a Shadow Chasers/Master crossover
The adventure began in that most unlikely of places, a supermarket check out line. Max Keller had been gloomily waiting his turn behind a series of young matrons who seemed to be preparing for the second deluge by buying two of everything in the market, and lie had amused himself by reading the more lurid tales in the tabloids. He chuckled through the one about the elderly woman from North Platte who claimed to be in psychic communion with the denizens of Alpha Centauri— they seemed to be a little too human in their motives to convince Max— and he skimmed with little interest the doings of soap opera actresses he'd never heard of and Princess Di's shopping hints. Juggling his soap, razors and aspirin, he turned the page and saw another headline he was prepared to skip. NOBEL PRIZE WINNER'S LOVE CHILD TELLS ALL. It was ridiculous. The older man displayed in the picture looked about as unlikely a candidate to father a love child as anyone Max had ever seen. Maybe enquiring minds wanted to know, but Max Keller had better things to think about. Then he got a good look at the girl in the smaller picture that accompanied the article and his eyes narrowed.
No, it wasn't possible. The girl in the picture looked remarkably like Teri McAllister, the Master's missing daughter. And as far as Max knew, McAllister had never won the Nobel Prize.
Max skimmed the article. The girl was Teri McAllister all right. It said so right out. Max had never heard of Dr. Leonard MacKensie, Ph.D., but he knew that Dr. MacKensie couldn't be Teri's father. Unless, thought Max with a pang, the girl who claimed to be McAllister's daughter made her living claiming to be the child of various people and collecting money from them. It was something that hadn't occurred to Max before. The fact that after two years of searching there was still no trace of Teri suggested that she didn't want to be found, that she regretted writing to her father, but Max had never doubted she was who she claimed to be. This would really hurt the Master. He had given up everything to find Teri, renouncing his life as a Ninja, a life he had pursued with single-minded devotion since the end of the Korean War. He had no family but Teri. Max knew that Teri had not been her father's only reason for leaving the sect, but her letter had probably been the triggering factor. He had turned his back on his students who had returned to the old ways of Ninjitsu in spite of his teachings and returned to America to search for Teri. If it had all been for nothing, if she wasn't McAllister's daughter after all, he would have nothing left. Max glowered at the offending article.
But there had to be more to it than that. Max remembered people he and the Master had met in their search for Teri, people who had known her as Teri McAllister. Why use that name if there wasn't something to it? She wasn't going by Teri MacKensie after all. Max didn't understand. It smelled crooked though, and he wondered what Leonard MacKensie would think about some unknown woman who claimed to be his illegitimate child. Reading a little further, Max discovered that Dr. MacKensie was in fact the late Dr. MacKensie. Well, people became fair game after they were dead. Look at all the articles that had sprung up around John F. Kennedy, for instance. Papers like this probably paid well for exposes, and anything involving money encouraged crooks. Either someone was using Teri without her knowledge, believing she had no father in the wings to discredit the article, or Teri herself was involved.
"Are you going to memorize it, or do you want to buy it?" Max jumped. The supermarket checker, a plump, red-faced woman was watching him impatiently, tapping her fingernails on her cash register.
"Sorry," he mumbled and set it on the counter with his other purchases. He trailed unhappily back through the upstate New York snow to the van, wondering how best to break the news to the Master. The icy weather didn't improve his mood, and when he reached his van, he halted, glaring at the caked snow and ice packed behind his front tires and he took time out to knock it free with a resounding Ninja kick. It was satisfying, but it did nothing to help with the problem at hand, so he climbed into the van, banging the door shut behind him.
John Peter McAllister had watched him approach and now he returned Max's hamster, Henry, to his cage before he asked, "What's wrong, Max?"
"Peaceful uses of aggression," Max replied, stowing the grocery bag in the back, although he kept the paper out. "Sometimes it feels good to kick something, and the ice won't kick back."
"You didn't want to kick something when you went in," McAllister pointed out.
"No," agreed Max reluctantly. "It was this dumb article. I'm sure it's just a hoax, but I thought you better see it anyway." He proffered the latest National Register with the air of one handing over a dead rat.
"The National Register?" McAllister read, taking it with an amused grin. "I had no idea you liked things like this, Max."
"I don't. Half the county was in there ahead of me buying out the store. I had to pass the time and they wouldn't let me practice flips."
Skimming the cover story, McAllister chuckled. "Aliens from Alpha Centauri? This Edgar Benedek must have quite an imagination." He added seriously, "What do you want me to see?"
"Page 30," said Max. "I'm sure it's a hoax. It doesn't make sense otherwise."
McAllister shuffled through the pages. Max could tell exactly when he found the offending article because he stiffened as if he had been shot. Max watched him helplessly. "Maybe it's not Teri," he said at last. "Maybe that girl just looks like her." He knew it was weak, but he wanted to protect his mentor and he had very few options.
"I'd know my daughter, Max. Besides, this is one of her modeling photos. We saw it when we were in New York looking for her at the Campbell agency, remember?"
Teri had enjoyed a brief flirtation with modeling, Max remembered, which had put her face before the public. "Maybe somebody used it without her permission," he argued. "It doesn't mean she had anything to do with it. But I couldn't help wondering." He hesitated. "She claimed to be your daughter. Now she's claiming something else." He ran his words together, uncomfortable with the suggestion, but determined to get it out in the open.
"Max," said McAllister firmly, "Teri is my daughter. I'm not gullible enough to take an unexpected letter like Teri's on complete trust, although it felt genuine. I contacted Teri's mother when I got the letter and she confirmed it. I can't understand what this"— he rattled the paper impatiently— "hopes to prove."
That must have been some confrontation, Max thought. The Master must have hard feelings for Laura Kennedy, who had kept his child from him for 30 years. "Well," he speculated, "maybe this MacKensie was rich and somebody wants to collect from his estate."
"If so, this wouldn't be hard to disprove. Laura herself could discredit it. She'll be furious when she sees this."
Laura Kennedy was a serious journalist. Someone like that would probably scorn the National Register on general principles. She'd probably writer her own expose. Max hadn't realized until now that the Master had been in contact with Teri's mother, though he had sometimes wondered why McAllister hadn't attempted to locate Teri that way. Maybe Laura had refused to help him. "So what do we do now?" Max wanted to know.
"We contact the National Register." He flipped back to the title page. "Their main office is in New York. We can drive down there now and be at the office first thing in the morning."
Jonathan MacKensie felt good. It was a beautiful February day, warm and sunny, and the last traces of a nasty snowstorm had melted, making it feel like spring at Georgetown. There had been no sign of Edgar Benedek pleading to go shadow chasing for a good two weeks, and classes were going well. He had no papers to correct this morning, so he had been amusing himself by reading a monograph by Erlanger on Ramapithicus. It was worth a laugh or two. Erlanger was considered by a few to be a gifted anthropologist, but Jonathan found his work shoddy without the proper scientific method or careful documentation. Erlanger played to the media and was personable and flamboyant enough to get away with it. He had made the round's of the talk show circuit, and Jonathan had been secretly pleased when Edgar Benedek, who also appeared there, confided to Jonathan that he thought Erlanger didn't know what he was talking about. Jonathan finished the questionable article and prepared to dictate a rebuttal letter. He couldn't let this pass without attempting to refute it.
The door opened to admit his superior, Dr. Juliana Moorhouse, and Jonathan's heart sank. The Paranormal Research program that had been taking him away from his regular work was Dr. Moorhouse's pet project. Intensely interested in the subject of unexplained phenomena, she had conned Jonathan— blackmailed was a better word— into heading the program. Some of it had been fascinating and a lot of it had been fun— a fact he would never admit to Dr. Moorhouse— but Jonathan preferred his own work and today was too fine to go chasing spooks and UFOs and vampires somewhere halfway around the world. Now that Dr. Moorhouse had grudgingly accepted Benedek's participation in the Institute's program, it was likely that Benny had brought a new mystery to her attention or that he would be arriving soon full of outrageous plans.
But Dr. Moorhouse wasn't wearing the look she wore when she came to tear Jonathan away from his beloved anthropology. Instead her face held anger, annoyance, and, even more surprisingly, concern. Now that he thought about it, Jonathan realized that he had never seen Dr. Moorhouse look furious and diffident at the same time before, or ever look diffident at all. But anger was the predominant emotion, and in her hand was a copy of the National Register.
Jonathan's heart sank. Moorhouse's tolerance of Benedek was limited at best. She perused the Register regularly to make sure that Benedek wasn't making improper use of the Georgetown Institute, and she frequently pounced on the unsuspecting Jonathan to reproach him about his tolerance of and friendship with Edgar Benedek, 'an inveterate con man and unconscionable charlatan who has no scruples about using the Institute' for his nefarious purposes'. Ordinarily Jonathan halfway agreed with her estimates, while enjoying Benedek at the same time. Maybe Benny was a scoundrel, but he was also a friend, and Jonathan liked his humor and the sense of wonder that his opportunistic and aggressive style of journalism never seemed to erode. He had defended Benedek to Moorhouse before, and he was sure he would do it again, probably in the next five minutes.
