your soda can."
"You two talked about handguns for like two hours," Patty says.
"Winston was talking about them too."
Erin looks confused. "Wait, your uncle Winston knows about handguns? I thought he was a funeral home director."
"Turns out," Patty says, "he's ex–Air Force, has a black belt in karate, and is an expert in small arms. With ties to New York's supernatural underworld. And is also a funeral home director."
"Oh yeah, and we met a ghost," Holtzmann says.
By the time they finish explaining about Riley and the Council and all of that, everyone's forgotten to ask Holtzmann about Reza. She sneaks off to the lab before they can remember.
Riley sends along a quiet elderly ghost named Veda to be Holtzmann's test subject. The first time she floats through the clubhouse door, Erin nearly has a heart attack and Abby lunges for her grenades. "It's okay!" Holtzmann yells, "she's with me!" The others stare in disbelief as Veda demurely follows Holtzmann up the stairs. If Holtzmann were a ghost she would totally float up the fireman's pole while mooning the room, but Veda is apparently the sort to do things by the book.
Holtzmann shows her to the hot seat and Veda whips out some honest-to-God ghostly knitting. She sits patiently and knits for the next ten hours while Holtzmann bounces photons off of her, or tries to. Video cameras don't record her, or record her reflection in mirrors. The PKE meter spins like a top but converting its oscillations into a video signal turns out to be impossible. Holtzmann spends several frustrating hours down that rabbit hole before remembering that it won't do Reza any good anyway; she needs ghost goggles. Or glasses. Or a monocle.
Lather, rinse, repeat for a couple of weeks until Veda's ghost scarf is several feet long and Holtzmann is ready to scream. None of this shit makes any sense. Even by her standards. It's time to try a different approach.
Reza's job, whatever it is, keeps her pretty busy in the afternoons and evenings, and Holtzmann really isn't a morning person, but one day Reza has an afternoon free and comes up to the lab. When Holtzmann looks out the window and sees the black Crown Vic pull up out front, she's very glad she was careful with her parking.
She slides down the pole and saunters to the door. It's much easier to be confident on her home turf. Reza may have a monopoly on the world's supply of dapper, but Holtzmann has the forces of the natural and supernatural worlds at her fingertips. Plus her hair looks really good today and she's in her cleanest set of lab coveralls, the ones with the little mouse embroidered on the breast pocket.
Reza's in silver-grey, a three-piece suit with a matching vest. Her shoes are snakeskin with steel tips. She looks like a groomsman in an incredibly lethal wedding. She gazes around the ground floor, taking it all in: the high ceiling, the pole, the car, Erin sitting at the big slab-of-wood dinner table going over copy edits on the second edition of the book (which will be Ghostbusters-branded at Abby's insistence), Kevin at his desk attempting to play "Jingle Bells" on the phone keypad. "Nice place," she says.
"Thanks! I grew it myself." Holtzmann points. "That's Kevin and that's Erin. She's a physicist. He's a Kevin. Let's go upstairs."
Reza gives her a slow smile. Holtzmann gives her one back. Then she leads the way up to the lab, where Abby and Veda are waiting. Flirting is fun, but right now it's time for some science.
Abby took a bio class one time, so Holtzmann has roped her in for the brain science part of this. After Holtzmann makes introductions, Abby hands them helmets wired up to a console. Reza carefully removes and turns off her earpiece before settling the helmet over her perfect coif. It takes Holtzmann a little longer to figure out how to get her hair through the ponytail hole that Abby has thoughtfully provided, but she finally jams the helmet onto her head, her curls tumbling over it and tangling with the wires. "I love this," she says, voguing. "I think I'm going to start a fashion trend."
"Okay!" Abby says, rubbing her hands together over the console. "First I need to calibrate. Both of you think about... a cat. Good. Now think about, uh, wonton soup. Great. And now think about a ghost. Perfect! Your brains are actually very similar. That's convenient."
Holtzmann and Reza glance at each other. Holtzmann grins. Reza smirks.
