“I don’t know,” yelped the frantic voice on the other end of the phone. “It was on fire when I got into it!”
Janine couldn’t help herself. “Then why did you get into it in the first place?”
“I just smelled smoke from somewhere! I didn’t notice the flames until I tried to put my key in the ignition! Can you help me or not?” the speaker screeched.
Janine put one hand over the end of the phone, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. Carefully, she returned the phone to her ear. “Ma’am,” she said in her best soothing voice, “have you already called the fire department?”
“Yes, they’re out there right now!”
“Then why don’t you start at the beginning?” Janine fished the pencil from behind her ear and tested it for sharpness against a corner of her notepad, then rephrased her initial question. “Why do you need the Ghostbusters if your car is on fire?”
There was a pause, as if the lady on the other end of the line was finally trying to get her thoughts in order. When she began speaking again, her pitch was nearly half an octave lower and a bit more controlled. “Because,” she sighed, “when I jumped out of the car, I saw two things pop out from under the hood, or, I guess, through the hood, and join a tall, muscly thing with horns in the alley before they flew away. I think they set the fire.”
“Ah, okay,” Janine replied as she started scribbling the woman’s story and street. “What did they look like, and did you see which way they went?”
“I didn’t get a great look,” the lady said half-guiltily. “At the time, I was trying to get away from my flaming steering wheel. They were red and small, maybe two feet high.”
“You were distracted,” Janine responded, trying to sound sympathetic.
The woman’s volume dropped slightly. “And I think they went sort of west from here. Maybe towards the river?”
Janine set her pencil down and shifted her grip on the phone. “Okay. I’ll send the guys out to see if they can pick up a trace. Anything else I can do for you?
“No, I think that’s it,” the client said. “And it looks like the firemen have put the car out. I’ll have the tow truck wait until they get here.”
“That’d be great,” Janine agreed. “It should take about twenty minutes unless traffic is bad.” She set down the phone, sighed, and brought her hand down flat on the alarm button.
She waited until all four of the boys were standing next to her desk. “Okay, guys,” she said, tearing off the address from her notepad. “This poor lady in the south Bronx thinks her car got set on fire by three ghosts.”
Winston took the slip of paper and blinked. “That’s . . . kind of unusual,” he offered.
Egon nodded in agreement, adding, “Pyrokinetic spirits are quite rare. This might be an opportunity to gather more detailed data on their ectoplasmic composition.”
“Or an opportunity to get our rear ends toasted,” Peter warned. He turned towards Janine, his eyes narrowed. “Is she sure the ghosts were the ones who set the fire?” he asked. “It couldn’t have been, say, some neighborhood kids being jerks?”
Ray was already at the lockers; he turned and tossed a small fire extinguisher towards Peter. “Even if that’s true,” he offered, “she still thinks she saw ghosts in her car. The kids might have been trying to get them out.”
“No one but Peter has said anything about any neighborhood kids, and anyway, her car burst into flame dash-first,” Janine noted. “It’d be a little hard for a few hoodlums to manage that.” She paused, rolling a pencil between her fingers and trying not to look too concerned. “Guys, be careful. The last fire elemental you dealt with was the Phantom, and -”
“He did a lot of damage before it was all over,” Winston agreed.
Janine nodded. “Just come back in one piece, okay?”
“Don’t worry,” Ray laughed. “We’ll be fine; the suits are fire-retardant, remember?” He finished zipping his up. “And I just put the gloves in the back.”
“Good,” Egon stated. “Janine does bring up a good point, Ray. We will have to be extremely cautious about collateral damage on this bust - and damage to Ecto-1.”
Winston paused as he was climbing into the driver’s seat. “Yeah,” he agreed. “The Phantom did a number on her tires - then tried to weld the doors shut. If these spooks know the same tricks -”
“We’ll keep an eye on her, Zed,” Peter promised, popping open the back door. “Let’s go - I don’t want to get stuck on the bridge again, and traffic’s going to get worse if we wait.”
Ray waved merrily at Janine as he slid into the passenger seat. “If we’re not back by five,” he called over the roar of the engine, “plug in the spare packs to recharge before you leave.”
Janine watched Ecto peel out of the garage, then stabbed at the door opener’s switch with one finger. “When was the last time I got out of here by five?” she grumbled to the empty air.
She was picking up her purse at 6:10 when Ecto pulled back in. She blinked as the Ghostbusters climbed wearily out. “Everything okay?” she asked, sitting back down on the edge of her desk.
Egon held up a PKE meter; its screen flickered. “Our client - Ms. Wilson - was correct. We found the residue of two Class Two free-roaming apparitions in the engine compartment of her vehicle.”
“It was a real mess,” Ray popped in. “You were exactly right, Janine - the plastic in her dashboard was pyrokinetically ignited.”
“The fire department got to it before the fuel tank went up,” Winston reported. “Good thing, too - otherwise the other cars on the street could have gone up with it.”
Egon frowned slightly at the interruption and fished in his locker for a cable. “And we found a fairly disturbing PKE signature in the alleyway she indicated - a possible Class Six or Class Seven.”
Janine inhaled sharply. “Fire elemental or fire demon,” she breathed.
“Both distinct possibilities, although not the only ones,” Egon agreed.
“And then we ran all over the Bronx hunting for them,” Peter groaned. He trudged past Janine’s desk and dropped into one of the clients’ chairs in his office. “Egon kept picking up their signatures and then losing them again, picking them up and then, poof!, gone again. We must have covered the whole borough.”
Egon found the cable he was hunting for and plugged it into the PKE meter; its screen brightened immediately. “I’m going to download the data we collected,” he stated. “I think there’s a pattern we’re missing. But first, this needs to recharge.”
“Sure,” Ray called from where he was plugging the packs into their own recharge rack. “And the readings I got didn’t indicate any reason for our fire-ghosts to pick her car over the other ones on the street.”
Winston looked up from the trap rack. “I think I may know why they picked hers and not the ones on either side,” he offered.
“Enlighten us,” Peter sighed, kicking his now-bootless feet up onto his desk.
“Well,” Winston said, “Unless they’d been moved, the two cars immediately in front of and behind hers her had flame decals down the sides.” He shrugged. “Maybe the ghosts figured that was some sort of sign of respect. And that group of three cars was about as far away along that block as you could get from a fire hydrant - they didn’t want the fire put out easily.”
Egon tapped one finger on the side of his jaw. “Possibly, although that assumes that they know what a hydrant does.”
“Slimer knows,” Ray pointed out. “Although, he’s been living with us for a long time.”
As if he’d been summoned, the little green ghost oozed through the ceiling. “Hah? Wray caww Swimer?” he asked, hands spread before him as if he expected a reward.
Janine tossed Slimer a peppermint from the jar on her desk. “Hey, Slimer,” she asked, “Back when you were at the Sedgewick, did you know what a fire hydrant was for?”
“Anh-hah, anh-hah - cap come off, hydwrant go fwoosh!” Slimer illustrated by spraying ectoplasm in a big raspberry, then dropped the mint into his open mouth, wrapper and all, and sailed off up the stairs.
Peter removed the newspaper he’d ducked under to avoid the splatter. “Okay, so if they’ve been in the city for a while, there’s a pretty good chance that they do. So you think they picked a car that would be hard to put out, and avoided the ones that already had fire symbols on them?” he asked. “That’d be hard to test, and it doesn’t answer the question of why they were setting a car on fire to begin with.”
“Hopefully, we’ll get some answers from the meter data -” Egon started, but was interrupted by the phone ringing.
Janine plucked up the receiver with practiced fingers. “Ghostbusters,” she stated, and paused as a torrent of words gushed from the speaker. With an unusual amount of sympathy in her now much-softer voice, she said “I’m sorry, could you please repeat that a little slower?” as the four Ghostbusters gathered around her desk.
When she set the phone down, her left hand was clenched. “Looks like it’s the same goopers,” she announced. “One tall one with red skin and horns, and two small ones - he said they looked like goblins from a fairy-tale book.” She finished writing down the address and handed it directly to Winston.
His eyes narrowed. “That’s a children’s health clinic.”
“And apparently our spooks are trying to set the roof on fire,” Janine finished.
Peter and Ray locked eyes and, without speaking, scrambled back to Ecto, flinging open the back hatch to re-load the packs. As they finished prepping, Egon fumbled in his locker for a second PKE meter. “Janine,” he called over his shoulder, “I’m leaving the discharged meter here. I know you’re intending to leave shortly, but if you could just wait the twenty minutes until it has enough battery power to interface with the upstairs computer -” he shot a hard glance towards Peter - “I’ll make sure you get overtime for it.”
She dropped heavily back into her desk chair. “You’re about to go bust something that might be a Class Seven and sets cars on fire. I’ll wait until you get back.”
Peter looked vaguely relieved, but he couldn’t resist shouting back, “Okay, but I’m only paying you for that twenty minutes. Egon, get in the car!”
A very thin man in a suit far too threadbare for a brisk March evening was standing at the curb as Ecto-1 pulled up. He waved frantically at them as the four Ghostbusters climbed out and onto the wet pavement. “Hello, hi, thanks for coming,” he blurted. “There was, um, the tar paper on the roof was on fire but the fire department took care of it. Thank God we were already closed for the evening; the handful of personnel who were working overtime all got out okay.”
“Good,” Winston commented; the smell of smoke and asphalt lingered in the air. “Where were the ghosts at?”
“When I first saw them, they were on the roof,” their client explained. “There were three of them - I described them to your secretary on the phone. Um, I didn’t really get a very good look at the smaller ones.”
Peter settled a hand on their client’s shoulder. “That’s okay; we should have a reading on them any minute now,” he said. “Are they still on the roof?”
“And did they try to interfere with the firefighters?” Ray asked, tugging on a pair of heavy rubber gloves as he slid into the pack’s straps.
The client shuddered. “No, they went inside, although the two smaller ones made faces out of the third-story windows at them. I think they might be afraid of the water? I’m not sure, though.”
“We’ll keep that in mind,” Peter said reassuringly. “Egon, what have you got?”
Egon held up the PKE meter at an angle and watched the antennae flutter. “Three readings,” he stated flatly. “One of them is a Class Seven, near the bottom of the class, with a very unusual signature. The other two are so close to it that they’re being swamped, but they can’t be any stronger than Class Three.”
“Do they match the goopers we chased over a borough and a half this morning?” Winston asked, slamming Ecto’s back door and checking the traps on his belt.
“The Class Seven does,” Egon affirmed, “although I can’t get a clear enough reading on the two weaker manifestations to be sure.”
Peter gave the client a smile that was meant to be reassuring. “Well, then,” he announced, “it’s showtime! Let’s get these spooks.”
“With pleasure.” Winston scowled upwards at the dark windows. “Ghosts who target kids are three of my least favorite things.”
The front door wasn’t locked, and the floor was wet where the old gasket had been no match for the high-pressure firehoses. The building’s layout was simple - a reception area, then a long hallway with examination rooms on the left and offices on the right. The power was out, except for emergency lights by the exits; Ray reached for his belt and turned on a flashlight. Brightly colored cartoon characters on the walls seemed to dance in the moving shadows as they walked past.
“Any changes?” Ray asked quietly, straining his neck to get a look at the meter’s rapidly flashing screen.
Egon shook his head. “No movement so far - wait.” His fingers brushed a dial. “The Class Seven is still on the upper floor,” he reported. “The other two have separated from it and are heading downwards. I suspect they know we’re here.”
“Let’s light ‘em!” Peter barked, unshipping his thrower and hitting the power switch. The others followed suit just in time, as two faintly luminous apparitions rocketed through the ceiling between them and the entrance. The light around them began to intensify, a flickering orange that rendered Ray’s flashlight irrelevant, as they hissed and flexed their long, taloned fingers.
Ray blinked, then squinted at them, his eyes readjusting to the brighter light. “Salamanders?” he guessed aloud. “They look sort of like a cross between a rooster and a toad.”
“Unlikely,” replied Egon. “Salamanders are elementals - they should be Class Fives or Sixes. Now that they’re separated from the other one, these are clearly Class Two free-roaming apparitions, and -”
“And they’re about to dive for us; hit it!” Peter yelled, as he and Winston fired. The two creatures dodged wide to the sides; one slimed its way through an office door, while the other one did a loose roll against the wall and crackled like a wet torch. The wallpaper darkened and began to smolder where the goblin had touched it.
Egon switched the meter to the other hand and grabbed his own thrower as Ray fired and Winston spun around for a second shot. “Watch out,” he called unnecessarily, “they’re hot!”
“We figured,” Peter grunted, as he and Ray switched places. “Fire low; I don’t think this one gets how much room he actually has to maneuver.”
Winston and Ray both fired simultaneously. “Got him!” Ray shouted, as they pinned the fire-goblin between the streams. “Someone drop a trap!”
Peter cut his stream and hit one of the latches on his belt. “Trap out,” he called, tossing the striped box towards them. “Ready?”
“Go!” Winston shifted his grip on the thrower and slid the spook down the length of Ray’s proton stream towards Peter. Peter stomped the foot pedal, and the Class Two spiraled helplessly into the inverted cone of violet-white. The trap doors snapped shut with a click that echoed in the empty hallway.
“One down,” Peter crowed, scooping up the trap. “Where’s its brother?”
Egon looked sick. “In here,” he answered, pointing at a small sign that said File Room.
“Uh-oh,” Ray and Winston chorused. Winston continued, “Is the door locked?”
“I can’t tell,” Egon admitted. “The doorknob’s too hot to touch.”
Ray steeled himself. “Move over, Egon,” he said, and grabbed the doorknob with one gloved hand. He tugged twice before sighing, “Yeah, it’s locked, but it’s not a very good lock; I think we can card it.”
“With what?” Winston objected. “Won’t a credit card melt?”
Peter unzipped one of his chest pockets and began fumbling around for something. “I think - here,” he said, handing Ray a thin metal nail file.
Ray smiled. “Did you borrow this from Janine?”
“No,” Peter objected, “but sometimes these come in handy. And a guy occasionally gets a hangnail.”
Ray snickered, and slid the blade of the file between the door and its frame. A sharp click sounded, and he yanked the door open as Winston raised his thrower behind him.
A wave of heat blew back their hair; the entire filing system, it looked like, was ablaze. In the middle of it, the toadish apparition gaped at them, barely visible in the flames.
“Can we get in there?” Winston asked, shielding his face with one hand. Ray reached up and dropped the ecto-goggles into place, blinking against the hot, dry air.
Egon and Peter had the same thought; Egon was closer. He sped down the hall to the fire extinguisher, yanked the red lever to release it, and raced back to the doorway, holding it at the ready as the alarm sounded. “On three,” he called over the klaxon, and the others stepped back. “One, two, -”
The fire-goblin charged; Ray was ready, and the stream met the gooper before it hit the door. Winston ducked to let Egon past and dropped a trap as close to the door as seemed safe. Peter’s stream joined Ray’s as Egon aimed the fire extinguisher into the file room and let it fly. For a moment, the smoke from the records and the flash of the trap blinded them, and then the trap was closed.
“Is it out?” Peter called through the smoke.
Egon coughed, “I think so.”
Winston scooped up the trap. “Two down. Where’s our biggie?”
Egon reached for the meter’s holster; his hand came down on empty air. “Oh, nuts,” he grumbled, “I dropped it when I got the extinguisher. Where is -”
Jogging a few steps down the hallway, Peter scooped it up from the floor by the fire alarm. “Here you go, Big Guy - whoops,” he said, swallowing, as the antennae stood nearly straight up.
“Heads up!” Ray shouted, as a classically demonic figure burst from the stairwell. It was taller than a man, towering more than a foot and a half over Egon, and the bright red of a cooked lobster, with dark brown horns and the scaly feet and tail of a lizard. On its back were four bat-like wings that spanned barely three feet, tiny on a demon that size. Its arms were obscenely muscled and dangled nearly to its knees.
Slowly, it lifted its head to look at them. Its face was nearly circular, a round plate of burnished copper, with an incongruous grin and eyes wide as goose eggs. The nose and ears were barely there, more suggestions than features. It looked less like a demon’s face than some Victorian man-in-the-moon, except for the gazelle’s horns spiraling above it. It was smiling, closed-lipped, as if it were pleased to see them.
“What in the heck?” Winston asked. Peter didn’t answer; he twisted the thrower’s dial to full stream and fired. The others followed suit, but too late; the demon, still smiling serenely, pressed its clawed hands together and dove through the floor, leaving a smoldering patch of carpet behind.
“Dang! Is there a basement?” Peter shouted, charging towards the stairwell.
Ray answered, “There’s a parking garage below the building, but the entrance is outside; we passed it when we first got here.” He shot off in the other direction as Peter changed course.
They piled out of the door and turned towards Ecto, just in time to see that monstrously calm face erupt from the sidewalk, the wet concrete steaming and cracking as it passed through. The demon pivoted in midair; its tail lashed out twice, sharply, before it soared off into the night sky, its too-small wings beating frantically against the chilly air.
“What happened?” the client shrieked, running towards them.
“We got the two little ones,” Ray explained, “but the big one’s going to take some more specialized equipment.” He adjusted the lenses on his goggles slightly. “The good news is that I don’t think he’s coming back; he’s headed towards Jersey and still picking up speed.”
“The bad news,” Winston sighed as he crouched down, “is that he took out both of Ecto’s left tires before he took off.” He rubbed a finger along a cleanly melted gash in the rubber. “We’re going to need to call a tow truck; we only have one spare.”
“Perhaps Janine can pick up one of us to take the traps back to the firehouse,” Egon suggested. “If we stay here, the Class Seven may decide to try to free its minions.”
“Oh, she’ll love that,” Peter groaned, as he headed for the pay phone at the corner.
When Janine dragged herself in, bleary-eyed, the next morning, she was not at all surprised to see Ray and Winston sprawled across half the garage floor working on Ecto’s suspension. She was, however, somewhat startled to see Peter crouching next to them, holding what looked like the handle from one of the jacks.
“Morning, Dr. V,” she said with as much perk as she could muster. “Supervising?”
He set the jack handle down next to Winston’s left knee, straightened up, and brushed his hands off on his thighs. “Nah,” he mumbled, “more like trying to figure out if there’s a good way to keep ghost-related tire damage from happening again.” He swiped his left hand across his uniform again before rubbing a knuckle under his eye. “Thanks for the lift last night, Janine. I put your travel time on your punchcard.”
“You’d better have,” she replied, but she said it with a smile; much as he gave her a hard time about her paychecks, she knew by now that his penny-pinching was done out of habit. He actually had a soft spot for working women; it wasn’t just the pretty ones he’d cut a deal for (although it helped). She settled into her desk and booted up her computer before asking, “So, any ideas on catching Big Red yet?”
“Egon’s working on the data he got off the meters,” Ray explained as he slid out from under Ecto’s chassis. “Hopefully, that’ll give us a good enough idea of his full PKE signature that we can track him from a distance.”
Janine’s eyes darted upwards. “Did he even go to bed last night?”
“Yeah, he did,” Winston said with an exasperated half-smile. “But only because I shut off the lab lights at 2 am. We’re trying to let him get a little shut-eye.”
“A gesture I truly appreciate,” boomed Egon’s voice from the stairway, “but at the moment, I’m more concerned with catching our Class Seven before he does any further damage. Ray, what was the call at 6:08 about?”
Sitting up on the concrete floor, Ray answered, “There was a small fire at a dry-cleaners early this morning, at which there might have been a sighting of, uh, Big Red. The sprinkler system put it out before the firefighters even got there, and there was no sign of a spectral presence when the owner arrived, but they said the security camera caught something.” He felt at something behind Ecto’s front wheel. “I told them we’d be out as soon as we could, but probably not before eight unless they saw it again.”
Egon nodded. “I assume Ecto is not roadworthy yet?”
“She will be in about half an hour,” Winston assured him. “We just have to tighten her bolts and get her off the jack stands.”
“I’ll want to take some readings,” Egon continued, “to see if they match the data from yesterday - and those will be fading quickly.”
“We’ll suit up in about twenty,” Peter stated. “I’d suggest that you get yourself some coffee in the meantime, Big Guy; you’re not looking too alert there yourself.”
Janine glanced up. Peter was right - Egon had shadows under his eyes at the best of times, but he was blinking alarmingly against the florescent lights of the reception area. Quietly, she hoped that the morning would be calm - maybe she could convince them all to catch a few catnaps once they got back.
“The damage,” the dry-cleaners’ owner explained, “was all confined to this area.” He pointed to the corner where the steam-presser loomed against what had been a papered-over window; now a stray beam of light streamed through smoked glass. “This was fortunate, as the sprinkler system going off over the clothes carousel would have been disastrous,” the middle-aged man continued in an accent Peter couldn’t place.
Ray slid on the ectoscopes as Egon scanned the area. Peter glanced towards the front counter, where two young women, one Asian, one Hispanic, dealt with a growing line of customers. If they were worried about coming in to work where there had just been a case of demonic arson, they weren’t showing it. Brave girls, those. He turned his attention back to his colleagues and asked, “Getting anything, guys?”
Egon traced an oscillating line on the screen with one finger. “Yes. It’s the same Class Seven we encountered yesterday, and it appears to have been working alone.”
“Will it come back?” the owner asked, wringing his hands theatrically.
Ray and Egon shared a glance, then looked at Peter, who put on his salesman smile and said, “Probably not. So far, this spook hasn’t returned to the scene of any of his previous appearances, and we think we can track him down for you.” His eyes went back to the counter girls. “But, if you should see anything suspicious, don’t hesitate to give us another call.”
Winston leaned over the ruined steamer, frowning. “Something about this doesn’t make sense,” he muttered. “A car in the middle of a residential street, a children’s health clinic, and a laundry - what’s this guy’s motive?”
“That’s a potentially fruitful avenue of inquiry,” Egon said, in a tone of voice that suggested he was mentally slapping himself for not having come up with it.
Peter shrugged. “Do demons even have motives?”
“Some of them do,” Ray answered vaguely. “Maybe while Egon and I are putting together a better detector for this guy, you two can do a little research into the people Big Red’s already hit?”