So far, Benedek hadn't quite passed Dr. Moorhouse's self-imposed limits. He seemed to know instinctively how far he could push, and Jonathan suspected that both Benedek and Moorhouse had enjoyed the game. But this was different. Whatever Benny had done this time was not only past the limits, it was so far past them that Jonathan wondered if it could be mended. He could foresee himself walking a difficult tightrope between his friendship for Edgar Benedek and his loyalty to Georgetown Institute. He had done it before, but this time the tightrope stretched over far more perilous waters.
He said carefully, "Dr. Moorhouse. How nice. Come in."
"Don't play the innocent with me, MacKensie. I don't think you'll want to after you see what this shoddy paper"— the word was an epithet— "has done." She controlled her anger with a visible effort. "I'm sorry, Jonathan. Of course it's not true, and the Institute will back you if you choose to take court action."
Jonathan began to worry in earnest. This didn't sound like one of Benedek's high-handed claims to be affiliated with the Institute after all. It sounded much worse. "What has he done this time?" he asked patiently.
Dr. Moorhouse appeared to be struggling to be fair. "He may have had nothing to do with it, MacKensie."
It must be bad. Dr. Moorhouse was actually trying to spare his feelings. Whatever Benny had done must be a lulu. "Let me see it," he said, wondering how he would get Benedek out of this one.
Dr. Moorhouse opened the offending journal and passed it over. Jonathan stared in dismay, rage, and horror at the headline. "What! This is outrageous!" He read the article closely. A girl he had never heard of before, a Teri McAllister, was claiming to be his father's bastard child. His father! He wouldn't tolerate this. There was his father's photograph for the world to laugh at, to speculate about. His father, the man he had worshiped, tried to emulate, struggled to impress for most of his life. Now some dishonest woman claimed that Leonard MacKensie had been her father as well. He wouldn't permit it. It wasn't true. Good God, the woman must be around 30. His mother had still been alive back then. It was impossible.
"We know it's not true, Jonathan. Remember, I've known your father a long time. Whoever wrote this knows something of his background, but I remember your parents in those years. I know it's impossible to prove that he couldn't have fathered a love child, but I do know how much he and your mother loved each other, and also how hard he was working then. I believe this is not only untrue but impossible as well."
"I didn't doubt him," Jonathan insisted. He had been a child then, too young to have understood, but he never remembered tension between his parents. His mother had died when he was a very young child, but his father had always been there for him, even when his work distracted him for long hours. He would set it aside to read to his motherless son, to play with Jonathan's electric trains, to listen whenever Jonathan had a problem or wanted to talk. He had never shirked one responsibility in his entire life of which Jonathan was aware. If this girl's story were true, Jonathan knew that Leonard MacKensie would have made provision for her, even on a professor's salary. Interesting that the girl's mother had not been named. Probably even this repulsive paper knew enough to avoid libel suits. The girl had to be implicated in the whole thing.
And Edgar Benedek. Jonathan realized that as much as the tacky little story had outraged him, it had also hurt to think that Benedek would let something like this into print. Benny knew how much Jonathan's father had meant to him and even though he had pulled that idiotic ghost stunt back in Fartham, he'd been a virtual stranger then and not that likely to be concerned for Jonathan's feelings. After all they'd been through together since, this was simply not fair. Friends didn't do things like this to each other.
Dr. Moorhouse patted his shoulder. "Benedek may not have known about this, MacKensie."
"Not known? I know his boss; he knows who I am. He would have run this past Benedek for comment. Benedek could have stopped it."
"You don't know that. Besides, he's not like you, Jonathan. I'm sure he considers you his friend, but he isn't a very sensitive man. He's as thick skinned as a rhinoceros. I don't think he would have let this go if he believed you would mind."
"Why are you defending him, Dr. Moorhouse?" Jonathan shoved the paper aside and looked up at her in surprise.
"I'm not," she denied. "I'm just trying to make you see that you can't expect the same standards from him that you could from one of your colleagues here."
She didn't want him hurt, Jonathan realized, knowing full well that he was. He and Benedek had been through a lot together. Benedek had stood by him in times of trouble and he had gone out on a limb for Benedek more than once. Had he blindly ignored Benedek's true nature in light of his growing affection for the man? Benedek may have been infuriating, but he had been witty and funny and never dull, and Jonathan had quickly come to like him. It was part of his nature to care wholeheartedly for his friends, but he expected loyalty in return. Even though Benedek had frequently driven him crazy, he'd never let him down, either. Until now.
"I'm going up there," he said. "I'll have this story dealt with in person. I'll insist the Register print a retraction." Jonathan was determined to restore his father's good name. After that, he needn't have anything to do with the National Register— or anyone connected with it— ever again.
Max Keller opened the door and peered into pandemonium. The office of the National Register was filled with what seemed like a vast crowd of people that included two men on stilts, someone standing on his head and chanting in a corner, a girl whizzing about on roller skates distributing papers to the various desks, a Dolly Parton clone, three nuns, six women with guitars and, at various desks and phones, ignoring the crowd, the people who worked here. At a desk near the door, a rotund man in a scarlet caftan was engaged in shaving his head with a disposable razor, a lengthy process since his hair was shoulder length. He looked at Max and the Master as if they were the strange ones and went back to his shaving. Max eyed the Master uneasily. "This is weird."
McAllister seemed unmoved by the sight. He made for the reception desk with Max trailing him quickly. The receptionist looked at them with interest as if trying to determine if they were newsworthy. "What can I do for you?" she asked.
"I want to see the person in charge." McAllister 's voice was steady and compelling, and the girl jumped up at once.
"Come on. Mr. Kerner just got back and he's very busy, but he can give you a few minutes. Is it urgent?"
"It's very urgent." McAllister displayed the paper. "It's about an article in here."
"Are you going to sue us?" the girl asked.
"I'll discuss that with your boss."
Looking unconcerned, the girl guided them between desks to a door and knocked. "Mr. Kerner, two men to see you about a lawsuit," she announced cheerfully. "Go on in," she added to McAllister and Max.
Kerner was pudgy with dark curly hair and a rumpled shirt, tie askew. He was shouting at someone on the telephone. "What about this donkey? I'm a patient man, Mickey, but I've got my limits, and I'm nearing them fast."
The person on the other end was yelling back— Max could hear the crackle of his voice though he couldn't make out individual words. Kerner didn't seem to mind. He lowered his voice slightly. "Okay. But I want it gone by noon. Not one minute later."
He hung up and raised his head. "Lawsuits? I'm Jordan Kerner. Who are you?"
"John Peter McAllister, and this is Max Keller. We're here about this story." He held it up for inspection.
Kerner looked at it, looked again, and frowned. "Oh boy," he said. "That's bad."
"Yes, and it's completely untrue. The girl in question is my daughter and I can prove it if necessary."
"I think I'm in deep shit," Kerner moaned, but not as if McAllister had intimidated him. "I didn't okay this, McAllister. It's true that if I thought it would sell papers, I'd run a Page One story claiming to be the bastard son of Attila the Hun, but this— nobody cares about this Dr. MacKensie, and I know his son. He's a friend of one of my writers, and he'll be charging in here next yelling at me. I'm not sure where this came from. I've been on vacation. I hardly ever take them, and now I know why. This is going to cause trouble." He skimmed the story. "Damn it, it's not even interesting enough to justify the hassle. Stuff like this, you need a really big name, a former president, an Oscar winner, royalty. Nobody remembers who won the Nobel Prize, not as long ago as he did."
That was true, Max realized. He wasn't even sure who had won the previous year. The name Leonard MacKensie was vaguely familiar— maybe he remembered that the guy had won the Nobel, but he couldn't remember what he'd won it for— but if the girl in the picture hadn't been Teri, he wouldn't have bothered with the article.
"I'd like to know who wrote this," McAllister said. He didn't care what sold papers, he only cared about Teri. "Maybe he knows Teri. I've been trying to find her for two years and if this story helps he locate her, I'd be very grateful."
"Grateful enough not to sue?" Kerner asked. "Actually we budget for lawsuits, McAllister, but I still don't like the hassle of one. I'll find out what I can for you." He had to raise his voice because all the guitarists outside his office suddenly began to play, each one a different song.
McAllister winced at the cacophony. "When?" he asked. "I want to know who wrote this, where Teri is, and anything else you can tell me."
The office door burst open and a slightly built man with dark hair and a Michael Jackson jacket burst into the office as if pursued by dragons. "Are you crazy?" he yelled, waving a copy of the paper under Kerner's nose. "I'll have to take the next plane to Timbuktu. It's a lousy story too."
Max stared. The newcomer was pointing to the story about Teri. Quickly he reached out and plucked the paper away. "Did you write this?" he demanded.
"No." He grabbed it back. "Who are you?"
Max pointed to Teri's picture. "This is Teri McAllister. And this is her father, John Peter McAllister. I'm Max Keller. We're here to find Teri."
"You're Teri McAllister's father?" He stared at the Master. "Great. You're just in time to save my bacon." He turned back to Kerner. "How'd this get by you?"
"Look, Benny, I'd run a story on your friend MacKensie if I had to, but I didn't run this one. I've been in Paris with Boom Boom, and I just got back this morning. If you're going to blame someone, blame the Amazon."