Abby pulls out a sheaf of notes. Erin keeps trying to get her to use an iPad but Abby claims she thinks better on paper. "Now the question before us today is what part of the brain is used to see ghosts. When a ghost attacks a person or whatever happens, something changes in the person, and presumably it's in their brain, since that's what controls what we see. So I need both of you to look at Veda—Reza, she's sitting on that chair over there—and then I can see what's happening in Holtz's brain that isn't happening in Reza's. Bam! Genius."
Holtzmann looks at Veda, whose ghostly knitting needles are clicking away. The scarf is puddling on the floor.
"Great, now hold it... hooooold it... okay! You can take those off now. Or keep them on, I don't care."
By the time Holtzmann manages to untangle herself from the helmet and pull the thing off her head, Reza has fixed her hair with the aid of a pocket comb and a handy sheet of mirror-polished steel that Holtzmann keeps meaning to do something with. She wonders whether Reza would like it as a present. She can always get another one.
Abby pokes at her console a bit. Holtzmann leans over her shoulder and starts poking too, not entirely at random. Abby blocks her with an arm but Holtzmann easily reaches under it. Abby swats; Holtzmann ducks, grabs the keyboard, and types LOL BUTTS. "You're not the only one who understands hardware," Abby says, making shooing motions as Holtzmann fiddles with the amplitude lever. "Go give Reza a tour or something."
"I'd like a tour," Reza says, and the look on her face at their roughhousing is something like how Holtzmann felt when Patty and Winston were having their emotional moment, so Holtzmann tears herself away from pestering Abby and assumes a tour-guide's pose.
"This half of the floor is the lab," she says, "though I assume you figured that out by now. The other half is where I sleep and keep my personal junk. The third half is in another dimension I haven't figured out how to access yet. When I do, I'll have room for a pony. This way, this way!" She grabs a wrench and waves it. "Don't lose sight of the flag!"
She leads Reza up the stairs. "This is Abby and Patty's floor." Patty's side is a mostly tidy accumulation of magazines, jewelry, cosmetics, and overflowing bookshelves. She's hanging out on her bed reading Networks of New York and waves at them without looking up. Abby's side is a mostly untidy accumulation of dirty clothes and bits of wiring and crumpled notes.
"You've already seen the ground floor, and those stairs lead to the roof. Tour completed, thank you for your time, tip your tour guide but don't tip her over!" She sticks the wrench in her belt and turns to go back downstairs.
"What's on the roof?" Reza asks—maybe because she picked up on the edge in Holtzmann's voice, maybe because she just likes roofs.
"Nothing. It's a roof. It's boring unless you can fly." Holzmann peers at her. "Wait, can you fly?"
"No," Reza says, "but I'd like to see it anyway."
Holtzmann weighs her options and decides she dislikes saying no to Reza even more than she dislikes heights. They go up the last flight of stairs and through the heavy metal security door. There's a handy football-size chunk of concrete that Holtzmann uses to wedge the door open so it doesn't close and lock behind them.
The sun is starting to sink down over the Hudson. It's heated the black tarpaper roof to scorching. Maybe Erin can talk the city into installing some solar panels up here. Reza must be sweating in her suit, but she doesn't take her jacket off. Instead she pulls out a gold cigarette case and lights up. She offers the case to Holtzmann, who shakes her head.
"I didn't see another place where we could talk privately," Reza says.
"Yeah, open-plan offices are the worst. And I can never find my stapler."
"You're amazing. Are you ever serious?"
"Oh yes," Holtzmann says, putting her best serious face on, but she can't hold it for long. "No, honestly? Not really. But that doesn't mean I don't take things seriously. Like incredibly hot women wanting to talk to me privately, I take that very seriously. But how I show I take things seriously is, I joke about them. Do you ever joke about things?"
"I think I forgot how when my girlfriend died," Reza says.
"Oh," Holtzmann says. "That's... really terrible, actually."