“And we can check up with the fire department to see whether there have been any other mysterious fires he might be behind,” Winston agreed.
“Sure thing,” Peter sighed. So much for his hopes for a mid-day nap.
“Hmm,” said Egon as he peered into the jury-rigged ectospectroscope.
Ray set down a hex screwdriver and came around the table. Usually, a ‘hmm’ from Egon with a falling intonation meant that something unexpected but not immediately destructive had just happened. “Everything okay?” Ray asked, just to be sure.
Egon leaned back from the eyepiece and slid his glasses back into place. “Yes. Our pyrodemon has some highly unusual PKE valences, but I think that, based on the previous readings, we should be able to assemble a significantly more accurate long-range detector from the materials we have at hand.” He began rummaging in the bin of discarded kitchen equipment behind the table, and added “Take a look for yourself.”
“Okay,” Ray agreed, slipping into Egon’s place and lowering his eye to the viewer. Immediately he frowned; where most ghosts had two or three distinct narrow bands of psychokinetic energy, this one had a broad spectral smear with occasional brighter splotches. “Yeah,” he agreed. “This looks pretty weird to me. What do you make of it?” He turned the fine-tuner knob; it didn’t make the image any clearer. “And do you think it has anything to do with this particular demon not showing up in Tobin’s Spirit guide anywhere?”
“Possibly.” Egon set a metal steamer basket with a missing vane and a pair of spoons down on the lab bench next to the soldering iron. “I can identify two sets of valences that appear to be causing a certain amount of cross-interference with each other,” he stated as he began uncoiling several feet of copper wiring. “One set is the standard Class Seven set belonging to the more powerful inhabitants of the Netherworld.”
“The demon signature,” Ray agreed, tracing that set of bright bands on the scope with one finger and forgetting that Egon couldn’t see them away from the viewfinder. “But the signature wouldn’t be this blurry if this were just a standard Netherworld demon.”
“Correct,” Egon continued. “You’ll notice that there’s a second set of slightly dimmer bands that don’t match a demonic signature, or in fact that of any previously recorded Class Seven.”
Ray looked up at the ceiling, then back at the viewfinder. “Class Six, maybe?” he hazarded.
“That seems to make the most sense,” Egon agreed. “Specifically, they are a superficial match for a Class Six fire elemental.”
“So Big Red is a hybrid?” Ray mused. “That doesn’t seem possible, though. Here, Egon, if you’re trying to wind a solenoid coil, use the coil spindle - you’ll never get a consistent radius like that.”
Egon left off trying to build the coil by hand and continued, “My initial hypothesis would be that the pyrodemon somehow managed to absorb another spirit, presumably an elemental Class Six manifestation.” He paused, hunting for a connector. “Unfortunately, if we assume that hypothesis is correct, there is then a third set of valences in the overall reading.”
“Huh.” Ray twiddled a different dial; the Class Seven and Class Six readings faded, and a distinct pattern emerged from the blobs. “Oh, wow,” he said excitedly, “those look really familiar!”
Egon’s eyebrows went up. “Do you recognize them?” he asked. “I found them familiar, too, but I confess I couldn’t place them.”
“I think -” Ray started, then interrupted himself. He pushed back from the table and headed for the single filing cabinet in the lab. “It’s been a while, but I think - yeah, Egon, look at this!” He removed a folder and dug through it for a pair of vivid color prints.
Egon took them from Ray and scowled. “Ray, these are terror dog readings. They don’t look anything like -”
Ray stopped him, leaning over and tracing a pattern across the glossy paper. “Ignore the generic terror dog signature and filter out what’s left,” he said.
Egon did so, and then sat up straight in surprise. “It’s not identical,” he breathed, “but remarkably similar. Is this Zuul’s readout?”
“Vinz Clortho’s, actually,” Ray explained, returning the rest of the folder to the drawer. “We don’t have nearly as good readings from Zuul.”
“I was a little distracted at the time,” Egon admitted. “It’s not a perfect match, but - it fits with an extradimensional origin, again.”
“And that means we probably need a selenium crystal in the detector,” Ray concluded. “Okay, let me wind the coil while you prep the antenna - this shouldn’t take too long to get together if you let me do the soldering.”
“Gladly.” Egon drew a second stool up to the table and began removing a second vein from the steamer basket.
“So that’s it?” Peter glowered at the device sprawled across half his desk. Why Egon insisted on using kitchen implements in his designs, other than their being already-perforated steel and fairly cheap, he’d never figured out.
“Yes, Peter,” Egon said patiently. “That’s it.” He picked up the section of broom handle that now acted as the grip for the steamer-cum-antenna and adjusted the angle slightly. “This will allow us to trace our Class Seven’s specific signature from a distance of approximately one kilometer away in any direction. Metal objects between us and it will reduce the range, but even with a steel-framed building in the way we should still have an effective tracking distance of 500 meters.”
“So unless he goes underground we should be okay,” Winston observed, checking the connections on the long-range scanner’s power supply. “Will it work for baddies other than Big Red?”
“It’s currently tuned specifically to this particular Class Seven’s signature,” Egon replied, “but it should detect anything above a Class Three at about 300 meters with a clear line-of-sight, which is roughly one and a half times the range of a regular PKE meter.” He cleared his throat and fixed Peter with a piercing look. “What have you found out so far?”
Peter dug a handful of index cards from the front pocket of his uniform. “Well,” he started, “Winston schmoozed with a couple of guys from Hook & Ladder #11, and got some good info. Winston, you wanna cover that part?”
“Sure.” Winston unrolled a map of the city over the other half of Peter’s desk, moving two empty take-out containers and a stack of junk mail into one of the chairs. “It’s been an unusually busy week for the firefighters, but most of their calls have been pretty easily explainable - grease fires in kitchens and that kind of thing. However,” he continued, indicating several colored dots on the map, “we have our three calls with confirmed ghost sightings, and then two more unexplained fires with no obvious causes.” He looked up at Ray and pointed at a red dot by the docks. “At this one, they found what they thought might have been fire-suppression gel, but it doesn’t match any chemical profile their lab could come up with, and it looks like half-dried ectoplasm to me. It got a weak response from the PKE meter, Class Six or Seven; they wouldn’t let me bring a sample, but they said you were welcome to drop by and test it there.”
“Sure thing,” Ray agreed. “What about this other one?”
“That was a temp agency office with an unexplained fire in the records department,” Winston explained.
“Just like the clinic!” Ray exclaimed. “You think Big Red’s trying to hide something for somebody?”
Winston shrugged. “I don’t know, but there were no signs of igniters or accelerants, the building was locked, and the intruder alarms never went off. Unfortunately, if it was Big Red, he was smart enough not to get caught on camera, and there aren’t any ectoplasm traces on that one.”
Egon nodded, and added “We can scan that one for PKE residuals if the owners will let us on the site.”
“And that’s where Janine comes in,” Peter interrupted. “She’s been on the phone all morning untangling a mystery.”
Janine gave him a smug smile and pulled out a legal pad covered with scribbles. “So,” she started, “I started out trying to figure out what a dockside warehouse, a temp agency, a kids’ clinic, a dry cleaner, and a Toyota have in common. I started with the fish warehouse. It’s owned by the Giant’s Head Fishery, an outfit out of Nova Scotia with a huge branch office out on Long Island, but its parent company is Jotnarhofuth -”
“Gesundheit,” Peter said, grinning.
“- Which is an Icelandic holding company,” Janine continued as if she hadn’t been interrupted. “It turns out that Jotnarhofuth - don’t you dare, Dr. V - has a small office of its own in downtown Manhattan, and about a third of its staff are temp workers.”
“From the temp office that burned?” Ray guessed aloud.
“Not all of them,” Janine corrected, “but about half, yeah. The children’s clinic was founded on about half a dozen charitable donations; one of them was from the recently-deceased former CEO of Jotnarhofuth, Olafur Amarsson.” She paused, tapping the page with her eraser. “Not the largest one, I should point out; that was from one of the Rockefellers.”
“Still, it’s a connection,” Winston said eagerly.
“The dry cleaners is like that, too,” Janine continued. “They also do bulk uniform laundry, and they have a contract with Giant’s Head to handle uniform services for their dockside workers at the Hudson locations.”
Peter grinned. “And our unlucky Toyota - ?”
Janine rolled her eyes, but smiled anyway. “Ms. Wilson, our first client for Big Red and his boys, worked for the temp agency, and had spent the last three weeks temping the Jotnarhofuth downtown office, in their filing room. Her assignment ended last Friday.”
Egon looked at the ceiling, thoughtfully. “So every case where our Class Seven has made an appearance is connected with this Icelandic firm in some respect. But I don’t see a causal connection yet.”
“It looks to me like Big Red is trying to erase someone’s tracks,” Winston offered. “He’s hit two records offices and one person who worked in records.”
“Yeah, but then what’s up with the warehouse?” Ray asked as the phone rang.
“Hello, Ghostbusters, if a spook’s on the loose, we’re ready to - uh-huh?” Janine said into the receiver. “Okay, you’re sure? Gimme the address - got it. And it’s at what?” The four ‘Busters watched her write down several lines. “Okay, they’ll be right there.” She dropped the receiver and handed Ray the next page from her notepad. “Guess where, guys?”
“Someplace in the dockside warehouses again,” Ray noted as he read the address.
“Giant’s Head?” asked Winston.
“Bingo,” Janine replied, pointing with the end of her pencil for emphasis. “This time it’s their logistics and shipping station - storefront at the street level, offices along the side, warehouse in the back.”
Peter looked aside at Egon. “Bets on there being a records department there?”
“I’d be a fool to bet against you, Peter,” Egon said as he gathered up the long-range detector and headed for Ecto.
“Be careful, guys,” Janine called as they piled into Ecto and peeled out once again.
“No smoke yet,” Winston noted as they climbed out of Ecto and shrugged the packs on. “That’s a good sign, right?”
“Or it means he’s flown off already,” Peter added hopefully.
Egon glanced up from the screen of the long-range PKE scanner. “No,” he said, “I’m picking up Class Seven readings that match our target on the second floor of the office wing of the building.” He paused, shifting the receiving dish on its pole in his off hand. “He appears to be alone. Ray?”
Ray was on regular PKE meter duty. “Seeing one possible other reading, probably Class Two again,” he reported. “Looks like it’s on the first floor right under the Class Seven. Probably trying to do the same signature masking they did the first time.”
“The building’s got a center entrance, one at the east end of the office wing, and a freight ramp with two bays at the back,” Winston pointed out. “Do we want to try and bag the smaller gooper first, and then go for Big Red, or do we want to take the big guns out first?”
Peter looked over Ray’s shoulder at the meter’s readout. “I’m betting the little one will be easier to grab,” he said. “Let’s nab him first, then see if Mr. Flameypants comes after him.”
“He’ll probably run again,” Ray cautioned.
“So we’ll use Egon’s tracker and chase him down again,” Peter replied with a shrug. “Either way, it’ll be easier to find him later than the gooper.”
“East entrance it is,” Winston agreed.
Egon held up one hand. “Wait. If we come at them from two directions, it’ll be harder for the Class Seven to flee.”
“Pincher maneuver, then?” Ray asked. “Me and Peter from the center, you and Winston from the east entrance?”
Peter briefly calculated which entryway was likely to need the heavier firepower if the demon decided to get serious instead of turning tail again. “Sounds like a plan,” he said, “but stay in radio contact - this is a big building, and I don’t want anyone getting split off on their own.” He regretted saying it as soon as the words left his mouth; a cold frisson danced down his spine at the thought.
“We’ll stay in our pairs; don’t worry.” Winston had caught the look in Peter’s eyes.
If only Peter could be sure that Ray and Egon would be so serious. “Then what are we standing around for?” he asked, trying to shake the feeling off with some levity. “Let’s get these guys!”
The front doors, under the sign that said “Giant’s Head” in peeling red paint, had been left open when the workers evacuated. Ray pushed one open and glanced inside. The interior needed painting almost as badly; big flakes of white paint and fake stucco had fallen away from the wall across from the receptionist’s station. Traces of pinkish-orange ectoplasm were splattered across the far wall, leading into the hallway. Ray glanced at the meter, then gestured for Peter to follow him.
The florescent lights in the long hallway flickered. Peter looked up, then whispered, “Are the goopers doing that, or do they just need to change all the ballasts at once?”
“It’s probably Big Red,” Ray whispered back. “His PKE field is strong enough to interfere with the power supply - whoops, Peter, power up!”
A small ghost with four arms and no visible face swooped out of the wall just in front of them; Ray dodged just in time to get only one shoulder horribly slimed, but Peter’s opening shot was a clean hit. “Got ‘em,” Peter called. “Can I get a containment stream going here?”
Ray dropped to one knee, flipped the switch on the thrower, and fired; the Class Two jerked and tugged, but was caught between the two streams. Ray hooked the meter to his belt with his off hand and grabbed the radio. “We’ve got the little one,” he started, just as Winston and Egon made the corner twenty yards down the corridor.
Winston grabbed a trap and barreled forward, making a clean throw and dropping the trap just below the Class Two. “Trap out,” he called, unnecessarily, and Peter and Ray both pulled their streams; the trap hissed, and the ghost disappeared in the fan of white light.
Winston and Peter locked eyes. “Too easy?” they both asked at once.
“Far too easy,” Egon agreed. “That was bait, and the Class Seven is -”
The ceiling tiles immediately above them burst into flame. “Right over us?” Peter guessed, wheeling around; Egon nodded as bits of flaming pressboard fell to the floor. With a sudden roar, the demon’s bulk dropped into the hallway the way Peter and Ray had come. Its strangely featureless face grinned at them, as if it were pleased to have company, but one huge clawed hand swiped savagely at Winston, shredding an elbow pad. The ruined padding let off a wisp of smoke.
“Hit it!” Peter shouted, and they fired in unison; the demon flattened itself to the floor as the beams passed over it, then launched itself towards them. Peter dove left, Ray right, and Egon and Winston fell back; now the demon was in the middle of them, in the tight hallway. A flaming ceiling tile fell from the ceiling, and Egon jumped back yet again.
“Why haven’t the fire alarms gone off yet?” Peter growled, trying to find an angle that wouldn’t risk hitting one of the others and dodging a lash of the demon’s pointed tail.
“Maybe he disabled the alarm system,” Ray offered, firing from a low angle. The demon shifted and growled, one wing caught in the stream. “Try a 120-degree containment pattern!”
Winston edged towards Egon and fired, hitting the demon square in the flank. “Someone get a trap before he -”
The demon raked both hands across the ceiling, setting another section aflame, and leaped past Ray, shaking off both streams. “Aw, dammit!” Winston shouted, regaining his balance.
“Don’t lose him!” Ray yelped, springing to his feet and chasing down the hallway after the demon. Peter was hot on his heels, head down, as the demon veered off and dove through a pair of double doors. The two ‘Busters hit the doors shoulder first and found themselves in a significantly less well-lit section of the building.
“Why would he head for a part of the warehouse with concrete floors?” Ray asked, huffing.
“I don’t -” Peter was interrupted by the doors spectacularly exploding into flame behind them; he and Ray were flung to the ground by the blast, hot air prickling their scalps as it passed.
Peter’s radio crackled with Egon’s voice. “We can’t make it through that way without fire suppression equipment,” he said, his voice shaking slightly. “We’re going to come around through the warehouse entrance. Our Class Seven hasn’t yet left the building; it looks like he’s on the second floor just ahead of you.”
Peter dragged himself back to his feet. “Okay, Big Guy, we got it. Try and meet us as soon as you can - we already know two streams won’t hold him.” He leaned down to offer Ray a hand up, asking “You okay there?”
“I’m fine,” Ray observed, “but I think my radio’s busted.” He steadied himself against the wall. “And he’s got to have fritzed the alarm; that should have set it off like gangbusters.”
“Let’s try and keep him from making a break for it before Winston and Egon can make it back,” Peter suggested.
Ray hunted for the PKE meter still warbling on his belt. “This way,” he replied, pointing with his thrower. “Looks like he’s in the main warehouse. Maybe we can turn the big refrigeration units on.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Peter agreed, checking the power level on his pack. Still near 90% - no danger of running out soon.
The next set of doors had been half-melted and torn off their hinges. Ray slipped his ectoscopes down and peered at them intently. “They’re barely more than room temperature,” he noted. “Big Red yanked these off before we ever got here.”
“That must have been when they called us,” Peter suggested. The room in front of them was an open space, with unmarked concrete walls and floor. Again, the lights were flickering; with the smoke drifting in from behind them, the effect was disorienting.
“There,” Peter whispered, pointing at a metal frame staircase. “Egon said he was on the second floor?”
Ray frowned at the PKE meter. “It’s hard to tell,” he admitted. “Right now his readings are sort of smeared all over - he must have slimed the hell out of the next room.”
Peter paused with one hand on the bannister. “Could he be giving off, I don’t know, ectoplasmic flames?” he asked.
Ray swallowed as his feet found the first stair. “I hope not.”
“Great,” Peter groaned, trying to climb as quietly as possible.
Another metal door, insulated this time, met them at the top of the staircase. Ray found the handle of the big hook-latch holding it shut. “I think we’ll have to rush him,” he suggested. “I’ll go left, you go right. Ready?”
“Ready,” Peter agreed, hoping that Winston and Egon had made their way around by now.
Ray hefted the latch and threw the door open; Peter charged in. Immediately, a chunk of what smelled like melting plastic hit him in the chest; Peter staggered, barely keeping his balance against the sudden flash of pain.
“There he is!” Ray yelled, and charged forward past Peter, firing wildly. “He’s on the catwalk!”
Peter forced himself to inhale and focus. The half-melted plastic barrel that had hit him rolled to the edge of the walkway; beyond that was an open space, with a single catwalk across the middle and stairs down on either side. Big Red wasn’t so much on the catwalk as hovering just below it; Ray was charging down the stairs on the left.
“Wow!” Ray was shouting. “That must be Enochian!”
“Ray, wait,” Peter called. He stumbled towards the left staircase; that felt like a cracked rib, at least, not a burn. Big Red folded his wings and dropped like a diving bird to the floor below.
“Peter, look!” Ray shouted back from somewhere below him. “It looks like a summoning circle, but -” He was drowned out by another voice, one that sounded like a blacksmith’s hammer clanging on an anvil.
“What?” Peter scrambled to the edge of the walkway.
Below him, Ray was racing across the sunken floor, nearly half a story below ground level. White lines, like chalk, marked a huge, intricate magic circle on the floor. In the center, Big Red had his giant hands up, and that calm, flat face was chanting out something in a language Peter barely registered as speech.
“ - transposing the Gate and Solar runes -” Ray’s voice came, barely audible over the demon’s booming voice.
“Stop!” Peter howled, as the demon finally noticed him. Its flat face smiled serenely up at him; its clanging voice laughed merrily as it clapped its hands together.
The room exploded in flames bright as the sun.
The incessant, steady beeping accompanied by a low hiss swam into Peter’s consciousness first. Hospital, he thought. How bad? His brain sent a command to his toes to wiggle; it seemed to take forever for them to obey and for the tactile impression of thin sheets to make it back to base. Painkillers, Peter realized, heavy-duty ones. He flexed his fingers and was rewarded with a sharp tingle in his left hand, one that almost certainly would have been pain under normal body chemistry. There was a mild resistance against his right arm just below the elbow. Someone inhaled and swallowed somewhere near his right ankle; Peter steeled himself against bright lights and opened his eyes.
“Dr. V, you’re awake, thank God!” Janine sighed; her fingers pressed against his arm again and then let go. “I’ll go get the others - don’t you go anywhere!” She rose to her feet, kicking back an under-padded and uncomfortable-looking chair and nearly sprinting out of the room.
Slowly, the realization that her face had been heavily tear-streaked filtered into Peter’s awareness.
He propped himself up on his elbows, very carefully, and took a better look around. His left arm was bandaged from fingers to mid-forearm. His chest was taped. He had an IV in his left arm, and it felt like his head was bandaged. His right hand was red, as if he’d been sunburned, and the skin felt tight, as it did on his face, but he didn’t see any blistering. He was the only occupant of the tiny room, but it was a room, with a door - not an ICU cubicle. Other than having been unconscious, he didn’t seem to be in that bad shape.
His stomach lurched. Ray was a lot closer to the center of the explosion.
The door clicked, and Janine slid through again, Egon trailing behind her like a lost child. Peter sat up straighter - Egon didn’t have the tell-tail trails down his face that Janine had, but his eyes were red. Winston followed, stone-faced, and closed the door quietly behind him.
“Hi, guys,” Peter said; his mouth was dry - it felt like he’d been eating sand. “Where’s Ray?”
Winston flinched at the words. “We were hoping you could tell us, man.”
“Huh?” Peter mentally scolded himself; the drugs were making him slow. “He’s missing?”
“Yes,” Egon said in a flat, cracking voice; he sounded nearly as dry as Peter did. “How much do you remember, Peter?”
Peter hunted on the arm of the hospital bed for the controls as a delaying tactic, trying to think. As he adjusted it from reclining to half-sitting, he reported, “Ray and I followed Big Red into the main warehouse space - he’d yanked the doors off already. We ended up in the second storage bay, I think. There was a depression in the floor, kind of like an empty swimming pool.” He looked up at Egon for some reaction.
Egon nodded. “Go on, please.”
“Big Red threw something at me and got me square in the chest, a plastic drum or something,” Peter continued, still watching Egon’s face and occasionally glancing at Winston. “Ray ran on ahead, down to where Big Red had - some sort of magic circle on the floor.” He watched Egon’s eyebrows jump, then went on, “Big Red was chanting something; I didn’t understand the words. Ray was off the stairs - I think he ran into the circle - and then, boom, fire everywhere.” He looked away from Egon’s piercing gaze. “I must have blacked out after that.”
Janine slid back into the narrow chair and took his arm again. “Ray was still down there?” she said, pleading. “He didn’t get away somehow?”
“Not before I was out cold,” Peter answered, before realizing that wasn’t the best choice of words. “You didn’t find - anything?”