Benny shook his head. "That won't cut it with Dr. J. Check it out. We've just insulted his old man, St. Leonard of hallowed memory. He'll be up here breathing fire any minute. You know how he gets."
"Yeah, tell me about it. I remember when he had me digging up your grave. This time he'll want to bury us."
Max wondered about the grave digging, but it was hardly the time to ask. "You two can worry about other people later," he cut in. "Right now let's hear about Teri. The Master's been looking for her for two years. This isn't exactly the way he hoped to find her."
"Master?" Benny stared at him, temporarily distracted, his reporter's nose for news quivering. "Master of what?"
"Just a nickname," said Max quickly. If he weren't careful, the next issue of the National Register would be full of Ninjas. Okasa would love it. It had been three months since the dark ninja had been on their trail and Max preferred to keep it that way.
Benny would have pursued it further, but at the last minute, he changed his mind. "You'll have to ask the Amazon about the story," he finally said.
"Who's the Amazon?" asked the Master.
"Assistant editor," Benny explained. "One tough lady. I wouldn't want to cross her, and I'd cross anybody."
"I'll risk it," said McAllister with a smile.
"Brave man," Kerner muttered. "Get her, Benny."
"Why me? I'm attached to living." He shrugged. "Okay. Just remember I died in a good cause." He left quickly, his eyes twinkling. Max decided Benny was more complex than he looked.
In a few minutes, Benny returned with the Amazon. Max had expected a Sherman Tank of a woman, the kind who used to rap kids' knuckles with rulers in the 4th grade. The Amazon wasn't quite like that. For one thing, she was shorter than Max, and for another, she was gorgeous, with a great shape and wide blue eyes. When she turned them on Max, he found himself wishing he were invisible. She had a penetrating gaze that could probably melt a wall of solid steel. When she looked at McAllister, she smiled reluctantly. Benny stared at her in astonishment as she offered the Master her hand. "I'm Andy McNair," she said. "Benny says the article we printed about your daughter is untrue. It's unfortunate when such things happen." Apparently she was gifted with a considerable talent for understatement.
"It's more important to me to locate my daughter," McAllister countered. "I want to know who wrote the article and where he got his information." Benny and Kerner exchanged a glance, but when Andy McNair said, "Of course," their expressions mirrored astonishment. Max almost laughed. He had heard so many people say that there was 'something about that old man' that he was used to it, but he never stopped enjoying new people's reactions.
"I've run a quick check," Andy said. "I put the story well into the paper. It wasn't all that interesting, but the girl was pretty; she looks like a model. Besides, people who win things usually have some interest. Mr. Kerner will tell you the article conforms to our policy. But in this case, when it is shown to be untrue, I question the source." She turned to her boss. "Joe Addison did the story. He sent two, and the other was a haunted house thing and not very convincing."
"What haunted house thing?" Benny demanded, perking up. "That sounds like it'd be right up my alley."
"You should have written it, Benny." She patted his cheek as if he were a pushy child and she were hovering on the edge of disciplining him. "At least you make them interesting. But you were in Nebraska with your little old lady and her aliens."
"Edgar Benedek," the Master said as he made the connection between Benny and the front page story. "That was you? I read your article."
"In the flesh. Did you like my story?" Benny asked promptly. "Whoa! She was weird. She said the aliens were coming and she would help them take over the earth. Just like It Conquered the World. Ever see that movie?"
"It sounds familiar," the Master said wryly.
"I presume we're not seriously under the threat of alien attack," the Amazon said briskly. "Fish for compliments on your own time, Benedek. Now, Mr. McAllister, about your daughter. Addison found the haunted house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the story about your daughter came from there too. He's in Tulsa now, but I can get a message to him and learn where he met Teri. I should know in an hour. Where can I contact you?"
"We'll come back here. If Teri's in Iowa, we can call her there."
"You can do that from here," Kerner offered; probably still trying to avoid a lawsuit, thought Max.
The door flew open a second time and a man charged in. He was obviously in a towering rage and when he saw Benny, he advanced on him with evident murderous intent and grabbed him around the throat. "I could kill you, Benedek," he announced unnecessarily.
McAllister didn't wait to be asked. He broke the man's hold as easily as removing a toy from an infant. "Calmly," he encouraged. "Before you attempt homicide, let's talk."
Jonathan MacKensie stared in astonishment at the man who had pried him away from Benedek. He could have used someone like than when Kilkowski was choking him. But he wouldn't let himself be deterred by a show of superior strength. Maybe Benedek's friends could save his life, but they couldn't stop him from having his say.
"I trusted you, Benedek," he accused. He waved a copy of the National Register in Benedek's face, pausing only momentarily when he noticed two more copies open at the same page on Kerner's desk. "How could you do something like this to me?"
"Relaxovision, buds. I didn't," Benedek denied hastily. "I just found out about it myself."
"You work for this paper. You print the most appalling rubbish I've ever seen. I accept that. I've never even complained about the things you've written about me. But this is different. It's my father, Benedek. You knew how I'd take this. Why did you let them print it?"
"I didn't," Benny replied, his voice stiffening. "Ask anybody. They'll tell you. I wasn't even here." He gestured at the two men MacKensie didn't recognize. "These two don't work here. Ask them. They don't have to cover for me. They'll be objective. Check it out before you throttle me, okay? I wouldn't pull something like this on you. You should know that."
"Wouldn't you? When you've shamelessly passed yourself off as a representative of the Institute? When you've lied and tricked people for stories and rigged that computer to make my father's ghost appear? You can't expect me to believe that you didn't know about this story."
Benedek's face had stiffened as Jonathan ranted at him, and now he said coldly, "Nice of you to trust me, Jonathan. Yes, I like a good story, and I've twisted a lot of them around to make them better. That's my job and I'm good at it. Sure I played that computer trick in Fartham. I'd only known you a day or so then. What did I owe you? Have I pulled anything like that since, Jack? I just got back in town this morning. I've been gone two weeks. I didn't even call Moorhouse to get you to come with me because you wanted to go to that seminar in Atlanta. She would have made you come with me to meet the aliens' contact person. But I didn't ask. Now I come back and find everything messed up, and you don't even bother to ask for an explanation? I thought friends trusted—" He broke off abruptly, his face tightening. "Okay. Big deal. We already disproved the story. This is John McAllister. He's the girl's real father. McAllister, this is Dr. Jonathan MacKensie, your daughter's half brother. Have a nice chat. I've got work to do." He brushed past Max and the Amazon as if they weren't even there and the door banged behind him.
Jonathan stared at the closed door, still angry but dismayed, too. It was true. He had judged Benedek without waiting for an explanation. His knowledge of Benny's journalistic tactics made him a likely co-conspirator if not the actual guilty party, and it had not occurred to him that Benny would have no knowledge of the story. He realized that Benny's uncharacteristic outburst must have been prompted by hurt. Benny had expected Jonathan to trust him and Jonathan had let him down in much the same way he believed Benny had let him down. Damn it. He had only made matters worse. He'd gotten in way over his head.
He had done it publicly, too. McAllister, Kerner, another man and a beautiful woman were all watching him with varying degrees of interest and hostility. Jonathan turned to Kerner. "What about this story?" he demanded, attacking because it was the only way to retain some control of the situation. "Defaming my father's reputation."
"It was my decision to run the story," the woman admitted. "It's already been disproved by Mr. McAllister. We shall, of course, print a retraction. I'm sorry. I should imagine that people who value Dr. MacKensie as a Nobel Prize winner are seldom the sort to read the Register. I believe a lawsuit would draw unwelcome publicity to your father and I'm sure you would prefer to avoid that. If he was anything like you, I'm sure Teri McAllister's mother was a lucky woman to have avoided him. I find Edgar Benedek a very annoying and irritating man, but I have always admired his loyalty to his friends. Generally it has been reciprocated. You should have trusted him, Dr. MacKensie. You may have lost something valuable."
"Do you think I wanted to believe that Benedek had anything to do with this— this—" He waved his hand at the offending article.
"It's a pity you couldn't manage to trust him." She gave him an icy stare. "Edgar Benedek has a wide collection of colorful and eccentric friends. They love him. I saw you at his funeral and thought you did too. I shall have to revise my opinion and question my judgment. Excuse me." She turned and stalked out of the room, leaving behind her a thunderous silence.
It was the unintroduced young man who broke it. "His funeral?" he echoed in astonishment and amazing tact. "I wondered what you meant when you were talking about digging up his grave."
Kerner fell into a hasty explanation with relief. "He played dead once for a story. Wonderful story. Benny's my best reporter. A great guy." He cast a jaundiced eye at Jonathan. "Most people think so anyway."
McAllister turned to Jonathan. "Dr. MacKensie, Max and I have to wait to learn where the reporter who did that article saw Teri. We're going out for coffee now. Come with us."
It was not so much a request as a command, and Jonathan heard himself agree to it. There was nothing he could do here until he pulled himself together. He had arrived feeling wronged and had wound up doing Benny a grave injustice. It had been natural to think that Benny, while not the author of the article, at least knew of its existence. Now he realized that Benny would have kept it from publication. Benny valued his friends, enjoying them and their unique qualities. From the way they rallied whenever Benny asked them for help, he was deserving of their loyalty. Upset by the article, Jonathan hadn't stopped to consider that. He had thought he had come to terms with his father's memory, with his own attitude to his father, but now he realized he hadn't quite. In the process, he might have lost something too important to risk.