"I killed the fuckers who did it, but it took me a while," Reza says. "And then I dated an amazing librarian, but she was a little too much of a free spirit for me. After what happened to Angie I need someone who's not going to go away. You get me?"
"Yeah, and when I commit I don't quit, but I'm not sure why you're saying this to someone so irradiated she practically glows in the dark," Holtzmann says. "Plus this thing where apparently we're all about to get dragged into some big supernatural war. What are the odds of either of us still being around in ten years?"
"That's different," Reza says. "That's taking risks in the line of duty. That one I understand."
"Hey, I think we skipped a part," Holtzmann says. "Where we say we like each other enough to be having this conversation? That part."
Reza turns, stubs the cigarette out against the metal door frame, and flicks the butt away. Then she gets right up in Holtzmann's face, and her cigarette smoke and cologne mix with Holtzmann's perpetual miasma of machine oil and electrical fire to make a heady perfume. "All right," she says. "I like you."
"That's good," Holtzmann manages just before Reza kisses her. The kiss is hot enough to fry her eyeballs, hot enough to melt through the roof and send them spiraling down into the building below. Won't Patty be surprised when we land on her, Holtzmann thinks dizzily. Then her constant inner narration shuts off for once and there's just the rustle of suit against coveralls, the pressure of body against body, the taste of smoke and Reza.
When they break for air, Holtzmann leans back against the wall and tries to restart her brain. Reza gives her that little smile and then walks over to the low wall at the edge of the roof and peers down at the people walking by on Varick Street. Holtzmann stays back by the door, shading her eyes and wishing she'd brought her auto-tinting goggles.
"Polarization!" she shouts.
Reza whips around, one hand going under her jacket, and then relaxes. "I really don't recommend startling me," she says.
"Well, you'll have to get used to it," Holtzmann says, and then she's through the door and running down the stairs, yelling for Abby.
Patty's going stir-crazy. She hates being bored. In the token booth she was never bored. Sure, she was dealing with the same shit over and over, fix the busted Metrocard and let the person with the stroller through the gate and wait just long enough before calling the cops on the turnstile-jumping teens because she has to call them, it's her job, but those kids are kids and damned if she's gonna let the cops book 'em for costing the city three bucks. But she also got to hear every language and every accent under the sun, and watch every kind of human drama take place safely on the other side of the Plexiglass. And during the slow late-night shifts she had her books.
Now she just has books, and she's pretty much read through everything on her list. She tried to help in the lab, but Abby stuck her with going through the tapes listening for weird shit, and there's basically nothing there other than something that sounded like "zool" that was probably a glitch. She googled "zool" every which way and found nothing, not even on the bug-eyed conspiracy sites. And she's not going to sit there like Nichelle with her headphones on pretending to be happy that they hired a black woman and then put her in front of a switchboard. That said, she's about bored enough to kick Kevin out of that swivel chair and take over answering the phones.
Instead, she borrows his motorcycle and rides it out to Brooklyn.
She called ahead, because her mama raised her right, so she knows to go past Winston's brownstone and head to the funeral home. It's quiet when she gets there; the morning's mourners have left for their church luncheon and there's nothing scheduled for the evening. Winston is in the back office, writing in the account book he still keeps by hand like this isn't the 21st century. Patty taps on the glass pane in the door and he beckons her in.
"No spooks keepin' you company today?" She moves a pile of funeral programs off a chair and settles down.
"Not today. They got their own business to attend to." He closes the account book. "What's brought you all the way out here?"
"I just wanted to visit my favorite uncle." He smiles like he thinks she's joking. "Okay, I got a couple things on my mind, but you really are my favorite, you know that? Not just 'cause we turn out to have all this supernatural sh—stuff in common." Patty's pushing 50 and that probably means she's grown enough to swear around her uncle without catching hell for it, but she's not physically capable of swearing in a house of the dead.
He smiles for real and squeezes her hand. "You're my favorite too, Patricia. But don't you tell your sisters that."