Winston leaned against the wall; he looked exhausted. “We had just gotten in through the loading dock when the place went up. Right when the glass all blew out, Big Red disappeared off of Egon’s detector - he didn’t fly off or drop through the ground or anything, he just vanished, poof!, and then the PKE blast fried the detector. We tried to push through to where you were, but by that point everything in the place was on fire and there was too much debris. Uh, the stuff in those plastic barrels is mostly fish oil, and it makes a lot of smoke, too. We were still trying to figure out an alternate way in when the firefighters arrived and told us to get out of their way.” His voice dropped. “I had to force Egon to stop trying to climb in one of the windows, man - he was that desperate to get to you guys. I told him to leave the fire rescue to the professionals, that we’d just be another casualty in their way.”
Egon turned aside, embarrassed. “I just thought - we had a better idea of where they were.”
“Which we told the guys in the helmets, and they listened to us,” Winston pointed out. “They found you pretty quickly, Pete - you got lucky. The blast threw you into a concrete wall, and you landed with your pack towards the main fire and part of a stairwell shielding you. You got first-degree burns on pretty much all the skin you had exposed, second-degree burns on your left hand and arm where it wasn’t covered by the jumpsuit, you cracked the hell out of three or four ribs, you probably have a concussion, and your shoulder was dislocated.”
“Which is why I’m in a regular room and not the ICU,” Peter said. “I guess I owe our seamstress some flowers. The fire resistant fabric in the uniforms turned out pretty good, huh?”
“Phenomenally so,” Egon agreed. “The firefighters found Ray’s pack, and the remnants of his trap, meter, and uniform, on the floor of the depression. His clothes were contained within his heavily-scorched uniform, only partly damaged.”
Peter blinked. “And empty?” he prompted.
“Yeah,” Winston agreed. “No sign of a body. He was in the uniform when you last saw him?”
Peter had to suppress an inappropriate case of the giggles at the thought of Ray stripping in the middle of a bust. “Uh, yeah, he was still dressed.”
Egon leaned over, eyes wide and liquid. “Peter, this is very important. You said there was a magic circle on the floor.” He glanced at Winston, who shook his head slowly. “By the time we got there,” Egon continued, “there was ash and soot everywhere, and water and foam from the firefighters, and they’d tracked all over the floor. We didn’t see any traces of a circle, and the PKE meter only picked up residuals from the pyrodemon itself. What did it look like? Were there any other ritual tools?”
“I don’t think so,” Peter said vaguely. He closed his eyes, trying to visualize the scene. Ray he could see clearly, almost more interested in the circle than in Big Red. The demon was harder, except for the moment when it had smiled right at him. The area around them was a blur. “I’d guess the circle was about 20 feet in diameter,” he said slowly, “but that’s about all I can remember.”
“About how many symbols?” Egon asked. “What did they look like?”
Peter squeezed his eyelids tighter. “Maybe . . . maybe one every three feet? That’d be, what, eighteen or twenty? Egon, I’m not sure.”
Egon leaned closer. “Peter, please,” he begged.
Peter opened his eyes to find Egon’s face hovering less than a foot from his own. “I’m sorry, Big Guy,” he whispered, “but I can’t see it. I’m sorry.”
“Hey, hey,” Winston interrupted, putting one strong hand on Egon’s shoulder and the other carefully on Peter’s. “He just woke up, Egon. Give him a little bit to get his head together.”
“That’s not how it usually works,” Peter admitted. “The longer we wait, the more fuzzy my memory’s likely to get. But I really can’t remember more than that.”
“And the composition of the magic circle is the key to finding out what happened to Ray,” Egon explained.
Janine stirred in her chair. “I think we know what happened to him,” she said, a bit too loudly. “This demon sent him somewhere. Like what happened with you when your body was possessed, Egon.”
“That’s one possibility,” Egon agreed, “but only one. It’s also possible that the pyrodemon - disintegrated him.” His voice cracked.
Peter sank back into the pillows. “That’d be an awful lot of effort to go to. My gut says Janine’s right; he sent Ray someplace else.” He rubbed at his eyes. “I’ll work on teasing out any details I can remember, Egon, but it may have to wait until my head’s a little clearer. I don’t know what they’ve got me on, but it’s pretty strong.”
Winston nodded, saying, “Yeah, burns are pretty bad - they gave you the good stuff. Tell you what; Egon and I will go back and look for any traces of the circle; maybe we can get you something to go on.”
“That’d be great,” Peter agreed, as a wave of drowsiness hit him. “I’ll be right here.”
“You’d better be,” Janine scolded him as Egon and Winston tried to leave quietly.
The prickle of something rough and dry underneath him poked its way into Ray’s consciousness first. Something flickered on the other side of his closed eyelids. He put one hand down into what felt like fresh hay. How did I get to Sam’s farm? he thought muzzily, pushing himself up to sitting and blinking himself awake.
He was in a tuft of long, dry prairie grass in the dappled shade of a scrubby tree with big oval leaves and peeling grey bark. Ray reached over and tugged at a strip of bark; it came off easily in his hand. It smelled vaguely of anise. He turned it over a couple of times; the lower end of the strip was faintly discolored, a darker grey than the rest. He didn’t recognize the tree, and it didn’t seem to have any flowers or fruit on it to help identify it.
Ray let the bark strip go, and was startled when it landed on his privates. He blushed furiously as he realized he was buck naked, and tried to scrunch further down into the grass.
Cautiously, he scanned his surroundings. He was in a long, shallow hollow between two low hills, with scattered bushes and another half-dozen of the oval-leaved scrub trees. A few taller, wider trees stood at the top of the hill on his left; the other seemed to be nothing but grasses and occasional clumps of weeds. Dry seedheads quivered in the nearly-still air, occasionally shaken by the wings of buzzing insects.
Ray caught one of the bugs as it buzzed past him and peered at it. From the body shape, he’d have guessed it was a grasshopper, but it lacked the elongated back legs of the orthoptera, and the wings didn’t fold in - they looked more like dragonfly wings. A bit shaken, he let it go; it flicked off into the grass and disappeared.
The sky was already bright blue, with scudding white clouds scattered across the horizon; the sun was not yet peeking over the left-hand hill, but the trees were fully illuminated. “I’m going to get so sunburned,” Ray worried out loud.
Burned. Suddenly memory flooded him - the warehouse, the magic circle chalked on concrete, the four-winged demon with the copper-pan face. “Oh, nuts!” he shouted, leaping to his feet. “Peter!” He looked around frantically, hoping to see his friend in another tuft of grass, or perhaps having woken ahead of him and working on prepping a campsite.
Something moved halfway up the hill with the tall trees. “Peter? Egon? Winston?” Ray called, running towards the shapes moving in the high grass. “Hey, anyone there?”
A head popped up above the waving stems, and Ray froze. That was certainly not one of his friends; that wasn’t - was that even human?
The eyes looked human enough, brown-irised and alert, but the skull around them was heavily ridged, the nose below them flattened, and the jaw beneath protruding and chinless. The hair above was short and matted, with flecks of grey at the temples, and the shoulders were - not furry, exactly, but they had considerably more body hair than anyone Ray had ever seen. A glance downward into the grass stems told Ray this was a female; she held a short stick in one hand and a child’s hand in the other. She and Ray stared at each other for what seemed like hours, eyes darting, categorizing, observing.
It was the child who interrupted, finally, with a startled screech. The grass around them stirred to sudden life, as three more of the naked hominids jumped from crouching into a full run, hooting and leaping towards them. Ray held both hands up, open. “It’s okay!” he said hastily. “I’m not armed! I’m not going to hurt anyone!”
The older female turned around and made a noise remarkably similar to a dog’s bark. The others stopped and formed a rough line behind her, glaring at Ray and gesturing. Behind them, Ray saw a fifth adult, running just as fast the other way, arms tight at its chest. Another female, with a baby, Ray guessed. They’re covering her getaway.
“It’s okay,” he said again. “I’m peaceful. Everything’s fine.” So far the evidence was that these - apes? People? - didn’t have much of a language at all, much less speak English, but he hoped his intonation would carry some of his intent. Carefully, he pointed at himself, then towards the ridge where the trees were. “I’m going over there,” he said. “I won’t bother your other mom.”
The older female looked over her shoulder, then pointed at herself, the child, and the other three hominids, and the other hill. She grunted, then pointed at Ray, then the trees.
“Okay. You’re going over there -” Ray pointed at her, then the second hill - “and I’m going over there,” he finished, pointing at himself, then the trees again. He waited, wondering if he should make the first move.
Instead, the older female grunted again, turned away from him, and began walking after her fifth clanmate, the child rambling after her. Ray nodded and turned in the direction of the trees; he deliberately waited until he’d walked a good twenty paces before looking back. The other three hominids - all males, it looked like - were trailing after their matriarch, spread out and on high alert.
“Wow,” Ray said under his breath, “those look like Australopithecines, but I thought those were supposed to be shorter.” He snuck another glance over his shoulder. “And they lived in Africa. So - have I been transported to pre-Paleolithic Africa, or am I in an alternate universe where Homo sapiens hasn’t evolved yet?” He sighed. “Human evolution really isn’t my field. Egon would probably know. Heck, Egon could probably talk with them.”
He was on top of the hill, in the more substantial shade of the stand of trees, before he voiced his next fear: “How am I going to get home from here?”
Winston parked Ecto alongside the remains of the warehouse and rubbed his eyes. “Still a lot of smoke hanging around,” he noted.
“The wind velocity today is unusually low,” Egon observed, twiddling a dial on his PKE meter and frowning. “We’re not the only ones here.”
“You’re right,” Winston said, reading the name on the minivan they’d parked behind. “Looks like the insurance guys are already here. Let’s see if they’ll let us in anyway.”
As they came around the corner to where the loading dock still stood, the smell of burned fish hung heavy in the air. Just inside the rolled-up door, an irritated-looking man in blue tyvek coveralls was picking up objects from the floor and sealing them in plastic bags.
“Hey,” Winston said, waving and then turning so the shoulder of his uniform sleeve was visible. “We’re the Ghostbusters. We were here earlier. Is it okay if we scan the place?”
“Ghostbusters?” The insurance investigator wiped a smear of soot from his forehead with a bandanna and sighed. “Right, the ones who claimed that the fire was supernatural in origin. Do you realize how difficult you’ve made my job? Everyone and their maiden aunt claims supernatural damages these days.” He waved them in, grumbling, “Your footprints are already all over the place, where the firemen haven’t already tramped all over them. I suppose you can’t do any more damage. Did the one that got carted off in the ambulance leave something?”
“Possibly,” Egon said as he stepped around what used to be a refrigeration unit. “I’m Dr. Egon Spengler, and my colleague here is Winston Zeddemore.”
“Yes, yes, I said already I’ve heard of you,” the investigator replied, a frown creasing the space between his eyes. He removed one blue glove and offered his right hand mechanically. “I’m Edwin Minsky. Please don’t touch anything, and try not to step in undisturbed areas.”
Egon shook his hand, followed by Winston. “We won’t disturb any evidence,” Egon assured him. “We’re scientists. We’re just trying to find out what happened to our fourth partner.” His eyes drifted back to the meter and narrowed.
“Ah.” Minsky scowled. “Well, good luck, then,” he muttered, returning to the fragments of what looked like it had been a briefcase before half of it had burned away.
As they headed towards the bay with the sub-floor, Winston commented, “Man, he didn’t seem very friendly. He knows we have two men down, and he has to treat us like that?”
“Mmm,” Egon replied, holding the meter up at an angle and pursing his lips.
“You gonna tell me what you’re getting on that thing?” Winston asked. Usually, Egon gave a running commentary on what his readings were; his being this tight-lipped was unusual.
“It’s hard to say,” Egon said, “since the pyrodemon left a massive signature when it triggered the explosion.” He fiddled with a different knob. “Its residuals are everywhere, and the meter I tuned specifically for its frequency is too damaged to use. However, I think I can state with certainty that it did not flee the scene.”
Winston blinked. “I hate to tell you this, Egon, but I’m pretty sure Big Red’s not here now.”
“No, of course not,” Egon continued. “What I’m saying is that it has no exit trail out of here. It did not leave in any direction.”
“So it did go straight down, after all? Through the ground, or the pipes?” Winston offered.
Egon scowled as they stepped through the ruined doors into the blasted bay. The concrete walls were everywhere scorched, and bare metal showed through where the paint had burned off of the steel supports. “No,” Egon answered, “that would still leave a signature trail. The pyrodemon came here,” he said, pointing towards the center of the lowered floor, “and then its trail simply ends.”
Winston tugged a flashlight from his belt; the light from the smoke-grimed skylight was dim, and the electricity hadn’t been cut back on yet. “I’m not seeing any of Pete’s circle on the floor,” he reported.
“I suspect the blast obliterated the majority of it,” Egon said, lowering the meter and fumbling for his own flashlight with his off hand. “We should still look for traces, though - any clue as to its intended use would be helpful.”
“Well, if Big Red just blipped out from here, maybe it’s a teleporting circle?” Winston offered, carefully stepping around the outside of the pit.
Egon sniffed and nudged his glasses back into place as he edged around in the other direction. “It’s certainly one possibility,” he agreed.
Winston leaned over the edge. “Hey, I think I see something,” he reported. “Kind of looks like a figure-eight.”
“Do you have a camera? Get a photo if you can,” Egon called across the sunken area.
Winston slapped at a pocket. “Naw,” he said sheepishly, “Ray had the camera this morning.”
A voice behind them announced, “I have one, if you’ll illuminate what you need recorded.”
Winston managed to avoid jumping in surprise. “Um, thanks, Mr. Minsky,” he stammered. “It’s right there.” He indicated the spot with the flashlight beam.
The investigator stepped up to the lip of the pit and snapped three shots. “I’ll be having the lab develop everything on this roll tonight,” he explained. “I can have a messenger bring copies of these to your office in the morning.”
“That’s mighty kind of you,” Winston said gratefully.
“It’s the least I can do,” Minsky sighed. He gestured at the uncharred shadow on the pit’s floor. “There’s no sign of any chemical accelerant anywhere in the building, except for the fish oil itself. Not in the office wing where the first fire started, and not here. We found some of the marks from your beam-weapons, and determined that they couldn’t have been the ignition source, either, based on their location.” His mouth twisted, as if the words were sour. “I’m not going to say I believe your story about a demon, but I can’t claim any of this was your fault.”
“I hadn’t realized we were the primary suspect,” Egon noted dryly.
“Not the primary one. Just one of many possibilities,” Minsky admitted. He paused, then added, “Just so you know, there’s no sign of rendered human fat anywhere in the building, either.” He glanced down again. “Especially not . . . there.”
“So Ray’s probably okay?” Winston asked, his voice brimming with hope.
“At the very least,” Egon said carefully, “between the lack of any remains in his uniform and the lack of any such evidence here, we can rule out his burning to death in the warehouse.”
“Then he’s okay,” Winston insisted. “Maybe Big Red teleported him out with him, and couldn’t bring anything that wasn’t alive with him.”
Egon’s nod lacked enthusiasm. “I agree that that is, again, one possibility. Unfortunately, it is also only one among many, and we have a crucial lack of evidence.”
The investigator waved them towards the door. “The rest of my team is coming back in ten minutes,” he said, “and at that point you will be in our way. I can forward a preliminary report along with the photos, but unless you need to point your detector at something else, I really do need you to leave.”
Winston looked up at the skylight; it wasn’t the coating of soot that tinted the sunlight red, now. “Come on, Egon,” he said. “Let’s go back to the firehouse and fix the detector. If we can find Big Red, I’m pretty sure we can find Ray.” He lowered his voice, and added, “And you’ve gotten less than four hours’ sleep in the last day and a half. I know we want to find Ray ASAP, but we can’t do that if you’re too bleary-eyed to see what you’re doing. See if you can catch a nap in the back seat on the way.”
“That might well be an appropriate course of action,” Egon agreed reluctantly as they picked their way between the remains of melted barrels.
“Thanks so much,” Janine gushed. The duty nurse gave her a worn-thin smile and turned back to her clipboard as Janine hustled down the hallway and ducked back into Room 407. “Got it,” she said, flashing Peter a triumphant grin as she handed him a small notepad and a sharpened pencil.
Peter looked it over. “Well, I guess it’ll do,” he sighed, “even if it has ads for birth control pills all over it.”
Janine plopped back down in the too-small chair. “Hey,” she said, “you try finding anything in a hospital that Big Pharma hasn’t put its mark all over.”
“I know, Janine; I was just teasing.” Peter closed his eyes, trying to focus. “Can’t let you think I’m going soft on you; you’d hit me up for a raise with one hand on my IV line.”
“Don’t be silly,” Janine answered. “I’d wait until you’re high as a kite on the stuff they’re giving you.”
Peter smiled wanly. “Fair enough.” He took a single deep breath, and his eyes tightened. Janine watched him like a mother cat, alert for any sign of trouble.
“Dammit,” Peter breathed. “I can’t - ugh.” He opened his eyes and blinked at the beige ceiling. “Why can’t I remember?”
“Because you bonked your head on the wall when Big Red blew the place up,” Janine answered, her voice low and forceful. “Not your fault, Dr. V.”
“Yeah,” Peter agreed reluctantly. “But this is the key to figuring out where Ray is. I mean, for all we know Big Red hauled him off to barbecue him.”
Janine shook her head, hard. “Uh-uh. If he’d wanted to do that, he’d’ve roasted him on the spot, and he didn’t.” Her hands tightened their grip on the bed rail. “My guess is that he’s holding him for ransom. The question is, what does a fire demon want? He wouldn’t need money, right?”
“No,” Peter said, “probably not.” Lightly, he drew a rough circle on the pad. “Some demons like gold, but as far as we know, they don’t use it as money. They just like how it looks, and they know we think it’s valuable.” He split it into four equal sections, then split each of them in thirds. “Maybe he’s using Ray as bait to lure the rest of us in?”
“If he is,” Janine pointed out, “then he’ll show back up at some point. You won’t have to track him.”
“Might make things a little easier on Egon,” Peter mumbled. He started to sketch a star, then stopped and erased it. “I think he’s annoyed that Big Red fried his detector, but he’s worried enough about me and Ray that he won’t admit he’s ticked about the small stuff.” He replaced the star with an asterisk, then erased it. “Dammit!”
Janine scooted the chair closer to the head of the bed so she could see the sketchpad. “So,” she asked, “if there’s a pretty good chance Big Red’s going to show up anyway, why are you breaking your brain trying to figure out how his circle works?”
Peter set the pencil down, looking almost relieved. “Big Red didn’t fly out of there,” he explained. “Egon said he just vanished off the radar. That probably means he jumped to the Netherworld. And this,” he said, tapping the sketched circle, “is how he did it. That means he can’t just leap back and forth at will.” He paused. “That’s not surprising, by the way,” he added. “Most demons can’t come here without either a natural rift or someone summoning them; they’d need the same for the way back.”
“So he un-summoned himself?” Janine said. “I didn’t know they could do that.”
Peter shrugged. “Neither did I, but this is really Ray’s field here. I don’t know much about magic, and this stuff’s pretty complex.” He tried again, ending up with something halfway between a star and an octothorp. “And I’m not getting anywhere like this.”
Janine looked at the glyph, frowning. “You think he dumped Ray in the Netherworld somewhere? Like what happened to Egon that one time?”
“I don’t know,” Peter said through gritted teeth. “If I could remember this crappy circle, we’d have something to go on, but -”
“Hey,” Janine interrupted, “don’t beat yourself up; you’re already beat up enough for one day.”
Peter unclenched his hands and forced himself to relax. “Yeah,” he said softly, “you’re right, but - every minute might count for Ray.” He trailed the eraser across the paper aimlessly. “I know I saw it. The data’s in here, somewhere. I just can’t get to it.”
“We could get one of Ray’s grimoires and flip through the symbols until you recognize some of them,” Janine suggested.
“Maybe,” Peter agreed, “but that’ll take forever.” He blew out a breath through tight lips. “Maybe I could get Egon to do a hypnotic regression on me.”
“A what?” Janine asked, startled. “Isn’t that for past lives and stuff?”
“It can be,” Peter agreed, “but you can also use it to get someone to recall something they’ve blocked out because of trauma. Maybe we can push the memories the blast knocked loose back into place,” he said, tapping the eraser end of the pencil against one temple.
Janine drew up her knees, perching her heels on the rung of the chair. “Don’t you run a risk of creating a false memory that way?” she argued. “I remember reading about that stuff in a magazine once.”
“If we’re careful, we should be able to avoid that,” replied Peter, “and even if we do, we’re not any worse off than we are right now. I don’t know much about what magical sigils are supposed to look like except the couple Ray’s shown us and the ones I’ve seen in movies, so if I come up with a falsely constructed memory, it’ll be gibberish and Egon will know.”
Janine still looked skeptical. “Has Egon even done this before?” she asked. “I mean, this sounds like the sort of thing you’d do to impress girls in grad school.”
Peter looked sheepish for a moment. “Guilty as charged,” he admitted, “but we all did this with each other - I mean, it came up for all three of us at various points in our paranormal research. Egon’s more out of practice than I am, but it’s like riding a bicycle - he’ll remember.”
“Question is,” Janine said softly, “will you?”
“Only one way to find out,” Peter murmured, shrugging.
Ray wished he’d paid more attention in his sole college biology class. The trees whose shade he was gratefully resting under were clearly a different species from the scrubby shrub he’d woken under, with thick, pebbly-textured bark and three-lobed leaves bigger than his hands, but he didn’t recognize them either. The remnants of tiny dried-up flowers were lodged in the thin layer of leaf-meal at their roots, and in the upper branches he could see the small green swellings that would be some sort of fruit in a few months; they were entirely the wrong shape to be any fruits he remembered from his small-town childhood or farm-bound adolescence, though. He’d climbed as far as he could to get a better look, but the upper branches were alarmingly flexible and he’d slid back down before he broke one.