They didn't see Benedek on the way out which McAllister thought a pity. Those two were apparently good friends or they wouldn't have been so upset and, left too long, this could have unfortunate consequences. He held his peace until they were seated in a nearby coffee shop and had ordered coffee and rolls. Max was obviously bursting to speak, but McAllister shot him a repressive look and shook his head.
"Do you think we've got a chance to find Teri?" Max finally asked, and only McAllister knew it wasn't what he'd originally intended to say.
"We might. Then we can be grateful to all of this. Her mother will be furious."
"I can see why." Max glanced at MacKensie and McAllister turned to find him automatically spooning sugar into his coffee. After seven spoonfuls, McAllister reached out and stayed his hand. MacKensie looked surprised then, realizing what he'd done, he shoved the cup away.
"I met your father once," McAllister told him. "It was shortly after the war. I was doing some work at the Pentagon and he was at the Georgetown Institute. We had a mutual friend, Brian Elkwood."
"Uncle Brian?" Jonathan stared, startled out of his dark mood. "You're in intelligence work then?"
"Not for a very long time," admitted the Master. "Not since the Korean War. I've been living in Japan until I returned to this country two years ago to look for my daughter. I hadn't known about her before. Her mother and I separated before Laura knew Teri was on the way."
"Then maybe the story could— could be true?" Jonathan asked reluctantly.
"No. I might not think highly of Laura for keeping the news to herself, but I've never known her to lie when I asked a direct question. Besides, we met during the Korean War and Teri was conceived in Japan. Where was your father then?"
"In Georgetown part of the time and the rest in London. He sometimes spent time there while my mother was still alive. He was never in Japan."
"Shows the story's fake," Max put in. "Even worse, we can prove it. Why even bother with it?"
"It depends," McAllister said thoughtfully. "I suspect the man who wrote it knew Teri. She was a model a year or so ago and that picture is from her portfolio. Anyone with a connection to the fashion game could have got the picture without knowing her. Her mother is a reputable journalist. It's possible that the story was intended against her."
"She's not even mentioned," Jonathan argued. He picked up his coffee cup automatically, sipped it, then set it aside with a grimace of distaste. "It's my father's reputation that will suffer."
"Few people who matter will put any credence in it," McAllister soothed. "There'll be a retraction. People will forget it, if they remember at all, when something more sensational comes along."
"Maybe," conceded Jonathan. "But to see my father's name in something like this— "
"Didn't you get along with your dad?" asked Max.
"Yes, I got on with him," Jonathan replied impatiently, then he looked at McAllister. "I don't know. We did get along, but his expectations were high. I grew up believing I couldn't be good enough to satisfy him." He looked surprised at the confession.
"That's natural, especially since he had the Nobel Prize," McAllister said. "Fathers don't always realize the pressure they put on their sons, sometimes without intending anything of the sort. My own father never forgave me for staying in Japan after the Korean War." He saw Max staring at him in openmouthed curiosity.
"I thought you had no family," said Max.
"I did once." McAllister's eyes twinkled. "Did you think I sprang into being fully grown in a Ninja suit?"
"Well no, but you said you had nothing to come back to."
"I didn't. My father wanted me to go into the family business. I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in a dry goods store. He never forgave me for that. Later, when I had come to terms with myself and might have been able to make peace with him, it was too late. He died in 1959."
"I'm sorry," said Max. "I guess that's why you were so anxious for me to make peace with my dad."
"One of the reasons. But I do know my father never stopped loving me— like yours, Max." He turned to Jonathan. "In spite of your doubts, if you were to talk to some of your father's colleagues, I suspect they'd tell you how often he praised you."
Jonathan's face softened. "Yes," he agreed. "Even Dr. Moorhouse has said as much. I just didn't always believe it."
"We all know the feeling," McAllister said. He found he liked Jonathan MacKensie. The man had been in an intolerable situation and it was unfortunate he couldn't have coped better, but his reactions had been based on other people, concern for his father's reputation, the fear that his friend had let him down. It was too bad he'd managed to let his friend down in the process, but the situation was salvageable. Maybe he and Max could help.
Jonathan smiled in agreement then asked, "What was that about a Ninja?"
"What do you know of the Ninja?" McAllister asked. In spite of Okasa's fears that McAllister would reveal their Ninja secrets to outsiders, the Master had never done so.
"Nothing really," Jonathan replied. "Don't let Benedek find out about it though. He'll want to do an expose."
"That's the last thing we need," Max muttered.
"Don't worry about him hearing it from me," Jonathan said bitterly.
"The two of you need to talk to each other," McAllister pointed out. "Max and I are going back to the office to see if Miss McNair has learned anything about Teri. If you like, I'll speak to him for you."
Jonathan only hesitated a moment. "No. The only reason Benedek and I met was because of the Unexplained Phenomenon Department at Georgetown Institute. I met him on a case and we've worked together since then."
"And you've both enjoyed it," guessed McAllister. "It would be a pity to break up the team because of one phony story."
"I was sure he knew about the story."
"Were you? Or were you so angry that you were prepared to take it out on anybody who got in your way?"
"That's not fair."
"Accusing Benny without listening to his side isn't fair either. You owe him an apology."
Jonathan heaved a sigh. "I spend half my time wanting to kill him. The man is a lunatic. He knows the most bizarre people you could possibly imagine. He's always getting me into trouble." He sounded like he was trying to convince himself of his argument.
"He sounds a little like Max," McAllister said fondly, intercepting Max's glare with a warning glance for silence. Max bit his lip and held his tongue with a visible effort. "But think of this, Jonathan," McAllister went on. "How dull would life be without Benny?"
"I think it'll be dull no matter what I do. I hadn't expected him to get so mad."
"Why not? Don't you think he cares for your opinion of him?"
"I never really knew what he thought of me," Jonathan complained. "No, that's not true. He doesn't wear his feelings on his sleeve. If he has something serious to say, he says it so annoyingly or unconvincingly that you doubt he means any of It. When he starts to get serious, he catches himself and says something outrageous instead. But sometimes I've suspected he's had a harder life than he'd ever let anybody guess. Maybe he has to cover up. I know there's more to him than he lets people see, but I don't understand him."
"Do you like him?"
"Oh yes," Jonathan agreed readily. No hesitation there. "That's why I was so furious."
"It works both ways," said the Master. "That's why he was so angry at you. You'll have to apologize, and it should be soon. The longer you wait, the harder it will get."
"I know. All right, McAllister. I'll come back and apologize to him. But I'm not sure I was wrong to suspect him. It isn't impossible that he could have been involved."
"In something he knew would hurt you?"
"You're right," Jonathan conceded, his shoulders sagging. "Let's go. I want to get it said as soon as possible."
"Good," said McAllister, as pleased as he would have been if Max had learned a difficult lesson.
Max grinned. "Hey, Jonathan. Are you going to eat your danish?"
The crowd in the office had not diminished although it had altered. The nuns were gone and so was the Dolly Parton look-alike, but now there were several performing dogs who were jumping through hoops from desk to desk. Edgar Benedek was nowhere in sight, but the Amazon was and she ushered them into her office, sparing a dark look for Jonathan MacKensie. Max grinned at her hopefully, but she looked right through him, turning her charm on the Master, who smiled back at her before cocking an amused eyebrow at Max.
"Have you discovered anything about Teri, Miss McNair?" he asked her.
"Some. Addison did meet her. She's the one who talked to him about the haunted house."
"What haunted house?" Max asked.
"Addison was in Iowa to investigate the haunted house story. It had either been played down locally or else local interest had burned out. We're not talking about another Amityville. Teri works for the owner of the house, a Walter Picek. Addison tried to get permission to see the house but Teri wouldn't play. I suspect Addison wrote the story out of pique. I don't care for Addison, never did. A slimy little man. He claims Teri told him she was Dr. MacKensie's daughter, but I don't believe him. I wish I'd talked to him before all this happened. Is it possible that Teri could have know your father, Dr. MacKensie?"
"It's not impossible. She might have even been one of his students, but I couldn't prove it."
"Did Addison tell you how to reach Teri?" McAllister asked.
"No, only that she worked for Picek. Here's his phone number and address." She passed him a piece of paper. "If you'd like to telephone, you may use my office for it."
"I appreciate the information." McAllister took the paper.
"I didn't get it. Benedek did. He's on his way out there now to check out the haunted house."
Jonathan's face fell, and Max felt sorry for him. He knew how it felt when he and the Master were at odds. Benedek had left in a hurry as if afraid of seeing Jonathan again. Max remembered how touchy he used to be— still was in some ways. He'd never been very good at showing his feelings. Maybe he used a different way of covering up than Benny did, but he recognized the symptoms.
"I'd better get back to Georgetown," Jonathan said unhappily, rising to his feet.
"If you wait till we reach Teri, we can give you a lift to the station," McAllister offered. Jonathan sat down again. Max wondered if Jonathan had already realized that McAllister could sometimes do the unexpected and was waiting in case the Master had a solution this time. Knowing the old fellow, he probably did.