"I won't, I won't." She leans forward. "Look. I been sittin' on my... butt over there in Tribeca, waitin' for something to happen, and it never does. Holtzmann and Abby are up in the lab doing who knows what. Erin's workin' on her book and never wants to talk to anyone. I've read every book the library has on the history of New York and all of Holtzmann's wacko ley lines maps and ephemerises and whatever. If something goes down they'll need me but until then I'm at loose ends. And you know I ain't never been good at that." He nods. "So I want to join up with whatever it is you all are doin' out here, with the Council of the Dead and whatnot. It sounds like the Council are some bad dudes, and I find I got a taste for fightin' bad dudes now. Sign me up."
Winston sighs. "Like you said, we got a lot in common. You sound just like me when I joined the military, 'cept I was half your age and didn't know what I was gettin' into. But you went through that battle and you want more."
"Yeah, I do. And I been joinin' Holtz on her workouts and helpin' her test the weapons and all. I'm a good shot, and I keep a cool head in a crisis. Did I tell you I slapped a ghost out of Abby once?"
He beams. "That's my girl!"
"So I want in. What do I need to do?" Her hands are sweating. She clasps them together and waits.
"I was pretty sure you were gonna ask me this," he says, "so I went ahead and asked Riley whether they had room for another ghost-seein' human on the team. He wanted to send you to help out Mama Esther—she's our librarian. Well, properly speakin' she's our library. And I still want to introduce you, because you will get along like a house on fire, though don't use that expression around her. But I was assumin' you would want to help out on the research end of things, and you're sayin' you want to be a soldier."
"Yes sir, I do." She means it as a mark of respect from a niece to her uncle but it comes out sounding more military than that. Suddenly this all feels very real.
"In that case—you got a minute to come meet somebody?"
"I sure do. Just need to be home for dinner."
He smiles. "That's your mama talkin' through you. You know we can't tell her about any of this—but if we could, I think she'd be real proud of you."
She blinks back tears. "You think so? What did Grandma Lucille think when you joined up?"
"Oh, she was proud. And scared, 'cause her big brother Louis died in World War II. Then I ended up doing intelligence work and couldn't tell her what I was doing. She was so mad!" He frowns. "She told me once that if I got myself killed she'd never talk to me again. Now I wonder if she meant it."
They emerge from the lily-scented dimness into the slanting afternoon sun. Patty starts to head for the motorcycle, but Winston shakes his head. "We're not going far," he says. "Just over to Baba Eddie's botánica. There's a guy hangs out there sometimes, name of Carlos Delacruz."
"Live guy or dead guy? Man, this is all so weird."
"It gets weirder," Winston says. "Carlos is half-dead."
"How on earth—now what does that even mean?"
"No one really knows," Winston says, shrugging. "And I'm guessin' he was an odd duck even before he got killed and half brought back to life. But he's Riley's partner, and generally easier to find than Riley. And if he's not there you can meet Baba Eddie, who's pretty deep in all this too."
"Eddie is, yes."
Patty squints into the sun. "Why haven't you tried to talk me out of this?"
"Would it work?"
"That's why." He winks at her. "Let's save our ammo for the enemy."
Holtzmann spends the next week hacking the ghost-viewing glasses together with Abby during the day and hacking a relationship together with Reza at night. (She even gets a new cell phone so they can text while Reza's off on jobs, and then gets distracted by putting together a little radiation-shielding case for it until Abby drags her back to the other workbench.) It's basically the same process: some parts go unexpectedly smoothly, some things that ought to work don't work at all, and in the end, there's a product that's good enough for a trial run.
Veda settles down on her usual chair. She's finished the scarf and moved on to a sweater. Ghosts apparently don't care what season it is, or maybe she's getting a head start on Christmas presents.
Abby hands Reza the glasses, which they made as normal-looking as they could; there's only one electrode pad and it's small, with a thin black wire connecting it to the earpiece. Reza puts the glasses on and Holtzmann shows her how to stick the electrode behind her ear, where it can't easily be seen or dislodged. She looks at the chair. "I see her," she says, with that little smile that Holtzmann has kind of started to fetishize. "It's a bit blurry, but I can make out a decent amount of detail. Is she knitting?"