Shady or not, he was still going to sunburn if he didn’t find something close to actual shelter. Rain was going to be a problem, too, eventually, although the immediate surroundings suggested it had been fairly dry here recently - the grasses were more tan than green in most places. Ray hoisted himself back into the main fork of the tallest tree, trying to ignore the roughness of the bark against fairly tender skin.
The hollow he’d landed in emptied out into a longer valley between a ridge and a shallower rise. From his elevated position, he could see treetops clustered fairly closely along the lowlands, following a loosely winding path. That probably meant a riverbed, or at least a creek. Suddenly, Ray became aware of how dry his throat was - finding water took equal priority with finding shelter.
“I guess I’d better go down there,” Ray mused to himself. As he shimmied down the tree trunk, he spied a fairly straight fallen twig; once he’d picked it up and cracked off the side shoots, it made a reasonably-sized walking stick.
The tall grasses of the hollow offered more shade than the ridge of the hilltop, so Ray found himself almost retracing his steps from earlier. It wasn’t too surprising when he spotted the tribe of hominids on the side of the other hill, just where the hollow emptied into the valley proper; he turned aside - westward, if he was reading the sun correctly - to give them a wide berth.
He wasn’t surprised when they spotted him, either; he smiled and waved, and shifted his trajectory so he didn’t look like he was walking towards him. The three young males barked at each other and gestured at him, flicking their hands. He chuckled - it wasn’t exactly how he would have done it, but apparently “shoo, go away” was pretty close to a cultural universal. Again, he shifted his path; if crossing over the foot of the hill and coming around to the river bottom the long way made them feel better, that was fine. For all that the grass underfoot was prickly and the ground was baked hard, he hadn’t run into any stones or thorns that really bothered his bare feet yet.
The barking was punctuated by a single loud hoot. Ray glanced over to see the matriarch with her hand on one of the youngsters’ shoulders. She pointed at Ray, then at a spot further down the river valley, then repeated the shooing gesture.
“Okay,” Ray called back. “Sorry to be in your territory again. I’ll just go around this way,” he said, pointing at a different spot in the valley.
The matriarch peered at him, one hand over her eyes to shield them from the sunlight. She hooted, pointed, and shooed again.
“It’s okay,” Ray called back. “I’m going.”
He was pretty sure one of the young ones was watching him the whole way down. Hopefully, they didn’t see him as a threat - but the best way to take care of that was to not be in their home turf anymore. Ray just hoped his guess for where their territory ended was right.
“Shh,” Peter warned Egon as he pushed the door to room 407 open. “She conked out about half an hour ago,” he finished, pointing at Janine, slumped in the small chair with her glasses in her lap.
Egon carefully plucked the glasses from the folds of Janine’s skirt, folded the earpieces in, and set them on the tray table next to the bed. With one hand, he gingerly brushed a strand of hair back from her face, careful not to wake her; his expression was unreadable. Winston watched him, observing, “She must be exhausted - we didn’t let her get much sleep last night.”
“I think I’m the only one of us who’s gotten any shut-eye,” Peter agreed, “and that wasn’t exactly voluntary on my part.” He stretched, trying not to look like he was being too careful of the IV line. “The good news is that they think they can discharge me bright and early tomorrow morning unless it turns out the rib fractures are worse than they thought. I’m supposed to get another set of x-rays as soon as radiology opens.”
“Excellent,” Egon said, allowing himself a small flash of a smile. “We can make more progress if we’re all in the same place.” His eyes fell to the notepad perched on the edge of the tray.
Peter followed his gaze, curled his lip, and shook his head. “I’m not having much luck trying to figure out the circle on my own,” he admitted. “I’m pretty sure now that there were twelve symbols evenly spaced around the ring, not eighteen, but for what they were? Not a clue.”
Egon looked troubled, but what he said was, “We’ll gather samples of different sigils. Hopefully when you see the right ones, they’ll jog your memory.”
“Uh-uh,” Peter insisted, “That’ll take forever. Egon, I think you need to do a hypnotic regression and see if you can get my subconscious to cough up the memory.”
“What?” Egon’s glasses slid down his nose; he shoved them back and objected, “Peter, you know there’s a good chance of creating a false memory by force of suggestion.”
“Isn’t that for past-life stuff anyway?” Winston asked.
Janine stirred at his elbow. “That’s what I said,” she yawned.
Peter grinned wryly. “You can use it to retrieve suppressed memories, too, although post-traumatic amnesia isn’t quite the same. And yeah, Egon, if you’re not careful enough you’ll get my subconscious’s best guess as to the symbols, not a real memory, but at the moment I’d be happy to have anything - I’ve come up with jack and squat so far. You always know when I’m making crap up; you can do it this time, too.” He indicated the notepad with a nod, and changed the subject. “How did you guys do?”
“Well, between soot, water, and the firefighters, there’s not much left at the site,” Winston started, “but the insurance guy who was out there has a couple of photos he’s going to send us in the morning.” He glanced aside at Egon. “And Egon has a theory about where Big Red went, although he wouldn’t explain it earlier.”
“It’s less a theory than a statement of a problem,” Egon mumbled.
Peter shrugged. “Lay it on me.”
Dropping into lecture mode, Egon explained, “The evidence we have is reasonably clear: both the pyrodemon and Ray were instantaneously transported from the scene. The pyrodemon’s PKE trail simply ends at the site of their disappearance, and the energy signature from its ritual wiped everything else out - I was unable to find any reading for Ray’s biorhythms, for instance, or yours, Peter.” He held up two fingers. “That means that either they teleported from the scene, or they transitioned from our world to a parallel world, most likely the Netherworld. The energy signature is overwhelmingly Class Seven in structure, not Class Six, which indicates an expression of its demonic capabilities rather than its fire-elemental powers. That would favor the Netherworld hypothesis.” His face twisted, as if he’d bitten something bitter.
Peter nodded. “Okay, so we think he jumped back to the Netherworld and took Ray with him.”
“Except that he came up with that over an hour ago, and he keeps looking like he’s sucking a lemon,” Winston pointed out.
Janine leaned forward to look Egon in the face. “So why is that an issue?” she asked.
“Some demons,” Egon said heavily, “seem to have the ability to transition back and forth at will, but most do not - they require some sort of ritual to pass between worlds. That’s even true of higher energy classes.”
“Like Gozer,” Janine filled in.
“Right,” Egon continued, looking uncomfortable. “And there are very specific requirements for such rituals - specific energy sources for the summoning. Calling up a spirit that’s already on Earth is just a matter of correct procedures, so much so that it can be done by accident.”
“Like what your great-great-great-uncle did with the genius loci,” Peter said.
“Correct.” Egon’s eyes darted to Janine, then to a point on the ceiling. “But opening a dimensional portal via magic requires raising a significant amount of power via an act with extreme symbolic resonance.” He breathed heavily. “One of those acts is blood sacrifice.”
Winston’s eyes bulged. “Wait, you think he sacrificed Ray to open his portal?”
“Ah, no,” Egon corrected him. “I’m 99.9% sure that if that had been the case, he would not have transported the body with him. We would have found his corpse.” He paused, shuddering. “It is possible that he could have performed the ritual with a voluntary non-lethal spilling of blood,” he hazarded, and glanced down at Peter.
“I’m pretty sure I’d remember that,” Peter said, shaking his head. “Ray hadn’t even gotten to him yet; he sure didn’t volunteer for anything.”
“And immolating him -” Egon swallowed hard “- would not have the correct symbolic resonance.” He fell silent, staring at the ceiling again.
“So what -” Winston started, but Janine interrupted, “So, he’d need the same kind of ritual that Zuul and Vinz used.”
“Yes,” Egon agreed, his cheeks flushing slightly.
Winston blinked. “I don’t get it,” he admitted.
“Sex magic,” Janine stated flatly.
Peter’s eyebrows went up as he nodded. “That’d have the juju, all right.”
Egon finally looked down again. “And there’s no more evidence of that than there is of the blood sacrifice,” he stated without meeting anyone’s eyes, “although it might explain why Ray’s clothes were left behind.”
Winston opened his mouth and closed it again, rolling his lip under his teeth. “Does that work if, um -”
“No reason it shouldn’t,” Peter filled in, “but I’m pretty sure I’d remember that, too, and, um, no.”
Janine pressed one hand against the wall and stood up. “Does that mean we’ll need to do that to get Ray back?” she asked. “ ‘Cause I’m thinking the blood sacrifice part is right out, unless someone knows where to get a goat.”
Egon stared at her, startled. “You think - ah - I mean - you -”
“If it gets Ray back, damn right, I’m volunteering,” she snapped, with her hands on her hips. Peter hid a vulpine grin behind one hand and tried not to snicker.
Egon managed to stammer out, “We, ah, we have a dimensional portal. If we can get some general idea of Ray’s location, I imagine we can retrieve him that way.” He paused, then mumbled, “But I do appreciate the offer.”
“You’d better,” she said, but she was smiling. “Anyway, it looks like putting Dr. V under is the best bet for getting any more info before your photos come in. And someone had better be at the firehouse when they do.”
“For once, I think Janine’s got the right idea,” Peter said, pretending to ignore her as she stuck her tongue out at him. “As soon as they’ll let me out of here, Egon, we’ll go home and I’ll walk you through the procedure - I know it’s been a while.”
“I don’t,” Egon started, then corrected himself, “If it’s what you want, Peter, I’ll do it, but I’m skeptical that it will get us any usable data.”
“If it doesn’t,” Peter shrugged, “then we’re no worse off than before.” He looked up at the clock on the wall. “It’s almost one-thirty, guys. Radiometry opens at six. Go catch forty winks in the waiting room; I’ll be fine in here, and staying up fretting isn’t going to get Ray back any earlier.”
Janine paused as they trudged out. “You think he’s okay?” she asked, putting her glasses back on.
“I don’t know,” Peter admitted, “but my gut says yes, and hey, when has it led me wrong before?”
“Where do I start?” she laughed, following Egon and Winston back into the hall.
The dry creek bed that Ray had nearly literally stumbled into was overgrown with leafy weeds, half of them in full bloom. The flowers all seemed small and unassuming to Ray’s eyes, mostly whites and pale yellows. Nothing as showy as a daisy or black-eyed susan bloomed, even though some of the plants were as tall as sunflowers; the biggest blossom he’d seen so far was a three-petaled delicacy barely as wide as his thumb was thick.
Ray pressed on through the thick, hairy leaves and wondered if he’d have been better off in the tall grass above. Still, the low walls of the arroyo were giving him some protection from the sunlight, and the ground here was easier to walk on - pebblier, but not as hard and dry.
Just after the soil started to actually feel a little damp under his toes, the gulch’s walls widened; the left-hand one shifted to a softer slope, and the tall weeds parted to show a canopy of short, lush trees ahead. “Must be close to the river,” Ray said aloud, ducking around a pile of twining vines that covered what had probably once been a fallen log. Sure enough, as soon as he was under the trees, the ground cover thinned, and he could hear the trickle of water ahead and to his left.
The river was lower than normal; several feet of cracked and drying mud separated the pebbly verge from the running water. Ray wished that he had at least a shirt to filter the water through, but the flow itself looked clear enough; he laid down carefully on a shelf of rock and scooped up a double-handful of water.
He nearly shuddered with relief as the coolness rolled down his throat. He’d been ignoring his thirst, but now that he had the means to slake it, it came roaring into his consciousness; he abandoned trying to scoop the water and lowered his head directly to its rolling surface, slurping.
For a moment, he rested on the cool, damp slab to let some of the water work its way out of his stomach and into his system. He wasn’t exhausted by any means, but it had been a long walk and his feet were tired. Thinking about that, he shifted around until he could dangle his feet in the water, which helped tremendously; he scooped up a few more handfuls to splash on his face.
“So,” he murmured to himself, “there are probably mountains somewhere -” he squinted against the green light filtering through the canopy of leaves “- south or southwest of here. This would be warmer if it were just local rain run-off; there’s gotta be a lake or snowmelt feeding this.”
His instincts said to follow the river in the other direction, that eventually it would lead to a bridge or a town, but - he’d met the locals already, and that seemed increasingly unlikely. He peeled himself off of the rock slab and began hunting for fallen branches.
“Basically, there are two options,” he explained to no one in particular as he worked. “Either Big Red threw me into the past, or into an alternate universe that sure looks like the past.” He set down a bundle of sticks next to a nearly-vertical rise in the riverbank and ticked off the options on his fingers. “I don’t recognize any of the plants here. That could be due to them not being Earth plants at all, or due to them being short a couple of million years of evolution and on the wrong continent. Same thing with the bugs, and the - natives.”
Ray tested a young sapling, its trunk about the same thickness as his palm was wide; it seemed sturdy enough. He knelt down a few feet away with one of his finds, a stick that had broken at a long, acute angle, and started digging. “But they’re all pretty close to what I’d expect from a younger Earth - trees look like trees, grass looks like grass, the bug had six legs, the natives walk on two feet and have five-fingered hands.” Luckily, the ground here wasn’t quite as rocky as the riverbed itself was, although the silt was soft enough he was going to have to make the hole deeper than he’d like. “The normal laws of physics seem to apply. So this place isn’t anything like the Flipside or the Netherworld.”
He picked up a tall branch with a fork and hefted it as high as he could. “So, the big question is - well, no. One of the big questions is, why is a fire demon messing around with time magic?” The muscles on Ray’s back bulged as he drove the butt-end of the branch down into his hastily-dug hole as hard as he could. “But the big question for me is, how much am I risking messing up the timeline by doing anything at all?” The branch seemed reasonably stable in its new vertical position; he began packing the dug earth around its base to shore it up.
“I mean,” he continued, “let’s assume that, I dunno, a saber-toothed tiger ate me back at the bush where I landed. I’ve probably got about a dozen kinds of viruses and bacteria in me that are evolved for humans living in tight spaces for 12,000 years.” He took one of the longest branches and set one end carefully in the upright fork. “Those guys on the open prairie up there have never run into any of them. If I’m not careful, I could wipe out their whole tribe with something I’m immune to because I was vaccinated for it a quarter-century ago.” He wedged the other end between the sapling’s main trunk and its first major branch; the horizontal beam wasn’t exactly level, but it was close enough. Heading back to his bundle, he picked out the longest and thickest branches and laid them against the horizontal branch at about a forty-five degree angle to the ground, spacing them roughly evenly.
“Maybe that’s what Big Red was after?” Ray mused, interspersing some of the narrower and leafier twigs between the larger sticks. “I mean, if his intent was to wipe out the human race, throwing someone from one of the largest cities in the world into the dawn of humanity would do it; I could cause an epidemic that would take all the hominids out, unless they can get through twelve millennia of disease resistance in a generation.” He gathered a few handfuls of fallen leaves from further up the bank and tossed them on top of the leaning row of sticks. “Darn, if I had a knife, I could cut some of the grass and thatch this properly. Somehow, though, that seems like it’s bigger than Big Red was thinking.” He laid another layer of smaller sticks on top of the leaf debris to hold it in place, then added a few shorter ones along the sides.
A short hoot sounded just above him. Ray looked up at the top of the bank, expecting an owl; instead, one of the young males was staring down at him. “Oh, hi,” Ray said, waving. “Don’t mind me; I was just talking to myself.”
The youngster made a scooping gesture with one hand and raced off. Ray went back to his work, raking more of the dried leaves against the sides of the lean-to. “Well,” he mused, “it’s not much, but it should keep the sun off and help with the wind.” He looked up to see the same one back again. It repeated the scooping gesture and bolted a second time.
“Do you want me to follow you this time?” Ray asked, picking up his walking stick and heading for a spot where the bank sloped more gently upward.
Finding the trail of bent grass was simple enough. Ray trekked after the youngster, occasionally catching sight of its head bobbing along through the tall stems; it would race ahead, then wait for him to catch up, then run on again.
A second hoot sounded ahead of them. Ray picked up his pace, and came out into a spot where the grass had been trampled flat. Ray bent down, but the light was long and slanted; he couldn’t make out whether the impressions in the grass were footprints, pawprints, or hoofprints.
The youngster he’d been following popped out of the wall of grass, with another one close behind. They pointed at a dark shape at the other end of the makeshift clearing, chittered, and darted off again.
Ray edged around the perimeter of the clearing until he could see what they were pointing at. An irregular space about two yards across was blackened; a shift of the still air brought the pungency of fresh ash to his nostrils. In the center was a large branch, or perhaps the fallen remains of a small tree, burned to charcoal but still mostly holding its shape. Ray reached down and picked up the remains of a charred twig.
“Did you guys do this?” he asked, startled, but they were already gone.
“Hey, Dr. V, let me give you a hand,” Janine said, rushing around to the passenger door as Winston cut Ecto-1’s rumbling engine. “Don’t try and bend over.”
“Hey, a pretty girl wants to manhandle me, I’m always game,” Peter laughed, but he still winced as Janine slid under his arm and hoisted. “Oof.”
She shifted so that he was leaning on her. “I set up a cot down here when I got here,” she explained, leading him towards it, “so you wouldn’t have to climb the stairs.”
“I appreciate the thought, but this isn’t exactly private.” Despite the protest, Peter sat down on the camping bed she’d unfolded in his office. “I’d rather we figure out how to get me up the first flight and let me sack out on the couch,” he added.
Egon turned towards the stairs, saying, “I’ll finish repairing the long-range detector and start working on the dimensional portal while you work this out.”
Peter reached out and caught him by the sleeve. “Oh, no you don’t,” he scolded. “You’re going to scour my brain for any hints on Big Red’s teleportation circle first, remember?”
“If you insist,” Egon sighed. “Do you still need a visual focus?”
“I don’t know if I need it, but I suspect it’ll make it easier,” Peter admitted. “Do you still have your old one? Mine’s in the left-hand top drawer behind the paper clips.”
“Mine’s in the parts cabinet in the lab,” Egon said, resigned. “Let me go get it.” He disappeared up the stairs.
Janine pulled her desk chair halfway around the filing cabinets. “Should I get ready to take dictation?” she asked, flipping her legal pad to a clean sheet.
“Sure,” Peter agreed, “and if I could have some paper, too, that’d probably be a good idea.”
“You haven’t got any at your desk?” she commented, but she set a second pad and a pencil at the end of the cot.
Winston glanced at the clock. “Hey, guys,” he said, “I haven’t had breakfast yet and I know for a fact you haven’t either, Pete, or Egon.” He shot Janine the question with his eyebrows; she shook her head. “Okay, so that’s four of us,” he continued. “How about I work on some toast or something while you guys handle this? It should also distract Slimer, so he doesn’t interrupt or anything.”
“Sounds great,” Peter answered, and Janine murmured her agreement. Winston headed off towards the kitchen just as Egon came back down the stairs.
Egon pulled one of Peter’s office chairs over to the cot. “Do you want to be lying down, or should I get another chair?” he asked.
“I think I’ll be fine like this,” Peter said, settling onto the cot lounge-style. “If my subconscious still remembers the old induction routine from grad school, it’s not going to matter much, anyway.”
A smirk crossed Egon’s lips. “It still worked that time that Lucinda bribed Ray for the trigger phrase,” he noted dryly.
Peter shuddered dramatically. “I still can’t believe he told her! If she didn’t want to go out that evening, all she needed to do was ask. Ooo, ouch.” His aggrieved look shifted to pain again. “Okay, no more theatrics until the ribs heal.”
“We should be so lucky,” Janine groaned.
Egon held up a plumb bob on a brass chain. “Okay, Peter,” he said, his voice dropping half an octave, “I want you to focus on the pendulum and breathe deeply.”
“Might be a little tough with the bandages,” Peter quipped, but he inhaled and let his eyelids drop to half-mast as Egon set the plumb bob swinging.
Egon waited until he was sure Peter’s eyes were tracking only the pendulum. “I’m going to count backwards from ten to one,” he said, his voice deep and soothing, the words well-worn on his tongue, if a bit rusty. “When I reach one, you will be completely relaxed. Ten . . . nine . . .”
Janine abruptly realized that it would probably not be a good idea to let herself slip into trance, too; she straightened up in her chair and averted her eyes from the pendulum. She’d had difficulty imagining any of them other than Peter being a mesmerist, but Egon certainly had the voice for it.
“Three . . . two . . . one.” Peter’s eyes had fluttered closed; Egon slipped the pendulum into his front pocket. “Peter, I want you to return to the warehouse at eleven thirty-five yesterday morning. What happened when you and Ray were separated?”
Peter’s voice was low and slow and dreamlike. “Big Red threw a barrel at us,” he murmured. “Got me right in the chest. Missed Ray. He ran on ahead.”
“And then what happens?” Egon prompted.
“Big Red is just hovering in midair,” Peter narrated. “I’m trying to catch my breath. Ray’s running down the stairs ahead of me. The whole place smells like melting plastic and charcoal.”
Egon waited through the next pause. “And then?”
“I get to my feet,” Peter continued. “Ray’s telling me something must be Enochian.” Egon raised his eyebrows; Janine scribbled it down. Peter’s voice droned on, “I head for the staircase just as Big Red dives for the floor. Ray tells me to look, that it looks like a summoning circle, then Big Red starts chanting.”
Egon leaned forward. “What did he say?”
“I don’t know,” Peter pleaded. “It wasn’t English. It sounds like someone banging on a cast-iron pot, except sort of in words.” He took a breath. “Then I get to the railing.”
Slowly, Egon offered the question: “What do you see?”
“A magic circle, in white. There’s an inner circle with a big six-pointed figure - not a Star of David, the other one, the one that you can draw in one piece,” Peter droned.
Egon’s fingers closed on the pencil Janine had brought over; very gently, he touched it against the back of Peter’s hand. “Can you draw it?” he asked.
Peter’s eyed opened just a sliver, the green of his irises barely visible, as he took the pencil from Egon. He barely seemed to look at the page as his hand sketched out two circles and divided the ring between them into twelve sections. Egon watched with focused interest; Janine could only see the eraser end moving.
“Ray says,” Peter murmured as he set the pencil down again, “something about transposing the gate rune and the solar rune. I lean over the railing; I tell him to stop. I don’t think he can hear me, but Big Red can. He looks at me, laughs at me -”
“Which ‘he’?” Egon asked, studying the drawing.