The Master picked up the phone and Andy McNair left them to it. Jonathan started to follow, but Max gestured for him to stay. It would be easier than waiting in the three ring circus in full view of Benny's colleagues. "Mr. Picek please," McAllister said into the phone. "This is John Peter McAllister. I'm trying to reach my daughter Teri, and I— she is? You will?" He sounded excited, and Max, realizing he'd been holding his breath, let it out noisily. Maybe this time would be the charm.
"Fine," said McAllister. "Yes, that's fine. We'll be there as soon as possible. "Yes, that's fine. We're in New York now, and we'll be driving straight through. Tell her I'll be there as quickly as I can."
"She's there!" Max cried triumphantly when McAllister hung up.
"She's away right now, but she'll be back on Friday, and we can be there by then."
"Sooner," promised Max. "We'll drive all night. That's great news, old fella. I can hardly wait."
"Did he say anything about Benedek?" Jonathan asked.
"He said Benny phoned about the haunted house. He was reluctant to see him, but he told Benny that if he wanted to come all that way, he'd let him see it. They expect him tomorrow morning."
Jonathan hesitated. "Why don't you come with us," Max offered. He suspected the Master would worry about meeting Teri all the way to Iowa and Jonathan might provide a distraction. Besides, Max liked both Benny and Jonathan, and bringing them together seemed like a good idea.
The Master seconded the invitation. "You're welcome, Jonathan. The van's not that comfortable for three, but we'll fit you in. Besides, we're all involved in this mess. We can see it through together."
Edgar Benedek arrived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa that evening. He'd been in Iowa before, but not in this town, and he and took a cab to a Holiday Inn. He called Picek and arranged to see the haunted house the next morning. Then, bored, he went to the bar for a drink, but there were only a few salesmen and two young couples there. Benny engaged the barmaid in conversation, but she'd never heard of the haunted house. She did recognize him though from seeing him on the Merv Griffin Show, and he had a hard time getting away from her. He had to give her an autographed copy of one of his books to escape. Ordinarily, he would have enjoyed the attention, but his mind wasn't on it tonight.
The next morning he caught a cab downtown to meet Picek, his coat tightly buttoned against the chill of the Iowa weather, his nose wrinkling at the less than pleasant odor wafting from the Quaker Oats plant nearby. Picek had a downtown office, and a secretary showed Benny into his inner sanctum.
"Ah, Mr. Benedek. Good of you to make this long trip." Picek was a rotund and florid-faced man in an expensive suit who wore an air of impatience. The lingering odor of expensive cigars hovered about him. "I wish I could promise you an interesting apparition or two, but sometimes the house goes for years without a manifestation. Sit down and I'll tell you about it. That other reporter from your paper was worse than useless."
"Addison? I wouldn't trust him to report a wedding reception. He knows zip about the paranormal. Now if you want your house investigated by an expert, I'm your man."
"We'll see. Frankly, all I want is to sell the place. It sits out there eating money while I pay taxes on it. The market's better than it was, but why buy an abandoned house in the country with no attached farmland when you could have a modern place in town. It's not that far from the nuclear plant either."
"Great contrast. I could play that up. Spirits from the past and a nuclear power plant next door. This could be a good story after all. I didn't know the house wasn't in town."
"It's just a few miles out. I'll drive you out there myself. Though you should realize, Mr. Benedek, that if I were a vindictive man I'd have nothing to do with you or your paper."
"Why? What'd the National Register ever do to you?"
"I don't approve of the article you ran about Teri."
"Teri McAllister?" Benny asked, interested. "I want to talk to her. I just met her father."
"Her father! That bastard Addison wrote some story about her. It was a crock. You don't know Teri, but if I had a daughter I'd like to have one like her. if you'd defended Addison, you'd have been out of here fast. I'll have the car sent around and we'll go to the house. I'll leave you there and send the car back for you, if you don't object to being there alone. It's safe. No one has ever been injured there and I keep the place in good repair. But my schedule won't allow me to take the time to show you through the house."
"Fine. Just let me at it. If there are any ghosts, I'll find them."
The house looked promising. It was an old white farmhouse on top of a hill with a line of pine trees behind it. Once there had been a barn and other outbuildings, but most of them had been pulled down leaving only the foundations and one wall of the barn still standing. Snow lay in the shade of that wall and in drifts behind the pines, but it had melted elsewhere and refrozen into icy spots that made it difficult to walk up to the big front porch.
"Tell me who the ghosts are supposed to be?" Benny asked as they went up the steps. "Are there more than one of them?"
"Several. Have you heard of the Amana Colonies?"
"Amana? The freezer people?"
"Yes. The Colonies aren't far from here; they're like the Amish, and they settled in Iowa in the last century. Many of them move with the times now but there have always been those who cling to the old ways. The story goes that, around the turn of the century, a local boy fell in love with a girl from one of the villages. I've forgotten which one; there are seven. Her family forbade her to have anything to do with him, but she was young and foolish and he was very persuasive. They ran off together. It was a bad winter and they got caught in a blizzard and came here for shelter. Back then, the house belonged to my grandfather and he habitually moved into town for the winter months. The kids broke in here to get out of the cold, but it was bitter that night. They didn't know about wind chill in those days, but I've seen it as low as 80 below so it could have been that bad. A person out unprotected can die very quickly. We still get warnings around here when the temperature drops and the wind rises. The young couple broke into the house, but that's as far as they got. In the spring, my grandfather came back and found their bodies."
Benedek shivered. He didn't like the story; it was too bald and unsympathetic. He felt sorry for the poor kids. "When did the haunting begin?" he asked.
"Almost immediately. It started easy; folks'd hear a horse, but when they'd look, they'd find no one there. Then there'd be the sound of a window breaking, but the windows would all be intact. Voices too, complaining about the cold. Finally, my grandmother couldn't take it any more and the family moved to town permanently. Eventually we sold off the land to neighboring farmers, but in those days no one wanted the house. People went there with the real estate folks and they'd always back down. Seems like they could sense something." He sounded half skeptical, half amused, as if he didn't want to believe it.
He unlocked the door. "Lately we've been fixing the place up, so the heat is working. You can turn it up, just turn it down again when you leave. I'll send the car back this afternoon, but if you want to leave earlier call me. The phone works." He ushered Benedek into a long, plain hallway with no furniture but a table along one wall. A stairway led up to a landing opposite the door, and there were some old paintings on the walls, no lost masterpieces but the sort of thing that people leave behind because it is worthless and won't be missed: ugly still lifes, American primitives, and a very amateurish portrait of a fat man in side whiskers with a cold glare that not even the artist's lack of talent had been able to mask.
"Nice place," Benedek said facetiously.
"Take your time," Picek told him. "But I want to see what you write about the place before you print it." He turned toward the door. "My wife and I will give you dinner this evening, Mr. Benedek, if you have no other plans. She'll be interested to hear about Teri's father."
Benedek made a face as he left. Mention of Teri's father reminded him of Jonathan MacKensie and he'd been very determined not to think about Jonathan since he left New York, although it had required some amazing mental gymnastics. He had been furious when he stormed out of Jordy's office, but now he only felt tired and frustrated and sad. Maybe he'd never given Jack any reason to believe he wouldn't approve of such an article, and the truth was that if it had been anybody else's old man, he wouldn't have given a fig about it. But Jon-Jon was his friend and he didn't pull that kind of stunt on friends. He had no qualms about putting JJ himself in a story if it would sell papers— some of their exploits had sold a lot of them— but that was different. After Fartham and the Pence house he'd known how Jonathan felt about his father— Benny didn't quite understand Jon-boy's devotion. His own father would have laughed himself sick if the story had been about him. But Jack's pop was different. Benny couldn't remotely imagine his father winning the Nobel Prize or inspiring the sort of hero worship that Jonathan's father had. Benny supposed he loved his father but it wasn't something he talked about. He had a kind of pride in the old boy for being a colorful eccentric, but the thought of defending his father's honor would never have occurred to him.
It had occurred to Jonathan though and Jonathan was his buddy, a loyal friend who had risked his life for him more than once, who had stayed by his bedside in Hooperville after the auto accident, even if it had been his fault. He'd stuck with him at the Whitewoods, too, when he probably could have escaped on his own. Benny had quickly realized that Jonathan had stayed because he was worried about him. So what if Benny gave Jack a bad time and rode him unmercifully and used him whenever possible to check out another great story; he wouldn't hurt him, and this story had. Benny had been floored that Jonathan would believe it of him, and then he'd been hurt, and that surprised him. Even though Benny had a vast and colorful array of friends that he loved and would do anything for, he had developed a knack for keeping heavier emotions at bay. For some of his pals, it wasn't chic to care, for others, it went without saying. But Jonathan was different. He was a lot more comfortable with his emotions than Benny was, and very loyal to people he felt deserved it. Look at Dr. M. and the Institute. She'd pulled that rotten deal on him, withholding his grant while he worked on her Unexplained Phenomena, pulling him away from his real work time and again. Yet for all he complained, Jack continued to support her and the Institute. Look at his father too. Benny had never met Dr. Leonard, but he had a sneaky suspicion that the old boy kept pushing at Jonathan, driving him harder and harder until he got Jack royally screwed up. Talk about overcompensating. No wonder it was so hard for Jonny to loosen up and boogie. He was still halfway expecting the old Prof to peer over his shoulder and tell him, "You're not trying hard enough." The Nobel Laureate deserved an extracurricular roll in the hay. It would have done him good.