"She is," Veda says placidly.
Reza doesn't notice.
"Oh right! I forgot that part," Holtzmann says, and hands Reza a left-ear earpiece that matches the Bluetooth one she wears on her right. "Check this out. I figured out how to translate the PKE meter oscillations into sound waves and then burned the shit out of my fingers soldering the microcircuitry."
Reza clicks the switch and puts it on. "Hello, Veda," she says.
"Good afternoon," Veda says. "I am indeed knitting."
"That works too," Reza says. "Good shit."
Abby and Holtzman cheer and slap hands. "Cake for everyone!" Holtzmann hollers. She pulls out a box of Entenmann's coffee cake and a stack of paper plates that she's been saving for a special occasion. They're green and orange and say "Happy 5th Birthday!" She likes the colors, and they were on sale at the dollar store.
Reza looks around. "There's no kitchen here, is there."
"There was," Holtzmann says, handing her a piece of cake. "You're sitting in it. I needed the water and gas lines for my equipment. I used to make Murry stew on my Bunsen burner sometimes, but after the last time I nearly burned the place down Patty said I couldn't do that anymore."
"We eat a lot of takeout," Abby says. "And sometimes Erin goes on an anxious two a.m. baking jag and brings us brownies."
Holtzmann cuts a tiny piece of cake for Veda, who sets aside the knitting to nibble on it a crumb at a time. She's getting used to seeing ghosts as people. She wonders whether that's going to make it harder to kill them when she has to.
"You should come over to my place sometime," Reza says. "I like to cook."
"Yes," Abby says very meaningfully, elbowing Holtzmann in the side, "you should definitely do that." Abby is the worst wingman. Or the best. The best worst.
After they all finish their cake, Holtzmann walks Reza out to her car; she has a job to get to. It's been thunderstorming all afternoon and the city smells of hot wet asphalt and petrichor, which is a nice change from the usual summer city smell of sun-baked dog shit and rotting trash. Holtzmann loves it all, unequivocally. Everyone thought a weirdo like her would be happy in California, but she's a New York weirdo and only other New York weirdos really get her.
Like Reza, who presses her up against the rain-dotted car and kisses her hard. Holtzmann slides her hand under Reza's jacket and along the back of her silky-smooth dress shirt to grab her by the center cross-brace of her double underarm holster and pull her closer. They don't quite wrestle but it's deliciously close.
Holtzmann reaches into her pocket and pulls out what looks like a classic Zippo lighter, except it's about one and a half times as big and twice as heavy. She hands it to Reza. "Here," she says, "I made this for you."
Reza flicks it open. Instead of a butane flame, a little red proton jet flares up.
"You can use it to light your cigarettes or burn a ghost that gets too close. It won't do much damage but it'll buy you some time. Just in case."
"Nice," Reza says, flipping the cap shut.
"Oh shit, no, you need to—here—" Holtzmann grabs it back and flips it open again. The jet is still going. She presses a button on the base of the lighter and it turns off. She closes the cap and hands it back to Reza. "You can't just deprive the flame of oxygen like in a regular lighter. I was trying to work in an automatic cut-off switch but couldn't figure out how to fit it in around the nuclear battery. It's like leaving the headphone jack out of the iPhone except it'll melt the casing. So I guess more like a Samsung phone, really." Holtzmann's new phone is a Samsung. She was really excited when she found out she could get a phone that might spontaneously explode.
Reza turns the lighter over, examines the button, and then puts it in her pocket. "Thanks," she says. "I think."
"It's okay for a prototype," Holtzmann says. "I've got some really cool ideas but I'm saving them for the production model."
She cracks herself up. Reza looks at her, smiling but a little puzzled. She doesn't get the joke yet. But if they can beat the odds and survive this strange, dangerous world for long enough, she will.