“Big Red. Then he claps his hands together, and there’s a flash -” Peter shuddered “- it hurts -”
“That’s enough,” Egon interrupted hastily. “I think we’ve gotten everything we can. You can come back now, Peter.” Peter’s eyes closed again. Egon considered the page again, then asked, “What went in the far space?”
“I couldn’t see,” Peter said, his voice small and faraway-sounding. “Big Red was in the way.”
“I see,” Egon mused. “All right, Peter, I’m going to count up from one to ten. When I finish . . .”
Janine’s attention was distracted by a thump from upstairs. She cocked one ear; Winston was talking to someone - probably Slimer, since the phone hadn’t rung. The aroma of toast and spice drifted down from the kitchen, and her stomach growled; she was hungrier than she’d realized.
“Eight, nine, ten,” Egon finished.
Peter blinked and stretched, looking faintly disoriented. “Did we get anything?” he asked; Egon pointed at the drawing. “Whoa, yeah,” Peter breathed. “This looks familiar, but I guess it would whether this was real or constructed.”
“I suspect it has some validity,” Egon admitted. “Do you know what this is?” He traced the six-pointed figure with a fingernail.
Peter blinked at it. “I don’t know its name. I think I’ve probably seen it before somewhere, but if you’d asked me, I doubt I’d’ve been able to draw it for you.”
Egon nodded. “It’s a unicursal hexagram. It shows up in several magic systems, but not in the one that the rest of these symbols belong to.”
“Some of these are futhark runes,” Peter said, tapping the paper. “That’s a reverse swastika -”
“A sauvastika,” Egon elaborated, “although I think in this particular case it probably should be identified as a fylfot, especially since the arms are shortened.”
“A what?” Janine stood up and came around to look. Eleven of the twelve sections of the circle had symbols in them, and smaller circles were imbedded in the spaces between them, like beads in a ring. The one Egon was pointing to was an equal-armed cross with short, slightly curved bars at the end of each arm, turning to the left. She shuddered; it might not have been the Nazi symbol, but it was close enough. “What’s a fylfot?” she asked anyway.
“A version of the solar wheel-cross that was used in heraldry, and occasionally stained glass or architectural decoration,” Egon explained absently. “It’s likely that it’s the solar rune Ray mentioned.” He turned the sheet slightly. “And these three are words in Enochian, as Ray said. And they’re correct, which lends credence to this being an accurate memory on Peter’s part. But these two I don’t recognize.”
Slimer sailed over the railing. “Aww done?” he asked; Janine wondered if he’d actually been waiting. If so, it was an unusual show of patience on the little ghost’s part.
“Yes, Slimer, we’re done for the moment,” Egon answered. “Did Winston send you to fetch us for breakfast?”
“Yeah, yeah!” Slimer agreed, nodding vigorously. “Cimmamom twoast, mmm!” He pointed and shot back into the kitchen, through the floor this time.
“Okay, then,” Janine laughed, “let’s get you and your drawing upstairs, Dr. V.” She ducked under his arm to help support him.
Winston appeared at the top of the stairs. “Get anything? Hey, let me help y’all there.”
“We don’t know for sure that it’s valid yet,” Egon replied, “but the results are highly intriguing. We may need to do some research.”
“You still need to get the portal up and running,” Peter objected. “We three can hit the books while you solder, or whatever it is you do.”
Janine frowned, her nose wrinkling. “Dr. V, you’re not supposed to move around or lift things, remember?” she scolded.
“Hey, I’m as lazy as the next guy,” Peter answered as Winston moved in to support him on the other side, “but we’ve got to get Ray back. The longer we wait, the more danger he’s likely to be in.”
Janine shot Winston a glance behind Peter’s head. “Fine,” she said, “but we get the heavy books.”
“Okay by me,” Peter smirked. “Now, let’s demolish some of Winston’s world-famous cinnamon toast. All I’ve had since yesterday’s breakfast is hospital food.”
“Howsbidal fwood? Yecchh,” Slimer commented, licking a plate as he drifted past.
Peter made a face. “How about that? The Spud and I agree on something, for once.”
Ray sighed. The sun had slipped beneath the horizon before he was ready; he had finished clearing the last of the flotsam and gathering enough flat, smooth stones, but the process of scraping out a hollow in the silty earth had taken him longer than he’d intended. Still, the sky was still mostly light as he placed the last of the stones and began piling kindling into a small pyramid in the middle of his rough firepit. In front of that he stacked a pile of shredded grass stems, held down with a pebble.
“Okay, now the tough part,” Ray muttered under his breath. He set down a split strip of fragrant, resinous wood, part of a windfall he’d found upstream, and dug a shallow dent into it with the tip of the digging stick. “Good thing it hasn’t rained in a while.” He propped up two twigs to form a V around the dent, and picked up a long, slender stick of harder wood. Carefully, he set the tip of the stick into the dent, planted one foot firmly on the end of the strip, and began spinning the stick back and forth between his palms, bearing down as much as he could without bending the stick or letting it slip. “Wish I had string for a firebow,” he grunted.
The light had nearly gone when the first wisp of smoke curled up. Ray kept going, waiting until it was nearly steady, then cautiously lifted the end of his firedrill. A tiny orange spark greeted him. “All right, you pretty thing,” he murmured, “let’s get you started!” The finest shavings of the dry grass went on top as he fanned the spark with a leaf. As they started to catch, he added more grass, almost a blade at a time, until the spark became a tiny flame. He slid the strip into the nest of crumbled grass; as it caught, he nudged the grass into the kindling.
A startled “eep!” sounded behind him. He turned around to see one of the hominid boys scuttling back up the bank.
Ray watched him disappear. “What’s the big deal?” he called after him. “You guys just showed me a fire earlier, or at least its aftermath.”
He was up to chunks of fallen wood when half a dozen pairs of eyes reflected down on him from the top of the bank. Ray smiled and waved, trying to find the matriarch. “Hey, guys,” he called. “Don’t you know how to do this? I thought we’d been cooking stuff since Homo habilis.” He tossed another stick onto the fire; a chorus of “ooo” floated down.
“You guys are easy to impress,” Ray laughed. “Although I have to admit, starting a fire using a hand drill isn’t easy. I think I gave myself a couple new blisters.”
The matriarch stepped out of the brush, leaning over the edge of the bank. Ray watched her as she took in the scene - the lean-to, the firepit, the small but steady fire, the digging stick and walking stick off to one side. Her mouth formed an O and held it.
“Hey, Big Mama,” he said. “Everything okay with you guys?” They didn’t seem threatening, even though he was sure if they rushed him they could take him.
She reached towards him, hand slightly curved. Scoop, scoop. Well, he knew what that gesture meant now. “You want me to follow you?” he asked, pointing to himself, then her, then over he shoulder.
She bobbed her head and shoulders, made the follow-me hand sign again, and moved away from the ledge, looking back over her shoulder at him.
He sighed. “Hold on just a moment; I can’t leave this.” Ray poked at the kindling with a wet stick until the flames died back to mere coals, then piled more rocks around. “Hopefully, there’ll be enough here that I can just re-light this from the embers, instead of having to find another flat piece to drill,” he grumbled.
The ooo-ing as his dousing the flames seemed even louder and more startled than the noises from watching him light the fire. Puzzled, Ray picked up his walking stick and made his way up the bank; the others made way for him, eyes glittering in the near-darkness.
Three heads and an ectoplasmic face looked up at the sound of boots on the spiral staircase. “It’s still drawing more power than it should,” Egon proclaimed as he tucked an allen wrench back into his chest pocket, “but the dimensional portal is functioning. We’re going to have to be careful with it; at its current level, we can only operate it for about ten minutes at a time before allowing it a cool-down period.”
“Or it’ll malfunction again?” Winston asked, setting down a tome with hand-sewn pages.
“That’s one possibility,” Egon agreed. “The other likely one is a temporary brownout for this twelve-block area, which would have similar, albeit shorter-lived, effects.” He paused, looming over Peter’s shoulder for a moment before pulling out a chair and sitting down. “Have you made any progress on the pyrodemon’s spellwork?”
“Yup,” Peter said, not without a touch of pride. “We still have no clue what’s behind Door Number Class Seven, but we got all the rest.” He handed the legal pad to Egon; all but the last few pages were filled with scribblings and sticky notes.
Janine smirked in Peter’s direction and added, “For what it’s worth, once we figured out where the sigils were from, it wasn’t hard - they’re all in the basic texts for their respective traditions.”
Peter pouted for a moment, but he didn’t contradict her. “Well, yeah. But you gotta admit, it takes a cracked mind to combine sixteenth-century English magic, eighth-century Viking runes, and Greek spells from the 3rd century BC.”
“These are Greek?” Egon seemed genuinely startled. “They don’t resemble the Greek alphabet at all, nor any standard Hellenic iconography. I would have guessed northwestern Semitic cultures, possibly Phoenician.”
“Yeah, it’s entirely possible that they migrated to Greece from somewhere else post-Alexander,” Peter agreed, “but that’s where the grimoire they were originally found in was from.” He tapped a well-worn softcover book on the table. “And now they’re part of a couple of different divination systems from that publisher Ray really doesn’t like but occasionally buys stuff from anyway.”
Slimer attempted to scratch his head; the ectoplasm squeaked. “Hwy big baddie wead bad boog?”
“He didn’t,” Winston said. “Or, at least, he probably didn’t. He’s just reproducing the circle that brought him here.”
“We’re looking for a human accomplice!” Egon’s eyebrows shot up as he realized the implications.
“We sure are,” Peter said, smiling in a way that suggested that the accomplice was going to have to answer for more than just an involuntary skin peel. “But we’ll worry about that later, Egon; can you figure out what this thing does?”
“Oh, right,” Egon murmured, his cheeks reddening. “Without the final sigil, I can’t be positive, but if your notes on the Greek symbols are correct -” he adjusted his glasses “- and my reading of the Enochian is accurate, then it would appear that Ray has been transported somewhere - but that location is not the Netherworld.”
The others all leaned forward. “Do tell,” Janine prompted.
Egon pointed to one of the Enochian words, then across to one of the Hellenic sigils. “These two in opposition describe a world that’s younger than ours - not by a significant amount in the lifespan of the planet, perhaps, but by our standards, much younger.” He flipped a few pages on the legal pad. “One where the inhabitants haven’t yet forged copper, much less bronze or iron, if your transcription is correct. The Netherworld is actually nontrivially older than ours.”
Peter and Winston exchanged a worried glance. “So,” Winston asked cautiously, “does that mean Ray is in more trouble or less trouble than we thought?”
“That depends entirely -” Egon started, and was interrupted by the phone. Janine kicked her chair back and jogged over to the kitchen extension.
“Hello, Ghostbusters - yes? Oh, yeah, we’ve been looking for that one!” she exclaimed. “You might want to call the fire department, too, just to be safe - that one’s a spectral arsonist. No, I know, it’s awful. Just go ahead and give us an address - Winston, can I have that other pad? Thanks - uh huh - okay, got it. They’ll be right there!” She slammed down the phone and turned around, her face flushed. “It’s Big Red again. He’s at an old theater in Jersey City.” She handed the address to Winston.
Peter stood up, a little too quickly. “What are we waiting for? Let’s get him!” His head throbbed, and his chest echoed it; he blinked, and hoped no one had noticed.
Egon noticed. “Peter, you’re not supposed to be running around, much less wearing a pack,” he objected.
“Yeah, I know that, and you know that,” Peter said, heading for the stairs, “but Big Red doesn’t know that. And if we can bring him in, we can get that last symbol from him and find out which dimension we need to get Ray from.”
Janine scurried to his side. “Big Red doesn’t know that, Dr. V, but your ribs and the stairs still do. Lean on me, here.”
The matriarch - Ray was still unsure of nicknames for the others, but she was clearly Big Mama - hustled through the grass, head down. The other adult female was escorting both her infant and the child; they’d left her with the tallest of the three young males in the high prairie grass, while the rest of them scuttled low through the sedges closer to the river.
Suddenly, they emerged onto a flat, rocky outcropping that overlooked a particularly steep part of the riverbank. The two males broke left and right, keeping to the edge of the waving blades. Big Mama dropped to her belly and crawled. Ray watched the other two spin off - lookouts, maybe? - and followed Big Mama on his hand and knees across the rock. Limestone, probably, he thought, but the last of the twilight was fading, and there was no moon yet; long summers spent on scouting trips notwithstanding, he wasn’t up to field stone identification in the dark.
Big Mama came to a stop at the edge of the rock, and held out one hand to warn him. Ray scooted forward until his head was level with hers, just over the lip of the outcropping. She seemed to be waiting for something; her gaze was fixed downward, at the base of the - well, whether this was tall enough to be a cliff was a matter of interpretation, but Ray decided it was good enough for him. It was certainly a much steeper drop than the shallow bank he’d chosen for his own shelter.
He took the opportunity to look up. The sky was full of stars, more of them than Ray could remember seeing before, even back in his days on the outskirts of Morrisville, even more than those camping trips in the wilderness. The sheer beauty of the light-dappled sky nearly took his breath away.
Not a single constellation was familiar.
That meant one of a few things. Ray wasn’t positive that he’d recognize the stars in the Southern Hemisphere, so it was possible this was just evidence that he was in Africa somewhere. It could mean that he wasn’t on Earth, or at least on his own Earth, at all, that he was on some parallel world. Or, it might mean that he’d been thrown far enough back in time that the stars had all changed positions. How long would it take for them to do that? He scowled at himself; Egon would have known, or at least been able to calculate it, right away. Still, though, the constellations of the zodiac had been the same for at least 4,000 years - how much time would it take to erase all trace of them, in reverse?
Big Mama grunted, and Ray turned his attention from the sky above to the ground below. Something was moving below them, emerging from the rocks close to where the water’s edge would be if it had rained at all recently. Ray squinted, trying to make it out in the low light. His best guess was that it was roughly the size of a small horse, but it didn’t move like one; the sounds from below were a soft padding, and maybe the click of something clawed against the rock, not the clopping of hooves. Something gleamed red for a second; Big Mama scooted back in a hurry. Ray followed her lead, retreating a couple of feet.
Something shuffled below, and the dark shape jogged along the cliff to a shallower spot and clambered up. Big Mama flattened herself against the rock and froze, barely breathing. Ray wondered why on earth she would have brought him to see something she seemed so frightened of. Is she hoping we’ll fight? Is she trying to get rid of me? he wondered.
If so, she was destined to be disappointed; the beast turned away from them and shot off, running with the fast loping pace of a hound, or perhaps a wolf. Off to the left, Ray heard the grass rustle as the kid on that side scurried away. Only after it was well away from them did Big Mama pull herself to her feet and jog after it; once more, Ray followed, now thoroughly bewildered.
The beast had left a clear trail of trampled grass. Its tracks veered back towards the hollow Ray had trekked down earlier; they hadn’t followed it for more than ten minutes before the beast’s silhouette was clearly visible on the ridge, roughly between the stand of trees Ray had climbed and a smaller, scrubbier grove. It lifted its head and gave voice to a deep, throaty howl that sent shivers down Ray’s spine and sent the hominids diving for cover - and burst into bright orange flames that lit up the hillside.
“A hellhound?” Ray guessed, although he’d never seen one that large - or, from the outline he could now see, that lupine. “Oh, crud!”
The grass on the hilltop was catching, now; the beast ran in tight circles, not leaving the ridge, as the flames spread out from it. Ray calculated how long it would take to run to the river, then back to the hill, and gave it up as a lost cause. He didn’t have a bucket, anyway. Instead, he leaned down. “Come on, guys,” he shouted at the hominids, “we can’t stay here - the fire might spread! We have to go back to the river!” He reached down and tugged at Big Mama’s hand; she snatched it away from him staring. Then he remembered, and made the scooping gesture at her. “Come on,” he pleaded. “This way!”
That, she seemed to understand; she crept towards him, still low to the ground. “Great,” Ray whispered. “Now, tell your family to come too.”
A few minutes later, one of the boys hooted; Big Mama called back. The same call-and response repeated twice, three times, four; by the time they were back at the riverbank, the whole clan was trailing along behind Ray, and the grass fire looked like it had mostly burned itself out. Ray tried to block out the flaming figure of the beast with one hand. “I think we lucked out,” he said. “The hilltop’s going to be bare there, but it didn’t burn far down the sides, and none of the trees caught, it looks like.” He looked over at the three boys. “You guys were showing me where he did that last night, weren’t you? Well, if I had my stuff, I could help.”
Big Mama whuffled and hooted softly. Ray watched her as she put an arm around the little kid, and his jaw tightened. “Okay, I’ll figure out what I can do to help,” he said. “I promise. But it might take a few days.” He swallowed. “By then, either the guys’ll have found me, and we can bust whatever that is, or I’ll have figured something out.”
At that, Ray carefully let himself down the shallow ledge of the bank. He was a little further from his lean-to than he’d intended, but he could just barely make it out in the starlight. He stopped to gather a few more fallen branches before he reached his makeshift campsite. The clan hovered at the top of the bank, watching him.
“I’m really not sure you guys should see this yet,” Ray said aloud. Then he reconsidered; if they wanted fire, they could go get it easily enough from the grass blaze on the hill. One more controlled fire down here wasn’t going to change anything. He poked at the ashes with the digging stick and was rewarded with a few red embers gleaming against the night. Dry grass went on top of them, then dry leaves, then tiny twigs, then sturdier ones. Ray didn’t need a large fire - it was cool, but not cold. If he hadn’t been naked, he reflected, he wouldn’t have needed one at all.
There were several long “oooo” sounds from the bank. As Ray crawled into the nest of leaves he’d lined the interior of the lean-to with, he saw several long-armed silhouettes climb into the broad-branched trees, still hooting to each other. The hoots grew gradually longer apart, and Ray realized how bone-tired he was just before he dropped off to sleep.
“Didn’t realize it was that kind of a theater,” Peter said, waggling his eyebrows, as they pulled up to the curb. Egon and Winston just rolled their eyes.
In the fire zone, a hook-and-ladder truck was already waiting. On the sidewalk, an even dozen women in feathered headpieces, red bustiers, black snap-away skirts, and fishnets were doing the same. Most of them were gathered in small knots looking scared; two were flirting outrageously with the driver of the firetruck; one leaned against the wall with a cigarette in her hand, an air of ennui palpable around her. A tall, thin man in an ochre tracksuit and a ludicrous mustache bounced over to them as they pulled out the equipment rack.
“Watch it, Pete,” Winston chided as Peter climbed out of the backseat. “Just because they gave you the good painkillers, that doesn’t mean you can ignore those ribs.” He slid an arm around Peter and boosted him upright.
“Don’t worry,” Peter replied, making a sour face. “I can’t exactly forget.” His expression brightened. “You think I can get one of the girls to buckle me into the pack?”
Egon smirked. “I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for me, Peter.” He held out the pack with the shoulder straps fully extended.
Peter sighed disgustedly and shrugged into the straps. “Can’t blame me for trying,” he grumbled, then turned with a slightly-more-obviously-fake-than-usual smile to the man in the tracksuit. “Hi, we’re the Ghostbusters. But you probably figured that out already.”
“Right, and I’m Charlie Glick; I’m the one who put in the call,” he said, pumping Peter’s hand vigorously. “That, uh, thing is in the main theater, on the stage. He arrived during dress rehearsal - just breezed right through the wall.” He removed a grey bandanna from his right hip pocket and mopped at his forehead. “Your receptionist said it had been setting things on fire?”
“Yup,” Winston said flatly. “You guys insured?”
Glick looked even more distressed; new beads of sweat appeared and were swiped away. “Yes,” he said, “but we’re due to open the show next week!”
“We’ll do our best to keep you on schedule,” Peter assured him. “Now, let’s see how Big Red is doing.” He strode towards the glass-and-brass double doors, trying not to move as stiffly as he felt.
“Remember,” Egon whispered, “our primary objective is to capture the pyrodemon; our second objective is to find out anything he can tell us about Ray’s whereabouts.”
“Or the last symbol, Egon, we got it,” Winston answered as they jogged through a lobby with tall ceilings and peeling burgundy wallpaper. He ducked around Peter and shouldered his way through the left door into the theater.
An all-too-familiar eight feet of lobster red sat on the stage, or rather about a foot above it, cross-legged. The burnished copper-pan face beamed at them, bland and almost innocent under its pair of twisted horns. As they brought their throwers up, it unfolded its legs, its clawed feet clicking on the wood of the stage floor.
“Hit it!” Peter snarled.
The demon threw up one taloned hand. “Wait!” it shouted, in a voice like a cracked bell. “Shoot and your friend dies!”
As one, they froze. A lightning calculation flashed behind Peter’s eyes; he let his jaw drop. “Ray’s still alive?” he yelped. Egon blinked, but managed not to react further; Winston stayed stone-faced.
“Indeed, he is,” the demon half-sang. “And for now, he is - safe enough, unless he is foolish.” It pointed a talon directly at Peter. “I am surprised you are on your feet, oracle. Lower your weapons, all of you.”
Slowly, Egon pointed his thrower at the floor, although he left the power switched on. Peter and Winston did the same. Peter wet his lips, and asked, “Where is he?”
“That, I will not tell you.” The demon’s white-hot gaze swept across all three of them, before it continued, “But if you capture me, I assure you, he will die - of hunger and thirst, if no worse fate befalls him. And if you fire upon me, this temple burns, whether you capture me or not.” He gestured to indicate the theater.
Peter nodded. “So - what are we going to do about it?” he asked.
“A simple exchange,” the demon said, its flat face smiling like a button. “My minions for your magus. Give me my three goblins, and I will take them and go westward with them, to another city. When we are far enough away, I will return the magus to you.” Its expression changed, but precisely how was hard to say. “And I will burn down a building each day until you return my minions, whether you parlay for your magus or not.”