That was when Benny realized he wasn't mad any more. He wished Jack had trusted him, although he understood why he hadn't. Now Benedek wondered if he hadn't come rushing out here to a not particularly interesting haunted house so he wouldn't have to face Jonathan MacKensie. The first thing Jack would do when he calmed down would be to smother him in maudlin apologies and the old Benedek touch was lousy at that. He'd resort to smartass remarks and probably screw up all over again, though a few smart remarks might restore the status quo. Oh well, when he finished here, he'd go down to Georgetown and be as obnoxious as possible. With Edgar Benedek, that was a condition approaching a true art form.
In the meantime, there were the ghosts of those poor kids to find and maybe help to their rest. Benny looked around appraisingly. The house didn't feel haunted, just empty. Benny doubted it had ever been much of a home. It had that cold, empty feeling that places had where no one had ever been quite happy. Benny ought to know.
He put that thought firmly out of his mind and went into the first room on the left. Probably they'd called it the parlor, but it was just a bare room with a fireplace on the far wall and a few ladderback chairs scattered here and there. Benny wished, as he went in, that Picek had told him the kids' names, but he hadn't. "Hey, ghosts," Benny called softly. "You here?"
There was no reply. He listened and waited. Nothing. No sound of horses' hooves, no breaking glass. But the room was cold. Benny shivered and tucked his hands into his coat pockets. Had it been this cold all along? He didn't think so.
"Whoa!" he said. "Check it out. Mysterious cold. One of the first signs of the spirit presences." He moved around the room, but the cold was localized near the entrance. Probably a draft, Jonathan would have said. Jonathan, the skeptic. It made them a better team than if they had both been believers, and Jonathan was not immune to reason. Benny lit a match and watched to see if it would flicker, to detect a subtle draft, but the flame was steady. He shivered and went to adjust the thermostat.
The rest of the house was disappointing. Benedek walked through every room, attics and cellars too. The only thing of interest were some battered trunks in the attic, but they only held moth-eaten old clothes and mismatched pieces of china. Someone had been in the cellar, but it must have been the workmen. A few cigarette butts near the furnace need only mean that the workmen were too lazy to clean them up. But they made Benny suspicious. He knew if Jonathan were here, he would quickly assign the 'ghosts' a human cause, and would point out this sign of habitation as proof. Ordinarily, Benedek would have stuck to his guns and insisted on a paranormal explanation, but not today. Today he was his own devil's advocate because his regular one had let him down. He'd do this as thoroughly as if Jonathan were here. "Okay, Jack," he muttered. "A cigarette alone does not a spirit make. Where's the rest of your proof?"
He began to snoop more thoroughly, looking this time not only for spirits, but also for signs of illegal entrance and prowlers.
One of the basement windows looked like it had been pried open. There was a scrape mark, as if someone had forced a thin knife blade along the lock, and there were faint scratches on it. But the lock worked easily, and it was impossible to tell how fresh the markings were.
Moving some old crates behind the furnace, he found a rolled up sleeping bag. It looked new and the mice hadn't been at it like they had the overstuffed chair he'd found in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Lazy workmen? A bum living in the house?
The house was warm enough for him to shed his coat, but when he returned to the parlor, the one spot near the door was still cold. Without a shred of evidence, Benny decided it was the place where the fleeing lovers had died. A lingering remnant of that bitter winter night at the turn of the century when a boy and girl had sought shelter too late.
Benny did one more round of the house. He didn't find anything on the upper floors, but when he returned to the cellar, he halted, looking around suspiciously. Something was different.
It took him a minute to realize what it was. The cigarette butts were gone.
The cold Benny felt was nothing like what he'd felt upstairs. This was something more ominous than a couple of pathetic ghosts. Someone had watched his progress through the house and had moved the cigarette butts, thinking he hadn't been to the cellar yet. He tried to remember if he'd returned the sleeping bag to its original position, but he didn't risk looking in that particular corner. Instead he went upstairs hastily, trying to ignore the crawling sensation in the middle of his back. It felt like a target had been painted there waiting for a bullet or a knife to strike dead center. The cold place in the parlor didn't scare him nearly as much as this did.
It was too soon for Picek to have sent his car back, but he went to look anyway. No car. No suspicious tracks on the frozen driveway. There was no house in easy walking distance, and the highway was a county road, bare of traffic at the moment. He could walk, hoping to catch a ride, or he could call Picek, something he was reluctant to do. There was a story here and he didn't want to give it up. But if someone had been in the house with him, they had been good about going unnoticed. Clearing away the cigarette butts had been their only mistake.
Benny surveyed the surrounding farm fields, mostly brown landscape. In the far distance he could just make out what looked like the nuclear power plant. Whoa! Saboteurs! Another China Syndrome. Holding a nuclear power plant hostage would be a great story. It would sell a lot of papers. But Benny had not a shred of evidence, not even enough to invent a story from. He shelved the idea, for the time being.
He went inside again and sat on the hall steps, dictating a false story into his tape recorder about the young girl from the Amanas and her lover. Once or twice the uncomfortable prickles that might have come from being watched returned, but he ignored them determinedly. Maybe they'd go away. They did. Finally, Picek's car pulled into the drive and honked, and Benny went out with relief for the ride back to town.
"Scenic America," Max Keller muttered to himself as he looked out at the night. They were west of Dayton, Ohio, nearing the Indiana state line while the Master took a nap in the back of the van. Jonathan MacKensie sat beside Max, brooding. As they passed a lighted exit ramp, Max got a look at his face and grimaced. This was not the most pleasant of trips, though the Master was excited about Teri. It had to be rough on Jonathan though. Max remembered a time when he'd been at odds with the Master, when he had learned more than he wanted to about McAllister's Ninja activities. It's not easy to have one's preconceived notions knocked for a loop, and Max remembered vividly that time in Copper City when he had learned that the Master once had tried to kill another Ninja for leaving the sect. It had been a difficult time for both of them. Disillusioned by his idol, Max had got mixed up in a bit of trouble and McAllister had been hurt that Max had judged him for something that was no longer a part of him. They had worked their way through it, realizing that their friendship was more important than their unreal expectations. Now Max looked over at Jonathan MacKensie and found himself telling him about it.
Hampered by his lack of understanding of the ninja sect, Jonathan still got the point. "And you think that's what Benedek and I have done to each other?" he asked.
"The Master taught me that people are what they are and they can't be more than that," Max replied. "But he also showed me that nobody ever really believes just how much he can be. God, listen to me. I sound like some ancient sage. I don't know that much, Jonathan. But you wouldn't be here now if Benedek wasn't your friend. And he wouldn't be there if you weren't his."
"You make it sound easy," Jonathan said, more comfortable with this discussion in the darkness, as Max was himself.
"Don't kid yourself, it isn't," Max returned. "He"— with a gesture at McAllister, in the back— "makes most things look easy. When I first met him I thought he could walk on water." He chuckled. "I guess I still do, but he's human enough to get his feet wet." He thought he heard a faint snort of laughter behind him, but he ignored it. Of course the Master would be listening to every word!
"How did you meet him?" asked Jonathan.
"In a bar, in a place called Ellerston, when he was first looking for Teri. He found trouble instead and I volunteered to help him out of it. Little did I know. It's funny. He knows everything. He's in control, knows how to discipline himself. But he can't resist helping somebody in trouble. He's as bad at that as I am. The best compliment I ever got was that I was like him. I hope I really can be someday."
"I hope I'm never like Benedek." Jonathan laughed softly. "But that doesn't mean I don't want to go hunting for ghosts and little bug-eyed monsters and things that go bump in the night with him anymore. I've believed all along that I can't wait to get back to my own work, but if he never came around to drag me off to a haunting or to chase vampires or werewolves, I'd miss it— a lot."
"Sounds like fun. He's something else. I don't suppose he ever got tossed through a bar window?"
"I don't know. It does sound like his style."
Max was satisfied. "That's what I thought. Want to drive for a while? We can let him sleep till morning. We should be there in another dozen hours."
"I'll drive. Pull over at the next exit."
Max peered ahead into the night. "I just hope Teri's there when we get there. I don't want him disappointed."
"I hope so too." In an attempt at lightness, he added, "It isn't everyday I meet my sister."
Max gave a snort of laughter. "When Benny first showed up, he was furious about that article. He gave Kerner hell for it. He was worried about how you'd react, and he knew you'd be mad too. So I think he'll get over it."
"He'd better," Jonathan said. "Dr. Moorhouse won't let me off the hook with this paranormal nonsense, and it makes a big difference having Benedek help me. I wouldn't want to do it without him." Max had the idea that was only part of it; friendship didn't come by design, after all. Who'd have thought Max himself would wind up paired with a Ninja?
"He's good at it?"
"He loves every minute of it. He's like a child in a toyshop. Don't ever tell him I said this, but he makes it fun for me too. If I had to do it on my own, I'd probably tell Dr. Moorhouse to forget the whole thing, and I'd be nowhere with my grant. I'm doing research on Australopithecus."
Max stared. "What's that?" He grinned. "Primitive man or pre-man or something, right? You've got me beat on this anthropology. My dad's a lawyer."
"Did he hope you'd go into law?"
"He wanted Jimmy to," Max heard himself say with surprise. "My older brother. When Jimmy died, I thought about it for a while. The funny thing is I'd probably be a good lawyer. I've got the mouth for it. But I'm not ready. I might never be. I think my dad would be thrilled if I got into it though."
"Did you ever feel guilty about it?"
Max glanced over at Jonathan, only a dim outline in the dark. "Sometimes," he admitted. "But the Master is right about that too. I'm not my dad, I'm me. I'll settle down someday and I might even go to law school, but it can't be because it's what Dad wants. I have to do it because it's what's right for me. Did your dad want you to follow his footsteps?"
"I did, in a way. I'm a professor at the Georgetown Institute. I'm successful and I work hard. It took me a long time to believe that was enough though. A part of me still thinks I need to win my own Nobel to win his final approval, even though I know that isn't really true."
Max grinned to himself. "I don't think my dad will ever believe being a ninja is enough." He laughed. "For now, it's right. The Master has taught me a lot more than how to fight. If I ever become a lawyer, I'll be a better one for this." He pulled off at the exit and they changed positions. "Just stay on 70 until we get to Indianapolis."
"Right." Jonathan returned to the interstate. There was very little traffic. "We'll stop there for breakfast."
"And we'll be in Cedar Rapids by tonight."
It was bitterly cold and the snow whirled around, obscuring vision, creating a white curtain of nothingness. The girl shook with the cold and clung to the boy, her arms around his waist as they rode through the endless night. "David," she whimpered, terrified, desperate for the sound of a human voice.
"Hang on, Rebecca." The wind whipped his words away and she could barely hear them. "Almost there...old Anderson place...shelter."
"David...I am frightened."
"Just a few minutes more, Rebecca. Don't let go. I'll be sure you 're safe...light afire...get warm..."
"David...I don't want to die."
The horse plodded wearily. She wondered what would happen if it fell. There would be no energy to remount, no strength to walk. The cold pulled the strength from her body as if sucking her lifeblood away. She knew she would soon be dead. "David, I love you."
"The house!" His voice was too tired to be jubilant, but it was threaded through with hope. "We'll make it, Rebecca."
She saw the dark shape looming ahead of her and wondered if she could ever walk the few steps to get inside.
David helped her to dismount and together they struggled up tile steps to the big white house. It hurt to breathe, and her hands and feet had been without feeling for so long she was afraid they were useless. She tried to catch David's arm, but she could not grip. She fell, only dimly aware of him plodding back to pick her up— where had he found the strength? She sagged against his chest. Sensation faded and the tinkle of breaking glass roused her only a little. "David...breaking in..."
"Do you want to die?" he demanded hoarsely. "I'll start a fire." It was bitterly cold inside the house, but the wind no longer swirled around them, providing them with an illusion of safety. She realized she was crying weakly, and when David carried her into a room with white-shrouded furniture, she tried to blink the tears away. But she was so tired. There was no strength left in her and all she wanted was to sleep, a seductive lure. Too cold. Sleep meant death. But David eased her to the floor and put his arms around her. "...warm you, Rebecca..."
"No, "her voice was all but inaudible. "Too cold, David..."
"We're together. We're safe. We 're free. I won't let you die. I won't! You're mine now and we're free. We have a whole life ahead of us and nothing can take that from us. Nothing." His voice shook with the cold and the intensity of his vow. "We're together always. Do you believe me, Rebecca?"
"I believe everything you've ...ever said to me." She hid her face in his chest. Sleep. If only she could sleep, she would be warm. Warm and free and safe with David. Warm and safe. Forever...
"No!" Edgar Benedek sat bolt upright in bed, shaking with cold and the intensity of the dream. He dragged the covers over him and burrowed down into them. The dream had been so real. Picek had never told him the names of the doomed lovers, so where had they come from? He looked at the luminous dial of his watch. Four A.M. Too early to call Picek and ask. But it was only a dream.
Or was it? Were David and Rebecca doomed to repeat their futile escape because David had vowed they would always be together? They had died there, too cold to think clearly, too spent to take the basic precaution of building a fire. Maybe he had been thinking about it and caused the dream. Or maybe David and Rebecca had found a way to communicate with him. The place where they had died in his dream was the cold spot in the parlor. It was real.
Jonathan would say it was only a dream.
Benedek wasn't so sure. If the lovers' names were really David and Rebecca, then he would have the proof he needed. He could verify it.
Gradually he warmed up, thinking furiously. If the spirits of David and Rebecca had communicated with him, he had a responsibility to help them find rest. Maybe he needed an exorcist, or maybe he should try to reach them back at the house. He'd have to go back as soon as he could arrange it. In the meantime, there were libraries and back issues of the newspaper that might help him. He lay down again, but it took a long time to fall asleep.
"Names?" Picek said over the telephone. "I don't remember mentioning them. Let me see. I've got it written down someplace I think. Why do you need to know?"
"It's always helpful to know the spirits' names when confronting them," Benedek said sententiously.
It was plain from Picek's voice that he thought he was harboring a lunatic. "0h, all right. Hang on. I'll check." He was gone from the phone for almost ten minutes while Benny got an earful of elevator music, then he returned. "Mr. Benedek? My secretary located the information. The boy was David Miller and the girl was Rebecca Steiner."
"Bingo," cried Benny triumphantly. "Thanks, pal. Just what I hoped you'd say. Dr. J will have to believe me on this one."
Picek's tone chilled. "I beg your pardon."
"Oh, sorry, sir." He formalized his voice, unwilling to alienate Picek. "I wonder if it would be possible to make one more visit to the house. I'll provide my own transportation this time."
"Very well, but this is the final time. I'll leave the key with my secretary and you can pick it up at your convenience, but I want it back by this evening. Is that understood?"
"You got it. I don't plan to be there after dark."
"Are you afraid of the 'ghosts'?" Picek asked sarcastically.
"Edgar Benedek afraid of ghosts?" Benny demanded indignantly. "Not this kid." He didn't add that it was the other potential inhabitants of the big white house on the hill who disturbed him.
He spent the morning doing research, verifying Picek's story about the young lovers at the library, and he looked up the Duane Arnold nuclear power plant. While the speculation that someone had been hiding in the house preparatory to sabotaging the plant was a little farfetched, even for him, Benny didn't want to pass up any possibilities.
He rented a car and bought some supplies, then he dropped by Picek's office and fetched the key. The house was deserted when he arrived, at least he hoped it was. He'd noticed traces of car tracks on his last visit and it didn't look like anyone had been here since yesterday. The weather was warmer today, in the 40s, and any car pulling in couldn't have avoided leaving tracks in the thawing mud of the drive.
Once inside, he adjusted the thermostat again then checked through the house. The cigarette butts might have been left by a tramp, but Benny didn't care who'd been here so long as he didn't come back. He locked the front door when he came in, so no one should be able to sneak up on him.
He took out candles from his packages and set them around the space where he'd felt the cold, lighting them one by one, then he sat in the middle of the cold spot. Closing his eyes, he concentrated about David and Rebecca and the bitter winter night.
"David? Rebecca? Can you hear me?"
"I hear you."
The voice wasn't quite what Benny expected. There was nothing spectral about it. He jumped and spun around to find a swarthy man with a three days growth of beard standing in the doorway, a .38 caliber pistol in his hand. "What've we got here?" he asked scornfully. "A séance? Aw, that's real cute. Wait till my brother gets here and you can do your little parlor tricks for both of us."
"Listen, pal," Benny said earnestly. "You've got no right in this house."
"We're here and this gives me the right." He gestured with the gun. "What the hell are you doing here? We thought the construction crew was done, but now we've got some weird medium. Great. You're causing me a lot of trouble, buddy. But," he added ominously, "not as much as we'll cause you." He shot a quick glance over his shoulder. "Hey, Jerry, we've got company again. Get down here."
Benny considered trying to take this one before the other one arrived, but even though he knew a little about hand to hand combat, he knew better than to try to jump an armed assailant, especially one like this guy who looked like he had a hair trigger temper. He wasn't ready to die. If he was careful, he might be able to talk his way out of the problem.
The second man arrived then, accompanied by a boy about fourteen or fifteen. The kid stared into the room, eyes on the candles, and the first man said, "Aw, take him out of here, Jerry. This is dumb."
"You gonna kill him?" the boy asked with force nonchalance, his eyes enormous.
"You've got it," said Benny to the boy, who might prove an ally. "They're going to kill me."
"Why? We'll be gone this afternoon. It doesn't matter if he's seen us, does it, Uncle Mike?"
"Shut up, kid. Look, Jer, I said you could be in on this, but I'm not getting in trouble over it. Get the kid outta here now. Then bring some rope so we can tie up our guest here." He shot a scornful look at Benny and another at the boy.