Peter shook his head. “No good. If you just go westward, someone else will hire us to come after you again.” He hoisted his thrower to lean casually against his shoulder, and held out his left hand flat, as if he were offering something. “How about this,” he countered. “We swap you your goblins, all three of them, for Ray, and you and the critters scoot on back to the Netherworld, where we won’t cross paths again.”
The demon laughed, a sound like a dozen hammers on an anvil. “Surely you jest, oracle. What benefit has this plan for me?”
“We don’t bust you.” Peter dropped the thrower from his shoulder and fired; Egon and Winston snapped theirs up and got their shots off a fraction of a second later.
The shots were good, but they didn’t stop the demon’s laughter; it rolled and shook off Egon’s stream, ducked and lost Peter’s.
Winston held on tight as his stream bucked. “I can’t hold him myself, guys!” he called as Peter tried to refocus and Egon jockeyed for position.
The demon jumped, its four ridiculous wings beating leisurely, and interrupted its laughter just long enough to snap the fingers of both hands. The curtains on either side and the backdrop behind it instantaneously went up in flames as the demon shot through the ceiling, trailing Winston’s stream after it like a fishing line from a shark’s mouth.
“Crap,” Winston snarled. Wood and glass cracked somewhere above; a spotlight and a shower of smoking debris crashed to the stage.
“I concur,” Peter gasped, dropping his thrower and clutching at his ribcage.
Egon scooped the thrower from the floor. “We have to get out of here,” he ordered. “This building’s almost all wood; this is the fire department’s job now.” He herded Peter towards the exit as Winston grabbed the door.
Glick was nearly on top of them as they piled out. “Did you see it? What was it? Did you get it?” he demanded, breathlessly.
Peter shook his head and gestured to the firefighters, who stormed in, hose already in hand. “Sorry. He lit the place up before we could stop him.” He looked up, squinting against the morning sky. “Did anyone see him?”
The dancer with the cigarette nodded. “Shot straight up,” she said, pointing. “Right out of sight.” She glanced at the sudden gout of smoke rolling out the doors. “Guessing we’re gonna need another practice space for a while.”
“Probably,” Peter sighed. He turned back to Glick. “No charge for the consultation. Let us know if you need insurance confirmation.”
“Send a write-up to my post office box,” Glick said absently, handing Peter a card from his left chest pocket. “I’ll need it for the investors, whether insurance wants it or not.” His lip quivered. “What’s the damage?”
“Just the stage itself, if the guys with the hoses got to it in time,” Winston said, hoping he was being reassuring.
Glick closed his eyes. “Get the bastard for me?” he said, low and slow.
“We’ll get him, we promise,” Winston said emphatically as they stacked the packs back into Ecto.
Egon gingerly slipped Peter’s arms out of the straps and helped him ease himself into the backseat again. Peter pursed his lips and looked up at Egon. “What was up with the ‘oracle’ thing, you think?” he asked.
Egon looked down at Peter and frowned slightly. “A reference to your demonstrated psychic sensitivities, I’d guess,” he said. “Surely you guessed that.”
Peter returned the frown. “Okay, but how does he know about that?”
“That is an interesting query,” Egon admitted. “I do not have sufficient data to speculate, however.”
Winston broke in, “Hey, guys, we have no idea where Big Red is going, and we do know he wants his buddies back. I think we might want to get back to the containment unit, not to mention Janine.”
Peter’s eyes widened. “Good call. Let’s go.”
Ray woke against sunlight reflecting off the water, his back stiff and covered with leaves. For a moment, he wondered where his pajamas were; then he looked at his reddened arms and remembered.
He scrambled out of the lean-to and poked at the fire with the digging stick. A few coals still glowed red in the ashes. He fed them another couple of sticks and a handful of dry grass and stood up to stretch. As he did, his stomach let off a mighty growl.
“Oh, geez,” he realized aloud, “I haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday.” He looked around. “What can I do about that?”
He stepped across the sand and dry rocks to the river to get a drink while he thought. Sipping from the surface, he watched a pair of silvery fish dart past below him. “Not my preference for breakfast,” he noted, “but the other option is to try and get Big Mama to tell me which berries are okay to eat.”
He hunted around in the bushes, but none of the vines looked strong enough for weaving nets or for fishing line. “Spear it is,” he decided, and started sorting through the river rocks instead. “Limestone, limestone - there, that looks good.” He selected one round pebble, a larger one with a more conical shape, and a large mostly-flat rock to work on.
His first effort resulted in several sharp flakes and a shattered rock. He set the flakes aside and found another rounded pebble, starting over.
It wasn’t until his third try that he ended up with what he’d wanted - a roughly semicircular stone blade with a smooth, rounded back. He padded across the dry riverbed again to the bank, and selected a sapling about his height. “Okay,” he grunted, “let’s see if a hand axe works as advertised.”
It wasn’t a clean cut by any stretch, but he did manage to chop the sapling down, clean the branches off, and scrape the tip to a semi-sharp point, leaving him with something reasonably close to a javelin. “I hope this works,” he said. “Otherwise, I’m going to have to try and knap one of the flakes into a spear point, and that might take all morning at the rate I’m going.”
He laid down on a flat rock at the water’s edge. “On the good side,” he noted as he waited, “if I can find a pyrite somewhere, I’ll have a better firestarter.” Something darted below him, and he jabbed; it was a miss, but a clean one, and he didn’t hit the rocks below to dull the tip, either.
He’d managed to hit one straight in the gills and yank it out of the water before he realized that one of the boys - the tallest one; Ray decided to call him Larry - had picked up one of the flint chips, and was watching him.
“Hey,” he said calmly. “Do you guys eat fish?”
Larry didn’t answer, of course. He watched, fascinated, as Ray chopped the head off of the fish with the hand-axe and scraped away the scales. By the time Ray had it roughly cleaned and on one of the sapling’s trimmed branches as a skewer, Big Mama and the other mother - Lucy, Ray decided - were also watching, children in hand.
“Tell you what,” Ray offered, as he propped the skewer on two taller rocks over the fire. “I’m probably going to eat most of this, but I’ll share a little bit with you if it’s not full of bones, okay?”
His cleaning was better than his cooking; he’d singed part of the fish black before the middle was cooked through, and he ended up eating almost all of it, but he saved Larry, Lucy, and Big Mama each a bite’s worth. “Here you go,” he coaxed, offering a morsel skewered on a toothpick-sized twig to each of them.
To his mild surprise, it was Lucy who accepted it first, sticking the whole thing in her mouth and then spitting out the twig. She chirruped at Big Mama, who took hers gingerly from Ray and sucked the fish off the stick. Larry held back, but when Lucy reached for his, he jumped up and took it, nibbling at it until half the fish fell off and landed on the ground. He looked at it, then at Ray, then picked it up and stuffed it in his mouth.
“It’s not great,” Ray apologized, “but I don’t have anything to season it with.” He poked at his fire until it was just coals again. “And I guess we should go look at the damage from last night.”
Ray wasn’t terribly surprised to find the clan loosely tagging along after him on the walk up the ridge. He hadn’t seen any big predators other than the hellhound out around here - or any prey animals larger than a rabbit, for that matter. For all that they kept to the tall grass to camouflage themselves, they didn’t seem to have much to worry about during the day.
The fire had been impressive against the starlit dark the night before, but up close, the burned area really wasn’t that big. Ray paced its perimeter and the distance to the closest landmarks, then poked around inside the ring of charred grass.
He looked at Big Mama, less because he thought she understood than because he felt silly talking to himself all the time. “If I didn’t know better,” Ray explained, “I’d say that the hellhound chose this spot to burn as much grass as possible without risking the fire spreading into any of the clumps of trees.”
Big Mama picked up one of the scorched grass stems and crumbled it in her hand. Behind her, Larry was showing the other two males - Curly and Moe, Ray realized he had to call them now - how sharp the flint chip was; he demonstrated by cutting one of the unburned stems in half.
“I probably shouldn’t have let you have that,” Ray mumbled. Lucy gave him a curiously sympathetic look.
“I hadn’t even thought about the demon coming here,” Janine said, startled. Her expression melted a bit, and she batted her eyelashes. “But it was really nice of you to be concerned about my safety. Especially you, Egon.”
“Er, um, of course.” Egon turned away, blinking, as a hint of pink appeared at his cheeks.
Winston yawned loudly, stretching a bit more than was strictly necessary. “Hey,” he mentioned, “I’m pretty tired, and I bet everyone else is, too. Maybe we can nap in shifts.” He looked pointedly at Peter as he said it.
“Just because I’m injured doesn’t mean I’m a complete invalid,” Peter objected, before interrupting himself with a yawn of his own.
“Mmm-hmm,” Winston replied, but he sounded skeptical.
Janine held up an envelope. “The photos from the insurance guy arrived. There’s also a short report - nothing in it we didn’t already know, except,” and here her voice hardened, “now that they’ve taken you guys off the menu, their Suspect Number One is Jon Thorsson, one of Jotnarhofuth’s VPs - and the grandson of the guy who funded the children’s clinic Big Red showed up at before.”
Egon looked interested. “Do they say why?”
“History of erratic behavior, and a previous investigation for improper allocation of funds that turned up inconclusive,” Janine said, reading off the report. “Nothing specific.”
“That might be fruitful to follow up on,” Egon suggested.
Janine shrugged. “I’ll see if I can make some phone calls.”
“Good.” Egon looked at Peter, eyes crinkling at the corners. “I still need to try to repair the detector, and before we leave anyone here alone, I think it would be a good idea to construct a second one to serve as an advance alarm system here, just in case the pyrodemon attempts to free the three Class Twos directly.”
Winston nodded. “So okay, I can look for any more info we can scrounge up on the magic circle while Pete naps, then he and I can switch, and then if you’re ready, Egon, you can catch a few winks while Janine finishes up with the groundwork.”
“I always get the boring parts,” Janine complained, but she already had the phone book open.
Peter yawned again. “Okay,” he answered, “but only because the pain meds are making me.” He kicked off his shoes and eased himself onto the cot, tugging the blanket over himself and trying not to listen to Janine working her way through the insurance company’s phone tree.
A familiar yelp brought Peter to consciousness. “Ray?” he cried into the darkness in front of him. He tried to take a step forward, and his foot swung out into thin air.
Flailing, he tried to catch his balance, and smacked himself in the face with something heavy and hard; he realized belatedly that it was attached to his arm. His other foot slipped, and he was in free fall - only to be stopped short by his shoulders nearly wrenching out of their sockets, as chains clanked above him. His backside thudded against something cold and solid. Concrete, probably; it was too smooth for stone.
The clanking of the chains morphed into a coppery clanging. Big Red’s laughter; it was unmistakeable. Peter pressed his boot-heels into the wall behind him to try and brace himself. “Show yourself,” he shouted. “I know who you are!”
The clanging subsided. “You know nothing,” boomed the voice like a cracked bell. “You will learn only what fire teaches all.”
“Where’s Ray?” Peter insisted. Forcing his heels against the wall lessened the tension on his wrists, but only slightly.
The demon’s laughter filled the space again, and a light like a single torch’s flame appeared. Big Red loomed in silhouette, with the shadows of its horns flanking Peter’s chest, bare except for the bandages over his ribs. On the floor sprawled Ray, stripped naked. Lines of angry red crossed his back, with white blisters streaked in their middles; Ray’s back heaved and trembled.
“Let him go!” Peter rattled the chains as he forced himself forward.
“Oh, I think not,” Big Red replied lazily. It traced the pad of a finger across Ray’s shoulder, to the sound of sizzling flesh; Ray screamed, trying to writhe away from the blazing touch.
Peter’s stomach jumped. “Stop it!” he ordered; then he repeated it, as a plea. “Stop it, please!”
“Or what? You have no weapons here.” The flickering orange light pulsed. “No, this one will die of my tender attentions soon enough,” the demon crooned, turning Ray’s face towards it with a finger beneath the jaw as Ray struggled. “You, on the other hand,” Big Red continued, “will die of my inattention.” The demon shrugged, its pathetically small wings flapping. “And when you do, you will have only the walker and the shaman left, and they are insufficient to stop me from doing as I please.” The flat cymbal of a face smiled, revealing a pair of fangs; the light behind the demon pulsed and flickered.
Ray tried to crawl towards Peter, but a clawed foot on his back stopped him. “Peter,” he moaned, “you’ve got to save yourself - you’ve got to get away - don’t worry about me.” He bucked as the claws dug into his shoulders, drawing blood against the angry burns.
“Ray!” Peter shouted, tugging against his chains. “Ray, no, don’t give up. We’re going to get you. We’re going to save you, Egon and Winston and Janine and me, just hold on!” A flicker in the shadows caught his eye. What was going on behind the demon? Something gleamed gold, too bright for flames.
“What can you do?” The demon chuckled, and stepped harder on Ray; a sickly crack rang against the concrete walls.
“More than you can imagine.” The words fell flat out of Peter’s mouth as blood dribbled from Ray’s; the smell of burning flesh curled up on the smoke from under the demon’s toes. Peter stared, trying to will the demon to step aside.
Big Red snorted. “I can imagine more than you could ever dream, mortal.”
“I doubt it,” Peter sneered. Hang on, Ray. Just a little more. The golden light pulsed and flared.
“And precisely how do you conclude that?” the demon asked, leaning down and turning Ray’s motionless body over.
“Easy,” crowed Peter. “I’m the oracle, remember?” Behind the demon, a series of glyphs hung in the air, their curves at once bizarre and familiar; Peter tried to memorize every stroke.
Big Red turned to see the sigil, then roared with the sound of a freight train’s wheels against the track. It thrust out a hand, and all Peter could see was flame.
Peter bolted upright against the searing pain in his chest. “Ray! Janine! Paper!”
Janine bolted out of her chair, grabbing a sticky note and a pen. “Peter,” she gasped, “are you all right? You’re sweating like a pig!”
“Big Red tried to torch me again,” Peter gasped, “but I’m okay now.” The pen dug into the bright yellow paper. “Talk about getting what you ask for, monster.”
“You guys wait up here, okay?” Ray pointed at Big Mama, then at the ground under their feet. “I’m just going to climb down and take a look around,” he said, pointing to himself and then down into ravine. Big Mama shuffled nervously, but didn’t follow him as he started his descent down the rough stone cliff.
It wasn’t a difficult climb, even barefoot. The stone was cool and rough, and the incline was steep but not vertical. Ray wasn’t sure that the canine shape of the beast indicated its actual capabilities, but he didn’t want to risk leaving a trail of scent that the beast could easily follow, and he was fairly sure it couldn’t climb the cliff directly.
As he reached the bottom, the mosses and lichens lining the stone disappeared, replaced by scorch marks and occasional bits of ash and charcoal. The stumps of what were probably once trees flanked a small, triangular cave entrance. Ray inhaled; there was a distinct smell of smoke, and it seemed fresh.
“Well, I’m guessing you’re in there,” Ray said, and stooped to poke his head in. A small clod of dirt pinged him in the shoulder; he looked up to see Big Mama standing at the cliff’s edge frantically waving at him. Ray pointed at himself and then at the cave; she leaped up and down, arms flailing. Ray pointed at himself and then at her, and she calmed down again, although she didn’t budge from her position at the rocky brink.
“Looks like she thinks it’s dangerous,” Ray rationalized. “Maybe they tried that once before and whoever went didn’t come back?” He reached down and scratched into the ash the alchemical symbol for fire, then over it a five-pointed star, starting from the bottom right point. He enclosed the two marks in a circle, concentrating. “I don’t think a banishing pentacle is going to stop you,” he whispered, “but maybe it’ll slow you down a bit.”
Big Mama whuffled. Ray grinned up at her. “Impatient, aren’t you, old girl? Okay, let’s get out of here.” He commenced his climb back up the ravine.
“What’ve you got, Pete?” Winston handed him the pad with the magic circle drawing.
Peter triumphantly peeled the sticky note from Janine’s pad and stuck it firmly into the missing slot. “How does that look to you, Egon?” he asked, looking up at his taller partner.
Egon pondered the new piece of information carefully. “Are you sure, Peter?” he asked.
“As sure as I am about the rest of it,” Peter shrugged. “Dream or hypnotic recall, either way it’s coming out of my subconscious, right?”
“I suppose.” Egon’s mouth tightened. “It’s Enochian again, and reasonably correct allowing for your poor handwriting.”
Peter rolled his eyes. “Spare me the penmanship critique and tell me if it makes the circle make sense,” he pleaded.
“Yes, it does,” Egon admitted. “It’s a glyph for a one-to-one exchange through the gate invoked by this rune a third of the way around the circle. To shift a being from one dimension to the other would only require that one of them be within the circle; the other can appear anywhere in the opposite dimension.” His features smoothed, then tightened again. “That, combined with the third, anomalous set of energies in the pyrodemon’s signature, would obviate the need for either a blood sacrifice or an, um, erotic ritual to effect the opening of the gate, as well.”
Winston nodded. “But that means,” he added, “that someone other than Ray has to have been the original switcher, for Big Red to have gotten here in the first place.”
“Wait,” Peter said, “I’m missing something here. So, probably the original wizard for Big Red, to get him here. But how does that get both Ray and Big Red out of the warehouse?”
“A very rapid double swap,” Egon suggested. “The demon switches itself and the wizard, whom it dumps somewhere out of the way, perhaps a site it’s already burned, at the same time as it sets off the explosion. At this point, Ray is still in the circle. Then it switches itself and Ray, leaving the circle empty, itself elsewhere, and Ray in its dimension.” He paused, realizing aloud, “That would be why the detector shorted - it didn’t just absorb one burst of PKE; it took a substantial burst, then registered a drop to zero when the pyrodemon wasn’t in our world at all, then was subjected to a secondary burst when Ray was swapped out - all within less than a tenth of a second.”
“How do you figure that?” Winston asked.
“Longer would have given the meter time to recover, I believe,” Egon replied, “and certainly would have left more evidence of Ray’s having been harmed in the blast.” He swallowed. “The switch won’t work on a nonliving person, nor one who is dying, although it probably doesn’t care about unconsciousness or nonlethal injury.”
Janine sat back down at her desk, as Winston nodded and said, “Okay, so now we need a good lead on who our missing wizard is.”
“He shouldn’t be missing at this point,” Peter argued. “He got swapped back, right?”
“True, but we don’t know his condition,” Egon answered.
“Hello?” Janine’s voice said. “Yes, I want to speak to the office of Jon Thorsson. Yes, I’ll hold.” Her fingernails drummed on the desktop as the three Ghostbusters looked sheepishly at each other. “Hello? Yes, I was hoping I could speak to - no, I’m calling for the Ghostbusters. Yes, really. Yes, I’ll hold again.”
There was a longer pause this time, followed by, “Yes, I’m calling from the office of the Ghostbusters for Jon Thorsson, and - oh, you are? He is? He what?” Janine put one hand over the end of the receiver and gestured Egon and Winston over before speaking again. “Okay, yes, I’m sorry, that’s awful. Yes, that might be connected with one of our cases. Would you mind - no, no, sure. Who should they ask for? What floor? Okay, great, they’ll be right over.” She set down the phone and smiled up at Egon triumphantly. “So, guess what?”
“Jon Thorsson went missing two or three days ago,” Peter jumped in before Egon could.
“Bingo, Dr. V!” Janine handed yet another note to Winston. “That was Elsa Thorsdottir, Jotnarhofuth’s USA vice president for internal finances - and Jon’s sister. She wants you to come to their downtown headquarters as soon as you can.”
Ray sat down crosslegged with the large flat stone in front of him, like a table. “Okay,” he muttered, “let’s try this again.”
He’d managed to get the edge on his hand-axe reasonably even and sharp; as a chopper, it worked fine. It was not, however, a knife - and his wooden spear was less than ideal for fishing. The remains of three flint rocks lay shattered behind him as he started again.
He settled a flint pebble, about the length of his hand, on the anvil-rock in front of him. Two sharp blows removed two oval flakes; a third took off a shorter one, not quite perpendicular to the others. Ray winced; he’d intended for that to be straighter. He whacked off a short, triangular flake and set it aside - its edges were reasonably sharp.
Here was the tough part. Ray laid a chunk of a stick across the almost-perpendicular side, holding the pebble up on its end, and brought the chunk of limestone he was using for a hammer down hard on the wooden mallet. A reasonably triangular flake cracked off and slid away from the rest of the flint. Ray picked it up, gingerly, and tested the edges; they were pretty sharp. Carefully, he selected a smaller hammerstone and tapped two spots on the side to dull them.
It took several more repetitions of this before Ray had two decent spearpoints and something reasonably resembling a knife blade. He turned around to find Lucy and the Three Stooges standing behind him, with Big Mama off on top of the bank.
“Hey, guys,” Ray said. “You sure are hanging around a lot.” He headed into the denser foliage, commenting, “I wish I could find something close to grapevine around here. Don’t guess you’d know of any?”
He’d found a creeper vine that looked like a reasonable candidate when he heard a sharp crack! behind him. Ray backed out of the thicket, hands full of vines, and jogged back to see Curly thumping one piece of limestone against another.
“Oh, boy,” Ray sighed, as Larry picked up the remains of one of his earlier attempts and tapped it more gingerly against the anvil-stone. A sharp flake popped off; Larry dragged it against a leaf and watched it slice it. “I may have started the Paleolithic a little early,” Ray mused as he sat down with the blade, his wooden spear, and one of the spear points. “I sure hope this isn’t home, because if it is, I think I just screwed up big time.”
“I still think one of us should have stayed with Janine,” Peter grumbled.
“If we had, it would have been you,” Egon pointed out mildly. “Besides, she has the only working long-range detector, a fully charged pack, and Slimer to back her up. She will be fine.”
Peter looked at Egon oddly. “You’re starting to trust her a lot more,” he commented.
Egon opened his mouth to answer and was interrupted by a young blond man in a grey suit without the jacket. “Ms. Elsa will see you right away,” he called across the lobby, waving them towards an express elevator.
“Ms. Elsa?” Winston asked.
“It’s the correct formal mode of address,” Egon answered. “Since they have patronymics instead of family names, addressing them by a personal name requires the first name.” He looked at the gofer for a reaction; the young man nodded.
“Oh, that’s why the Sugarcubes’ lead singer goes by just her first name?” Peter asked. “Here I just thought she was eccentric.”
“That, too,” the gofer said, shrugging, as the elevator came smoothly to a stop. “Ms. Elsa is expecting you - go on in.” He waved at the receptionist as they stepped out of the elevator; she nodded and pressed a button on her desk, and a translucent glass door swung open behind her.
“Swanky place,” Peter commented. Winston nodded; this floor was a tasteful combination of glass, dark wood, and brass finishes. The net effect was modern while still remaining welcoming and tasteful. Egon didn’t appear to have much of a reaction.
The office on the other side of the door had floor-to-ceiling windows, half-obscured by thick curtains, and two walls that seemed to be mostly bookshelves. A woman who appeared to be about forty stood up and came around a large walnut desk to greet them; her hair was pulled back into a severe bun, and her dress and jacket were tailored well for her angular frame. A small, tasteful brass pendant in the shape of a stylized hammer sat at the hollow of her throat. “Good afternoon,” she said with only a trace of an accent. “I’m Elsa Thorsdottir, and I know you from the television - Dr. Spengler, Dr. Venkman, Mr. Zeddemore.” She extended a slender hand to each of them; Peter took it with a sketched little bow. “And where is Dr. Stantz?” she continued.
“Missing,” Egon said. “We were actually contacting you in the hopes that you could help us locate him.”
“Ah,” she replied, visibly disappointed. She sat on the edge of her desk, and gestured for them to take the oddly modernist chairs in front of it. “Well, perhaps you are learned enough in the occult arts to help me, Dr. Spengler,” she suggested. “I imagine you know by now that my brother Jon has disappeared, under somewhat curious circumstances.”
“We know that he vanished three days ago,” Egon replied, “and that you have had a number of mysterious fires on your properties since then.”
“Caused by a fire demon,” Peter added.
Elsa winced. “Is that what it was?” she asked. “My brother has been dabbling in the sorcery of our ancestors, but much of what he has been using is not the least bit Scandinavian. I have suggested he join with a group honoring the old ways religiously as well as mystically, but he told me that was mere superstition.” She shrugged theatrically; Peter found himself staring at her collarbones. “He was attempting to summon and bind a volcano spirit, native to my father’s holdings back home,” she continued.
“That’s not what he got,” Egon explained. “A landwight or a fire elemental would be a Class Six spirit. The demon is a Class Seven - significantly more dangerous, and not native to this plane of existence.” He paused, thinking. “Nor is it a jotunn; those would be Class Eight or perhaps even higher.”
“They would be the equals of Gozer, if not stronger,” she agreed. Noticing Winston’s change of expression, she allowed herself a small smile, and added, “My brother is not the only one with peculiar interests. He is merely the only one who attempts to put them into practice. And I had an excellent view of your first great adventure.” She turned around and pulled one of the curtains back; sure enough, Central Park West would have been clearly visible from the office.
Egon seemed impressed despite himself. “At any rate,” he said, “we have a fairly good idea of the magic the pyrodemon has been using. He seems to have originally exchanged himself for your brother, and then your brother for Raymond.”
“But that would have occurred yesterday, correct?” she asked. “He has not checked in, nor contacted any of our offices.” She drummed her fingers on her desk, biting her lip. “The - demon. Could it have left Jon in one of the fires?”
“Not the one at the fish warehouse,” Winston answered. “The insurance investigator was pretty sure there were no human remains there.”
“And it should be an instantaneous transfer,” Egon finished. “So, unless it left him somewhere and then returned to burn it later, I suspect your brother is still alive, or at least was left alive by the demon.”
“But he could have dropped him in a war zone to be finished off by stray bullets,” Elsa stated, her eyes searching Egon’s face for confirmation.
“Or merely in the middle of nowhere, with no means of getting to a phone,” Peter suggested.
Egon nodded, adding, “Or it’s possible that he is simply unconscious.”
Elsa’s features darkened. “What can I give you that will help you do any of: locate my brother, locate your partner, or stop the demon from striking again?”
Peter broke in, “Did your company have any connection to a burlesque theater in Jersey City?”
“Possibly,” Elsa said, looking up and then returning to her desk. She tapped a few keys on her computer keyboard. “Yes,” she answered, “that was one of Jon’s personal artistic donations - he paid for their stage to be renovated.”
“Okay, then that means that every place the demon has hit has been connected directly or indirectly to your corporation or your family’s money,” Peter explained. “So you might want to issue a general lookout, with instructions to call the fire department and then us if they see an eight-foot red dude with four wings and horns.”
“Easily done,” she replied, calling up a remarkably sophisticated e-mail program.
“Do you have any of your brother’s working materials?” Egon asked.
“Some. Most of his were at a workspace he kept separate from his apartment or company property,” Elsa answered. “I can have the occult library he kept at his apartment delivered to your headquarters.”
“Let’s do that,” Egon suggested, “and if you have any way of finding the rest of his notes, that would be deeply helpful. Other than that, we need either him or the demon.”
Elsa scrawled a note and then stapled her business card to it. “I will have his books to you before the end of the workday,” she said firmly. “If there is any other assistance I can offer, please call me.” Her face was grim, her shoulders squared. “I will find my brother - or his body - no matter what. On the bones of my grandfather, I swear it.”
Peter grinned weakly. “We’ll be in touch.” As they passed through the glass door again, he muttered under his breath, “Well, she’s a little intense, isn’t she?”
“Too much for you to handle, my man?” Winston asked, his eyes twinkling.
“Aside from her suitability as a date for Peter,” Egon noted dryly, “Ms. Elsa may be the most useful contact we’ve made so far on this case. Access to her brother’s research materials may give us some of the keys we need.”
“Sure,” Peter said as they piled back into the elevator, “but someone with an interest in both the occult and in high finance could be really dangerous.”
“Let’s just hope there are no such things as money demons,” Winston replied as the elevator doors closed.
Ray held a finger up to his lips. He wasn’t sure if that gesture would mean anything to the hominids, but then, he was making more noise than they were.
He was once again perched at the top of the short cliff, the stink of dew-damp charcoal in his nostrils, waiting with a stone-tipped spear in his hand. The clan had followed him here, almost as if escorting him, and then disappeared back into the grass. One of the Stooges - probably Curly; Moe tended to hang back the most around him - crouched just within his line of sight in the grassline. A few twitches in the stems behind him told Ray that the rest of the clan was moving away, but slowly, and not going very far. It occurred to Ray that he wouldn’t have been able to tell that if there were much of a breeze. The air had been pretty still since his arrival. Is that normal? he wondered, but he couldn’t exactly ask the clan, and he wasn’t sure whether they would remember, anyway.
A dark shape moved at the base of the cliff face, interrupting Ray’s mental meanderings. He leaned over to watch the beast climb out of the cave entrance he’d seen earlier; it had to be fairly narrow at the shoulders to make it through, Ray realized.
It took a few steps - Ray could hear its nails clicking against the stone below - and paused, just before where Ray had left his protective amulet marked in the soot. It backed up, then tried to squeeze around it next to the cliff face, then backed up again.
Stay down there, Ray hoped, crossing his fingers. Just stay caught by the pentacle.
Instead, it turned the other direction; Ray heard a splash, followed by a hissing sound and a low yip. A few trails of steam rose above the banks. Uh oh, Ray realized, it can cross water; it just doesn’t like it.
Ray waited until it was halfway up its path, braced himself, and then hurled the spear in his hands. The beast snapped its head up and jumped; the spear fell against the rocks where it had been. With a growl, the beast abandoned its usual path and began scrambling up the rocks directly towards Ray.
“Oh, crap!” Ray sprang away from the lip of the cliff and scrambled across the rocks into the tall grass. Unfortunately, he didn’t quite have the hominids’ skill at parting the long blades quietly; he rustled and left a trail of bent stems behind him as he retreated.
The beast was behind him as he made his way up the second ridge. Ray realized he was in the wrong place as he hit the summit; he’d intended to climb a tree, but the only ones here were the scrubby, licorice-smelling ones like the tree he’d landed under, barely more than shrubs. Climbing one wasn’t going to do much good; he paused a moment to test his weight against a branch, but it bent alarmingly - even if it were tall enough, it wouldn’t hold him.
And now he’d stopped too long; now the beast was right there, its eyes gleaming yellow-orange against charcoal fur, almost invisible against the shadows of the grass but blotting out the stars on the horizon as it came up level with Ray. It growled, soft and low; something else barked in the hollow below.
Ray spread his hands. “Hey, boy. Sorry about the spear. You’re okay, right?”
The growl stopped. The beast’s eyes narrowed slightly as it paced off to the right, watching him.
“Did you understand what I said?” Ray asked, startled.
The beast’s shaggy head rose and fell, once.
“Oh, my gosh, either you have a translation gesa or you speak English!” Ray blurted. “Probably the first, actually.” He smiled, his hands out. “That’s great! So what -”
Another bark behind the beast turned into a war-scream, as the Stooges and Big Mama came charging out of the tall grass, arms full of river rocks. A barrage of fist-sized pebbles barraged the hellhound from behind and its left flank. Ray flung his hands up, crying “No, don’t!,” but if they understood they ignored him.
The hellhound bayed, turning away from Ray and the clan; its fur flickered and roared into full flame as the grass beneath its paws caught and went up. The grass fire rushed towards them like a wave, with sparks for foam.
“Downhill, towards the river! Go!” Ray shouted as he took off. The clan’s trails raced off in three or four directions through the dew-damp blades; Ray took his own advice, wishing for running shoes.
Ecto’s car phone went off.
Peter sat up straight in the back seat and immediately wished he hadn’t. “What’s going on?” he yelped, before realizing he’d dozed off again.
Egon answered the phone. “Ecto-1, go ahead, Janine. Oh, great.” Egon brushed a hand down his face, eyes squeezed tight in irritation. “No, that’s all right. Winston, make a right and head towards the docks - our pyrodemon’s been sighted about two blocks from its last warehouse appearance.”
“Towards the water from there, or towards the city?” Winston asked, expertly making the turn and scooting through the next light on yellow.
“Closer to the docks.” Egon scribbled down an address. “Thank you, Janine, that was exceptionally helpful,” he added just before replacing the receiver.
The streets near the docks were clogged with trucks trying to get out; Winston parked Ecto a block away from their destination, and they suited up to approach on foot. A group of men in work boots, protective aprons, and heavy gloves ran past. “Did Janine say what he was doing?” Peter whispered.
“No,” Egon answered equally quietly, “but she did say the fire department had already been called. We seem to have been beaten here.”
As they came around the corner of a boathouse, Peter saw that Egon was exactly right - two hook-and-ladder trucks were putting out a flaming crane. Big Red hovered just over the water, watching, as if it found the whole scene amusing.
“He’s distracted,” Peter hissed, nearly crowing. “Hit him hard, full power, and reel him in - now!”
All three streams were good; the demon let out a gonging sound, startled. It fought the proton streams, kicking and slashing its tail, but it was clearly losing. Peter braced himself against a concrete pier and shortened his stream. “Come on,” he growled, “you’re good for it, come on.”
Winston yanked his thrower as it bucked. “Red’s putting up a fight,” he noted.
“A fruitless one,” Egon said, his face a frown of concentration.
They had about twenty yards to go before they could throw a trap down. Peter was just about to wonder whether any of them could spare the hand to grab one when a red-faced hobo in the remains of two or three business suits slammed into him from the side; his thrower went flying, its stream raking the edge of the pier before flickering out.
The demon twisted in the two remaining streams and shook Egon’s off. Winston dug his heels in, still fighting it, but the demon dove for the harbor’s surface. The stream hit the water, boiled it and dispersed; another burst of steam rose as Big Red geysered skyward. Egon got another shot off, but it only grazed the demon’s leg, and before he could fire again, it was out of range and climbing.
“Dammit!” Peter yowled in pain and frustration. “What the hell did you do that for?”
“You can’t,” said the man in the tattered remains of the suits, his eyes wild. “It’s too strong - burn everything - had to stop before you got it ashore -”
Winston pulled him off of Peter, visibly fuming. “Hey, you can’t just come up here and - wait, Egon, does this guy look kind of familiar to you?”
“Yes,” Egon said, his eyes hard. “Jon Thorrson, is that you?”
“What?” The man’s eyes focused briefly. “Jon - yes, I was Jon once -” His eyes rolled up in their sockets and he went limp in Winston’s grip, still mumbling something unintelligible.
“He’s delirious,” Egon concluded.
Winston looked at the man more closely, then pinched the back of his hand. “He’s dehydrated,” he realized aloud, “I mean, near to dying of thirst. Look how sunken his eyes are, and his skin’s about to crack. And he’s sunburned, too. We’ve got to get him to a hospital.” He shifted Jon into a fireman’s carry.
“No, no more hospitals,” Peter wailed. “Look where he just hit me! They’ll x-ray me again. I’m about to start glowing in the dark.”
Egon made a snap decision. “Put him in Ecto,” he ordered, “and we’ll call Ms. Elsa. No, wait, we’ll call Janine and have her alert Ms. Elsa to meet us at the hospital.” He inspected the nearly-unconscious man closely. “I’m sorry, Peter, but Winston’s right - this man is in need of immediate medical attention.”
Jon stirred, and feebly fought against Winston’s grip. “Hair’s on fire,” he mumbled.
“Maybe the firemen brought an ambulance with them? Or at least some water?” Peter asked, but he followed his friends back to Ecto at a jog.
Ray climbed down from his riverbank tree, satisfied that the hellhound wasn’t even attempting to follow his trail. In fact, the hellhound had run a very specific path, away from the scrub tree that Ray had mistakenly tried to climb before - and all of its immediate neighbors. It was now running the same path, over and over, occasionally stopping to howl.
It hadn’t tried to chase down any of the clan. It hadn’t tried to chase down Ray.
It didn’t seem to be hunting anything at all.
And it was deliberately avoiding running close enough to any trees to catch them on fire directly. The grass went up so quickly, even if the prairie around it caught, the trees never got more than a scorching around the bark and a few wilted leaves.
“But why?” Ray asked. Peter was the behavioral expert, although he was far more interested in people than animals; still, a hellhound had human or near-human intelligence. He’d probably be able to figure it out.
The loneliness that had been bubbling under the surface suddenly broke, and Ray realized there were tears streaming down his cheeks. He ran for his lean-to and curled up, his head buried between his knees, fighting back sobs.
“Why haven’t you gotten here yet?” he gulped. “I know you’re trying to find me, guys; where are you?”
He’d stopped sobbing and was alternating between shivering and dozing when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up into Big Mama’s long, chinless face. She looked - concerned? Contrite?
“I wish,” Ray started, his voice rough, “that you guys hadn’t interrupted me. But I think maybe you were trying to protect me? Maybe you thought it had me cornered.”
The clan matriarch hung her head for a moment, then gently touched his wet cheek.
“Oh.” Ray was embarrassed for a moment. “I’m just - I don’t want you to think I don’t appreciate you guys being around, but I miss my friends.” He swallowed. “My family, really. We’re a lot like you guys - always together.”
Big Mama sat down on the silty ground beside Ray and put one long arm around his shoulders.
“Thanks,” Ray said, surprised by the show of sympathy.
They sat that way for a long moment; then Big Mama stood and made the come-hither gesture at Ray. Curious, he pushed himself to his feet and followed her to the top of the bank and up a small rise, short of the foot of the ridge. She turned parallel to the river and sat down.
Ray squinted. A glow was obscuring the stars on the horizon. It couldn’t be near dawn yet, could it?
It wasn’t. The curved limb of a waning gibbous moon, just short of third quarter, climbed into the sky, huge and red-gold. Ray watched, his mouth an O, as it pulled upwards.
Those were not the scars and craters of Luna. They weren’t even close. This was not Earth’s moon.
This wasn’t Earth.
Ray breathed a sigh of relief. “It’s a parallel world,” he said, his voice thick with competing emotions. “I can teach you guys anything, whatever I need; I don’t have to worry. And the guys can find me using the portal. They just have to figure out which one I’m on.” For a moment, worry won. “Which could take months, maybe years, if they’re guessing. Even if Egon comes up with a system.” Hope surged in its place. “But that’s okay! There’s plenty to eat here, and the water seems clean - as long as I can survive here, I can wait as long as it takes.”
He was about to head back to the lean-to when Big Mama touched him on the arm and pointed downwards. Ray sat back down, wondering why.
The moon had pulled free of the horizon and was settling into the night sky, but there was a second glow creeping up. Ray watched as another satellite, smaller and a deeper red, followed the first into the sky, almost exactly a quarter-moon.
“Definitely not Earth,” Ray said, smiling. He reached over and gave Big Mama a side-hug. “Thanks. This makes things a lot easier. And I think I might have an idea of how to deal with the hellhound, now.” He got up and jogged back towards the river, the two moons lighting his steps.
Elsa let the curtain to the emergency room cubby fall behind her. “Yes, that’s Jon,” she said, eyes lowered. “I simply cannot thank you enough for finding him in time.”
“Glad to help,” Peter replied with what he hoped was a pained-yet-charming smile. Despite Egon’s assurances, a nurse had pulled him aside to look at him, too. On the bright side, they’d removed the dressing on his left hand and replaced it with a much smaller set of bandages, and there was no threat of x-rays yet.
“I’m sure he’ll be okay,” Winston assured her.
“He will.” She smoothed her skirt and settled into one of the waiting room chairs. “A strange set of diagnoses, though.”
“Yeah,” Winston agreed. “It really ought to be hard to get that dehydrated in a city full of water fountains.”
“And not just dehydration,” Elsa added. “He’s been several days without food, he has sunburns dark enough to blister, and his hands and feet are abraded and bruised.”
Peter blinked. “That’s . . . weird.”
“The dehydration and lack of adequate nutrition would be consistent with being imprisoned alone for three days,” Egon stated, “and if he were not restrained, then the injuries to his extremities might merely be due to his attempting to escape repeatedly.” He paused, one finger tapping the side of his chin. “But unless the prison were some sort of open-air cage, the sunburn seems anomalous.”
“Excuse me,” a nurse said quietly. “The patient would like to speak to you, ma’am, and to the Ghostbusters, if he can.” He frowned slightly. “Please do not make him talk too long, though. His mouth and throat are still very dry.”
“I assure you, I have his health very much in mind,” Elsa said mildly as she drew the curtain back again.
Jon looked only slightly less wan than he had at the pier, but his eyes were tracking correctly now. He coughed lightly, and began, “The fire-demon - I am sorry - I lost him again.”
“We’re on his trail,” Winston said firmly.
“But if you have any information on its composition or origin, that might well help us,” Egon added.
The would-be wizard nodded. “Elsa,” he wheezed, “take them to the main refrigerated unit. I had . . . several workshops. The demon - he destroys whatever I have touched - but look in . . .” He trailed off, hacking as if his lungs would burst.
Elsa raised a cup to his lips. “Shh, little brother. You have time now.” She waited while he swallowed, her eyes traveling to the pile of discarded clothes folded loosely on a tray table. “He must have scrounged those from a trash bin,” she suggested. “They aren’t his usual designer.”
“Discards, behind a Salvation Army,” Jon puffed through cracked lips. “I did not know what I was doing - I only knew to hide my nakedness.”
Peter leaned in. “So you left your clothes behind when the demon jumped you, too?”
“Yes.” Jon leaned back against the pillow with his eyes at half-mast. “There is a storage area behind the main records room at the refrigerated facility. The workshop he was summoned in is a cinder, but I have copies of most of my grimoires there.” As he finished, his shoulders slumped.
They turned to go, but one of Jon’s hands reached out and clutched at Winston’s sleeve. “Your weapons,” he gasped. “They require four, for one such as him. Banish him, for me - send him back to where he came from.”
“You got it, my man,” Winston agreed, with a sharpness in his voice.
“Let us let him sleep,” Elsa murmured, drawing back the curtain again. “I will have everything from the facility brought to you.”
“We’ll also need photographs of everything,” Egon noted as they filed out. “The relative positions of his ritual tools may also be important.”
Elsa pulled a plastic-shelled device the size of a paperback book from her purse and flipped it open to reveal a tiny keyboard and a screen the size of a graphing calculator’s. “I will make a note of that,” she said, typing with one hand. “Our lab should be able to process those before the close of business.”
As they made their way through the emergency room waiting area, Egon turned to Winston, asking, “Are you sure about this? Usually, you prefer technological to magical solutions.”
“You, too,” Winston pointed out, “and you seem fine with the idea.”
“Well, yes,” Egon acknowledged, “but I am not the one who just promised to banish a demon instead of trapping it.”
“We need his notes to find Ray,” Winston insisted. “Big Red’s not going to help us, even if we throw it in containment, and hunting around just using the dimensional portal could take years.”
“Three years, six months, twenty-one days, eight hours, and fourteen minutes,” Egon admitted, “and that’s assuming that he’s in a parallel immediately adjacent to either our continuum or the Netherworld’s.”
They paused, watching Peter escort Elsa to her car and then hobble back to Ecto, quietly clutching his ribcage. “Pagan magic may make me uncomfortable, but I’ll make myself think of it as an old-fashioned exorcism and put on the black robes myself, if it helps get Ray back,” Winston finished.
The hellhound’s coat flickered with the last few orange embers as the eastern horizon turned pale. It paced down the well-worn path to its lair, its tongue lolling from its mouth like lit char-cloth, until it pulled up short at the amulet still scratched in the ash.
Ray was sitting cross-legged just beside it, looking haggard but pleased with himself. Beside him on the stones lay a second stone-headed spear and a sharpened wooden skewer; the second was strung through the gills of a half-dozen silver-scaled fish.
“Hey, there,” Ray said, unthreading one fat fish from the skewer. “Didn’t look like you caught much last night, and if you’re avoiding trees, the fires can’t be feeding you too well, either.” He tossed the fish at the hellhound’s front paws; it flapped one fin weakly. “Have a snack.”
The hellhound fell on the fish with gusto, snapping it up in three bites, bones and all. Ray chuckled, then felt just a bit guilty for having done so. “Yeah, I figured,” he continued, tossing a second fish at it. “Someone’s set things up so you don’t get fed if you don’t burn, and you’re trying not to trash the whole landscape. I found a couple of your burn zones on the other side of the river,” he added as he unstrung the third and fourth fish and tossed them one after the other. “Still no trees, except a few of the little scrubby ones, and I’m pretty sure they were accidents.” He stopped, waiting for a reply.
The hellhound swallowed the fourth fish’s tail and nodded its grey shaggy head. It took two more steps towards Ray, edging around the protective sigil.
“Hold on,” Ray said quickly, “I want to get a look at you in the sunlight. I don’t think sunlight hurts hellhounds, or hell-wolves, whichever you are.”
The hellhound shook its head, a few scales scattering to the sides. Ray dropped the fifth fish in front of it and edged closer, away from his pentagram. “I’m just going to take a look at you,” he promised. “The spear’s over there, and I’ve only used that one for fishing.”
The hellhound let out a noise somewhere between a whine and a yawn, and lowered itself to its belly, gnawing at the fish. Ray set the last one down, free of the skewer, and put one hand on the hound’s head, giving it a brief scratch between the ears. It was uncomfortably warm, but not hot enough to burn, at least not if Ray didn’t keep his hand there for too long.
The hellhound was roughly bear-sized, although far from bear-shaped; running his hands quickly along its right flank, Ray could feel its ribs. More, he could feel several long scars under the charcoal fur; Ray pushed back a handful of scruff and saw white, badly-healed lines against the dimly glowing grey skin. They repeated, shorter but still deep, on its haunches. The biggest surprise was buried in the fur around the hellhound’s neck; Ray petted the gigantic canine and found his fingers hooking around a collar of iron.
“Where did this come from?” Ray marveled. “The clan doesn’t even have stone tools, much less iron. Or, well, they didn’t have stone tools until yesterday.”
The hellhound turned its head to look at Ray, its ears pricking.
“Yeah, my bad, sorry about that,” Ray said, blushing just a bit. “But still, they didn’t do this to you, did they?”
The shaggy head shook again.
“So,” Ray asked, scratching the hellhound between the ears again before dancing his hand away from its heat, “who has iron here, and why would they want to do this to you?”
The hellhound licked Ray’s foot and thumped its tail on the ground.
“You’re no help,” Ray laughed.
Janine knotted a piece of twine around a pushpin and jabbed it into the drywall of the rec room. “Okay, hand me the envelope, Slimer,” she called across the room.
“Hwidge hwon?” Slimer responded, looking back and forth between two express envelopes from two different couriers.
“The big one,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anything useful in the insurance photos.” Slimer handed her the larger envelope, and she began hanging photos of a very messy workspace from the twine with binder clips.
The three ‘Busters were seated around the coffee table and the three large cartons it bore. One was full of loose papers, which Egon was speed-skimming for anything potentially useful. Another was full of tools and curiosities; Peter was unpacking those. Winston was stacking books, half of them handwritten, on the floor from the third one.
“This guy had some interesting stuff,” Peter noted, removing a double candlestick in the shape of a pair of ravens from the box.
Egon looked aside at him. “Does any of it . . . feel peculiar?” he asked, hesitation in his voice.
“Egon, you’re descended from wizards; you’d know better than I would,” Peter pointed out. “My field’s psychic stuff. You’re Ray’s backup.”
Winston’s mouth twitched. “Hey, we know I’ve got a touch of that in my background, too, now,” he said hesitantly. “Maybe you and I should switch, Pete.”
Peter was about to turn him down when he saw the steel in Winston’s eyes. “Sure, but you’ll need to move the cartons; I’m not supposed to lift anything that heavy,” he said instead.
“That would include a proton pack,” Egon observed with one eyebrow raised.
“Details,” Peter scoffed, brushing his objection off. Winston chuckled and switched the two boxes.
Janine finished hanging the last photo and stepped back. “Except for the chalkboard,” she observed, “I don’t see any rhyme or reason to this guy’s workshop at all, and all that’s on the board is two of the symbols we already know.”
Peter took two books out of the third box and looked at their covers. “Hey,” he asked, “do Scandinavian wizards keep a, what did Ray call it, a Book of Shadows?”
“Traditional ones wouldn’t,” Egon answered. “At least, not by that name. That’s more of a Western Magical Tradition, er, tradition, and they weren’t named Books of Shadows until the 1930s or ‘40s.”
“It doesn’t matter what it’s called,” Peter argued. “Would he keep, you know, a magical notebook, as opposed to a copy of a grimoire?”
“He might,” Egon agreed. “It’s not uncommon for working wizards to keep one now, no matter what tradition they’re working in.”
Peter flipped through one of the books. “Then we’re probably looking for a volume with blank space at the end,” he suggested. “It would be weird if he’d just finished the last page when Big Red showed up.”
Winston pointed at one of the stacks he’d made. “Those are the handwritten ones,” he said, “if you want to start with those.”
Egon picked up another sheaf of loose papers. “Here’s another one of the runes from the circle,” he announced, “but no indication of its context.”
“Does he have a lot of sheets that are one big symbol and nothing else on the page, like that?” Janine asked, wandering over.
“Yes,” Egon answered, “but most of them are not symbols used in the circle.” A flash of doubt crossed his features. “At least, not the circle as Peter reconstructed it under hypnosis.”
“Got it!” Peter exclaimed. He held up one of the books Winston had unpacked; it looked like an artist’s sketchbook, except for three runes in red on the cover.
“Is that his name?” Winston asked.
“No, it reads ‘alu,’ ” Egon said. “Which is a word that shows up on a number of runic amulets, but the meaning is still uncertain.”
“But it’s totally something this guy would use,” Peter continued. “Look at this, guys.” He flipped the book around to display two concentric circles with twelve symbols between them.
“It’s missing the little circles for separation,” Janine observed, glancing back at the legal pad with Peter’s version.
“And he’s misspelled two of the Enochian signs,” Peter said.
Egon rolled his eyes, and held out one hand. “May I please see that, Peter?”
“Sure, let’s see what else he got wrong,” Peter replied, handing it over with a smirk.
Egon flipped to the front of the book and began scanning it line-by-line. Peter picked up another recent-looking book and flipped through it. “I think there are a couple more of these in the same handwriting,” he realized aloud.
“Just stack them here,” Egon said, pointing at a corner of the table without looking up.
Several minutes later, Egon set the book down again and picked up one of the other two Peter had found. “This is extraordinarily unusual,” he mumbled, more to himself than to the others.
Peter answered anyway. “What’s weird about them? I mean, more than usual for wizardry.”
“Half of this is fairly standard Western European magic translated somewhat clumsily into Northern European languages,” Egon complained, “but the other half is quasi-shamanic incantations.”
“I don’t know what ‘quasi-shamanic’ means,” Winston broke in before Peter could make a joke.
“There’s a type of magic called ‘seidr’ that’s mentioned in the Norse Eddas,” Egon explained, “which appears to consist of knot magic, dancing in rounds until everyone was dizzy, spirit possession, and - never mind, it’s not that important, and Ray would explain it better than I could.” He cleared his throat and adjusted his glasses. “There may have been some at least symbolic sex magic involved as well.” Peering intently at the book, he added, “Oddly enough, it was usually considered women’s magic; it would backfire in the hands of a man, or render him, uh, impotent.”
Peter and Winston exchanged a glance and crossed their legs. Peter finally replied, “Okay, so does this help us get rid of Big Red?”
Egon flipped another four pages. “Yes, actually, it does,” he reported. “I’m fairly sure I can construct a reversal ritual to undo the one that transported the pyrodemon here, and unless there’s an element that Jon failed to record, it should also return Ray to this dimension.”
“Awesome!” Winston shouted, punching the air. “So, how does it work?”
“Well, it begins with a mirror-reversal of the magic circle, and then continues with one of the seidr techniques,” Egon said.
Sheepishly, the three of them turned around on the sofa. “Um, Janine,” Peter wheedled, “remember what you said about what you’d do to get Ray back . . . ?”
Janine pressed one palm to her forehead and tried not to either snort derisively or laugh. “Okay, guys,” she sighed, “what kind of weird stuff do you need me to do this time?”
Egon tried to smile; it came out crooked. “It’s actually not that difficult,” he assured her.
She rolled her eyes at him, but he was saved from her next acidic remark by the phone ringing yet again.
“There you go, boy,” Ray said in his best soothing voice, as the first rays of dawn filled the ravine.
He was sitting somewhat uncomfortably on an outcropping of river rock, with the hellhound at his feet. After nearly burning his fingers twice, he’d taken to petting the supernatural canine with a crude trivet of sorts. He’d woven it out of the dew-soaked grass and then dunked it in the slow trickle of the river; now, he was holding it between the ashen fur and his hand, like a too-stiff potholder. The hound didn’t seem to mind, and in fact had finally put his head down.
Ray’s fingers hunted in the thick fur for the iron collar again. “Stay down; good boy.”
The hellhound gaped its mouth wide, yawning; its tongue glowed like freshly-lit charcoal. Ray returned to petting it with his left hand while working around the collar with his right. “That’s good. Go on to sleep; it’s okay.”
His knuckle grazed something; Ray shifted to see better. There, that was the clasp. He spun it around the hound’s neck as it closed its eyes.
Ray snatched his hand back and blew on it; the beast’s flesh underneath the iron band was still oven-hot. The collar, oddly, was not. Ray pushed the fur back with the hay trivet and look a closer look.
“Oh, that’s great!” he exclaimed. The hellhound stirred; Ray reached over to scratch its scruff briefly. “Sorry, boy.” The collar wasn’t locked; this wouldn’t require picking a padlock with no tools but twigs and straw.
It was, however, bolted. Ray reached in and tried to turn the nut, the size of a small apricot. No dice; it wouldn’t budge.
Ray groaned and put his hands flat on the cool stone. “My kingdom for a wrench,” he moaned.
“Sorry about the wait,” Peter said, as Janine helped him out of the back seat. “Traffic on the bridge.”
“No, it’s terrible, even this late,” said the client, a middle-aged woman with curly salt-and pepper hair in a cheap blue blazer and a red ascot. “He’s still sitting in the awnings. I think he set a pigeon on fire.” Her nose wrinkled. “Anyway, everyone knows to call you for haunted hotels,” she continued, “although I think the manager at the Sedgewick never forgave you.”
“I assure you, our aim has improved significantly since then,” Egon interjected, looking embarrassed.
Janine tugged on the belt-strap of Peter’s pack. “Okay,” she said, “you should be good. Go get ‘em!”
The three Ghostbusters crept around the corner. The Valiant wasn’t a terribly old hotel; it only dated back to the fifties, and now its ultimate owner was a chain partially owned in turn by Jotnarhofuth. But it had character; its architecture deliberately echoed the French Quarter in New Orleans. The front was decorated with striped red-and-white awnings from the second floor to the first; Big Red was casually burning holes in the plasticized canvas seemingly at random.
Egon and Winston raised their throwers and fired; Peter was a fraction of a second after them. They seemed to catch the demon by surprise; it managed to pull away only because the streams thinned out over distance. It clanged and dove for one of the windows, leaving a smear of thick reddish-orange ectoplasm.
“Okay, guys,” Peter puffed as they jogged the quarter-block to the front door, “remember, push, don’t pull.”
“We got it, Pete,” Winston answered. “Don’t strain yourself.”
The pyrodemon hovered just under the ceiling of the lobby as they burst through the door. “Clever,” it grated, “but you’ve lost the element of surprise.”
“Fortunately,” Egon replied, “this building has never been completely renovated.” He fired, catching the demon in the wings.
It rolled away, dodging Winston’s stream and shaking Peter’s off. “And why should this bother me?”
“It was built during the asbestos era,” Winston answered, firing and missing again.
The pyrodemon’s spine straightened. For a moment, it seemed to be feeling the air around it; Peter wondered whether it could tell whether the materials around it would burn. Snarling, it doubled nearly in half and dove for the entryway to the hotel restaurant.
There were plenty of flammable objects on the first floor, and it seemed as if Big Red was determined to find all of them. By the time they’d manage to herd it into the lobby again, they’d run through the restaurant, a lounge, the bar, two ballrooms, and a conference room; the air stunk of smoldering plywood and upholstery. The paneling in Ballroom One was scorched in five places, but between the hidden building materials and an excellent sprinkler system, nothing had gone up in the usual inferno.
“Good thing he didn’t go for the kitchen,” Winston mumbled. “There’s probably a deep-fryer in there.”
“Don’t give him ideas,” Peter insisted as they swept their streams up towards the demon. It flipped in midair and swooped up the polished granite stairs.
“Keep pushing,” Peter called as Egon and Winston charged up after the demon. “I’ll take the elevator.”
“Will it work,” Winston asked between breaths, “with the fire alarm going off?”
They charged off the stairs, and Winston fired from the hip. The demon swerved wildly to the left and ducked around them; Egon let off a stream that went wide to the front. “Keep him in this room,” Egon called, a little too loudly.
“With only two of you?” the demon snarled. “Unlikely.” It wheeled and dove for the door behind it, failing to dematerialize enough to keep it closed.
Janine ducked; the demon rushed over her head as she finished chalking something on the slate floor. She stood up and started singing something with too many consonants, spinning in a circle with her hands over her head.
The demon roared and tried to turn, but a stream caught it in the side. “Gotcha,” Peter crowed, half-limping towards Janine and dragging the demon behind him.
“What?” The demon twisted in mid-air, trying to pull away, but two more streams caught it and began reeling it in, directly over the circle.
“Our turn,” Peter said, smirking, as Egon and Winston stepped into place on either side of him. Janine stopped her twirling and chanting, laughed sharply in the demon’s copper-pot face, and brought her hands together with a clap.
“This seriously sucks,” Ray panted, dropping the semi-shredded remains of the makeshift trivet. The hellhound whimpered, but didn’t wake. Nothing Ray had tried seemed to budge the nut on the bolt in the slightest. Ray was beginning to worry that the hound’s flames had welded it in place somehow.
The grass above rustled. Ray looked up; there was near-silence as quiet feet padded across the stone, and then the Stooges appeared, each with an armful of river rocks.
“No, don’t,” Ray said, trying to project his voice without waking the hound all the way. “It’s okay, I think. I mean, I don’t think he’s going to hurt us.”
The juveniles exchanged glances and stepped back a pace, still watching over the rim of the short cliff.
“Where’s Big Mama?” Ray asked. “I can’t imagine she let you guys do all that work by yourselves.”
Sure enough, Big Mama emerged from the riverbed, water running through the thick hair on her arms and back, a stone the size of her head cradled in the crook of one arm. She crept up, shifting the rock to both hands and lifting it high as she approached the hound’s shaggy head.
“No, please!” Ray begged. “I mean, I understand why you want to. He’s burned a lot of grassland - that’s why there’s almost nothing to hunt out here, isn’t there? The scrub trees have burn marks on the bark, and everything’s gone underground, or run away.”
Big Mama blinked, and lowered the rock to her side again. The hellhound, awake now, whimpered and nodded.
“But you don’t want to,” Ray said. “That’s why he’s trying not to burn the trees; isn’t that right, boy?”
The hellhound yipped and nodded again. Big Mama seemed confused, but she kept the rock down and took another step forward.
“I think someone’s controlling him,” Ray explained. “With this.” He turned up the hound’s fur to expose the iron collar. “It’s metal,” he continued, “although I guess you don’t know about that yet.”
Big Mama crept close, staring at the collar. She reached out to touch it, then pulled her hand away.
“He’s pretty warm,” Ray agreed, “but if you don’t touch him too long it doesn’t hurt. See?” He patted the hound on the head; it thumped its tail and panted happily.
Big Mama stared, then reached out and patted the bear-sized beast on the nose. The hound barked, then licked her hand, quickly. She knelt down and tried it again, then looked up at Ray.
“That’s right,” Ray said, smiling. “He’s okay by day. But I think the collar makes him set stuff on fire at night.” He tried to twist the nut off again. “And I can’t do anything about it,” he huffed, as his hands slipped again.
Big Mama leaned over to see the collar again, then gently pushed Ray’s hands aside. She curled one hand around the nut, and the other around the bolt, and twisted.
For a moment, nothing happened. Big Mama screwed up her face and tried again; the sinews popped on her arms under the hair. Slowly, one hand shifted, and then, with a creak, the nut turned a full rotation. Surprised, she let go, then reached in and spun the nut, two turns, three, four, until it came off in her hand.
“You did it! You’re awesome!” Ray shouted - then went transparent, like a sheet of colored glass. “Thank you so mu-” he tried to finish, before -
As Janine’s hands came together, the demon went transparent, more glass than metal. He shimmered like the air above hot asphalt, and struggled against the streams.
“Drop ‘em, guys,” Janine ordered. “Bye, Big Red. Hope you like where you’ve been keeping your wizards.”
Peter, Egon, and Winston shut their throwers off simultaneously. The demon flickered like a candle flame and disappeared.
In his place was a much shorter figure, although he was nearly as red. Ray blinked against the sudden shift in the light.
“Ray, you’re back!” Winston cheered.
“You’re sunburned,” Peter worried.
“You’re naked,” Janine leered.
“Yeah, I - oh, whoops, I forgot about that,” Ray gulped, going even redder, which none of them would have thought possible. He spread his hands over his privates and tried to grin.
Janine’s eyes didn’t move. “Don’t apologize,” she said, smiling.
Winston laughed, and stole a towel off of one of the hotel carts. “We’ve missed you, my man,” he said as he handed it to Ray. “Don’t disappear on us like that, okay?”
“I’ll do my best,” Ray promised. He wrapped the towel around his waist like a sarong and tucked in the end. “So,” he said, looking at the diagram under his feet, “I’m guessing we have a Norse, no, wait, a John Dee disciple, uh, no - a magus who doesn’t know what he’s doing to deal with?”
“He’s been dealt with sufficiently,” Egon replied mildly, “and may I just say what a relief it is not to have to handle the occult symbology any farther.”
Peter leaned heavily against the wall molding, an arm around his ribs. “The demon’s gone and we got Ray back. Can we go home now?” he whined.
The iron collar fell away, clattering on the ground, as the hellhound rose to its feet. Ray shimmered like ripples on the water and disappeared. In his place was eight feet of angry demon.
The hound’s hackles rose as it fell back, growling. Big Mama barked and scrambled away; the Stooges let off a volley of stones, at the demon this time, who brushed them off like so much confetti.
“An unwelcome welcome,” the demon boomed. “Tear them apart, my minion!”
The hound didn’t budge; the growling grew louder. The flat, featureless face of the demon turned down, and its eyes found the iron collar - underneath the hound’s feet. Big Mama looked at the bolt in her hands, then hid it behind her back and scrambled one-handed up the bank.
“No,” the demon said, throwing one hand up. “I bound you once - I can do so again!”
The hellhound’s eyes narrowed, and it leapt for the demon’s throat. Further down the bank, Lucy set her infant in the child’s arms, and picked up Ray’s spear.
“I’ve had our corporate insurance contact the victims of all of the fires,” Elsa said, signing a check with a flourish. “Everyone will be remunerated for the damages, plus a substantial amount for their distress; it will all be coming out of my brother’s personal account.” She scowled. “And while I’m sure he will eventually ask for his own writings back, I think it might be better if the grimoires he has collected are also considered part of your payment. They will most likely be safer with you than with him, and I certainly will feel safer with them here.”
“I’ll look through them and make sure anything really dangerous doesn’t get back to him,” Ray offered. He was in a loose cotton shirt and sweatpants; anything tighter stung his skin, especially his back and - other places.
“I would appreciate it.” Elsa stood, and shook each of their hands, including Janine’s. “Please do not hesitate to contact me if you find any of his dabblings capable of further mischief.” Her driver held the door open for her as she left.
“I think she likes me,” Peter mused as the door swung closed.
Ray plopped down in a chair next to Peter and frowned, his brows creasing deeply. “Peter,” he started, “I can’t believe you were running around with a thrower like this.”
Peter shrugged. “I’ve worked with a broken rib before. It’s a pain, but -”
“One broken rib, sure, we all have,” Ray interrupted. “Multiple broken ribs, a concussion, and second-degree burns?” He looked up at Egon and Winston accusingly. “I can’t believe you guys let him do that.”
“You think we could have stopped him?” Winston answered, one eyebrow raised.
Egon sighed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Would we have been able to stop you,” he asked, “if your places had been reversed?”
Ray fell silent for a moment. “Well,” he finally admitted, “probably not.”
Peter scowled at him. “Hey, you were closer to the blast; you probably had at least a few first-degree burns of your own, and that was before you spent two days naked on the savannah,” he argued. “And even if that sunburn doesn’t blister before it peels, you’ve got enough new blisters and gashes on your hands to last a few months.” He turned Ray’s hand over to look at the palm. “You’re going to have a bunch of new scars,” he said, more quietly.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Winston ordered. “Ray’s been sleeping on leaves in the outback, Peter’s still on pain meds, and Egon, you can’t fool me - I know for a fact you haven’t slept more than a couple of hours since Ray disappeared. Everyone, bed, now.”
“But Winston -” Ray started.
“I don’t want to hear it,” Winston insisted, “unless it’s ‘I need another square meal first.’ You had, what, three fish in two days before we fed you a whole pizza?”
“They were pretty big fish,” Ray protested, then fell silent.
Janine nodded in agreement. “It’s after closing,” she pointed out, “and I’ll stick around for an hour just in case we get any follow-up calls. Anything other than a Class Nine emergency can wait until morning.”
“There is some wisdom to that,” Egon admitted, as Winston began herding them upstairs.
Janine zipped the Jotnarhofuth check into a bank bag and closed it in the lockbox. “Besides,” she quipped, “between overtime and hazard pay, you guys are going to owe me about a fifth of this.”
Peter groaned theatrically. “You can’t be serious.” He clutched at his heart. “That’s so depressing, I might have to stay in bed for three days.”
“Money well spent, then,” Ray said, winking, as they disappeared up the stairs.