"Leave my kid alone," Jerry said to Mike, dropping a gentle hand on the boy's shoulders and steering him from the room. He was back with rope almost immediately and he bound Benedek securely while Mike covered him. Jerry tied his hands behind his back, a rope stretching down to his feet so they were drawn up behind him. It was not one of your more comfortable positions, thought Benny, and a few surreptitious tests proved that the knots were very well tied and that it would take hours to work them loose, assuming he could do it at all. Time to remember his Houdini rope tricks. But it was tough to think with the gun leveled at him. Cautiously, he wiggled his fingers.
Blast it, Jack, he thought. Where are you when I really need you? I need your help, buds.
"Now what?" asked Jerry.
"What do you think? Leave him."
"What about the candles?"
"Leave them too. He can call his spirits whether he's tied up or not. If we're lucky they'll burn down the place. We'll be out of here as soon as Shanna comes with the car."
Benny had a bad feeling about the way names were being flung around in his presence. He didn't understand the boy being here, but Jerry and Mike were obviously brothers and the boy was Jerry's son. Mike had reluctantly let his brother become involved in some crime and the brother had brought the boy. Benny tried to remember the newspaper headlines he'd seen that morning in the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Was there something about a bank robbery? He couldn't remember.
It was mid-afternoon. Would Picek come storming out here to get his key or would he try to call Benedek's motel room first? Picek was hardly the ally he'd choose. He looked like he hadn't done anything strenuous in twenty years. Pomposity and prestige were useless weapons against toughs like Mike. The swarthy man jammed a gag in Benedek's mouth, then he dug into a pocket for Benny's car keys. "You take his car and hide it, Jer," he ordered, flipping the keys to the other man. "If the place is dark and locked up, if somebody comes looking for him, they won't expect him to be here."
"They'll see the candles," objected Jerry.
Mike's face twisted into a snarl. "How long do you think those little things will last? We'll put them out. Do I have to do all the thinking for everybody?" He gave Benny a hard kick in the ribs for no other reason than sheer meanness, and Benny winced, his cry of pain smothered in the gag. He took a cautious breath and, although his side hurt, he didn't think he'd broken any ribs. A bruise the size of a dinner plate maybe, but he could live with that. He could get some decent sympathy with a wounded hero routine afterwards— provided he was given the chance.
Max Keller stacked his plate full and set to work on his salad plate. They had stopped at a steakhouse midway across Illinois for a late lunch. Though it was getting on toward late afternoon, they could be in Cedar Rapids in less than three hours. He carried his tray back to a table and was joined by MacKensie and McAllister.
"You're not very hungry, are you, Max?" The Master gestured at Max's plate.
"Not a bit," replied Max with good cheer. "I just wanted a bit to tide me over. I come from a long line of big eaters."
Jonathan deposited his sandwich and bowl of clam chowder on the table. "I haven't had a meal like that since my undergraduate days."
"He does this all the time," McAllister explained. "You look tired, Jonathan. Why don't you catch a nap when we get back to the van."
"I'm too keyed up to sleep," Jonathan admitted. "I've got a weird feeling, though, as if something's wrong."
"Worried about meeting Benny?" Max asked. "I think it'll work out." He dug into his plate and grinned around a mouthful of roast beef.
"No, it's not that, at least I don't think so. It's more like he's in trouble."
McAllister's face grew thoughtful and Max eyed him curiously. Sometimes McAllister knew things that other people didn't. He had told Max that a Ninja could sometimes feel things that hadn't happened, or sense things that weren't there. It was something to do with centering his chi, but it was a skill Max hadn't perfected yet, though he knew he'd come close accidentally when he'd sensed the Master was in trouble. Those times, though, both of them had been involved in a crisis and suspicion of trouble would be a safe bet. Max was uncomfortable about such abilities and sometimes he felt like Luke Skywalker being coached by Yoda on Dagobah, failing to achieve things because he 'knew' ahead of time that he couldn't do them, then discovering that the Master could make them look easy. Easy for him, maybe, thought Max fondly. A little harder for Max himself, but maybe Yoda had been right. Do or do not. There is no try. Now he tried to clear his mind and tune into whatever channel of energy the Master was seeking.
He must not be ready, because the tempting aroma of his dinner distracted him. He opened his eyes to see the Master, one hand lightly touching Jonathan's wrist. "I can sense you are troubled," he said. "But I don't know Benny well enough to know if a danger to him is the cause of it, or if it's because you're at odds right now."
"How do you do that?" Jonathan had a blank and astonished look that made Max struggle to repress a laugh. He could picture that look on Jonathan's face as he trailed Edgar Benedek from one weird adventure to another, protesting all the way.
"It's called chi," McAllister explained. "The center of the being." He tapped his chest. "Here. You shut the door to the senses and reach inside for answers. Don't close yourself away from it, Jonathan. I know you're a skeptic, but it does work. I've trained as a Ninja for thirty years. I've learned to be in tune with myself."
"Maybe," Jonathan conceded doubtfully. "But not in tune with me. I felt— "
Max knew the feeling. Sometimes it seemed that telepathy must be like this. Meditating was the hardest discipline for Max to learn; he was a doer, not a passive thinker. But the Master could tune in to himself. He could control involuntary bodily functions. He had taught Max some of that, to give him more energy when he ran or fought. But Max had never been able to make the leap from the practical to the mystic. He sympathized with Jonathan's dazed expression.
"Believe it, Jonathan," he said. "I don't know how he does it, but it's real."
"But what did he do?"
"I tried to tune into what was disturbing you," McAllister said. "You were obviously troubled. I don't have psychic abilities. I wasn't reading your mind. But something is bothering you. If you let go and flow with it, you might be able to understand what it is."
"I know what it is. Benedek's in trouble." He caught himself. "I can't know that. You're making me say things that aren't real. There's a logical explanation for this."
"Of course there is," McAllister agreed. "Eat your soup. We've got a drive ahead of us. There's a logical explanation for everything in the universe. Sometimes people don't know enough about themselves and their surroundings to understand the logic, that's all."
"You sound like Benedek trying to convince me someplace is haunted, or that something eerie is real."
"Think how unreal a trip to the moon or a heart transplant might have seemed to someone a hundred years ago, Jonathan. You're a scientist, and you like to see proof of things because that's the way you were trained. But, because you're a scientist, you should know that we haven't learned everything there is to learn. You know there are large areas of the brain that we haven't found a use for yet. Who's to say that someday we won't use those parts of the brain as easily and consciously as we think and reason?"
"I think I know more of the human brain than you do, McAllister." Jonathan frowned. "It's not impossible. When I see what ancient man did with primitive tools, though, I know that they had reasoning abilities like we do today, just a different form of technology. I know a lot about the human evolutionary process. I don't say what you're suggesting is impossible, but I know how long evolution takes. Thirty years is less than a heartbeat in the history of the human race."
"But you felt Benedek was in trouble. You know him well, and you might be closer to him than anyone else. If he's in trouble, he could reach out to you with his mind. Because you know him and you care about him, that can make the difference. You didn't stop to think what it might have done to your reputation if you'd been caught when you dug up his grave. He was your friend and that's what mattered. This has never been about logic or reputations. It's all about friendship."
"I wish I could have seen that grave digging," said Max.
"I just knew I couldn't let him die."
McAllister nodded. "When we love our friends— though people are afraid to use the word 'love', unfortunately— we want to help them. I don't think it's strange or paranormal for you to sense his danger. Max, I'm sorry about all that food, but I think we should leave now."
Max looked down at his half empty plate with regret, but he knew the Master was right. "Okay," he said, putting a slice of beef between two sides of a roll to bring with him and downing the rest of his milk. "I'm ready. Maybe we better call ahead."
When they used the phone, they learned that Benedek had taken the key to the 'haunted house' and gone out there. Picek gave them the number of the house, but no one answered. All that need mean was that Benedek was on his way back with the key, or that he hadn't arrived yet. But they returned to the van and headed west with renewed purpose.
By late afternoon, Edgar Benedek had come to the conclusion that Mike was one of his least favorite people in the universe. The man was in charge of his little band, but Benny had reluctantly abandoned the idea that he was the leader of a terrorist group lurking here to break into the nuclear power plant. Even if Mike was nasty enough to be a terrorist, he wasn't smart enough, and terrorists didn't usually take their nephews with them. He wished he could remember more about the bank robbery headline he'd seen. That was more Mike's speed, a gun and no subtlety. But he was smart enough to keep checking the knots on Benny's bonds. It didn't do much good to know how to weasel out of the ropes if Mike came and tightened them again, every time Benny got close. The jerk was probably lying low waiting for the hubbub to die down. Jerry and the boy had probably come today. Jerry's wife, Shanna, was supposed to pick them up, and Benny suspected she was only cooperating because her son was here. Benedek wouldn't put any bets on the future of that marriage.
Mike had put out the candles almost immediately. "We can use them later," he'd smirked, giving Benny another kick. Halfway expecting it, Benny had tried to ride it out, but had caught it In the shoulder. Now with his arms pulled roughly behind his back, his shoulder throbbed painfully as he twisted at his bonds. Benny passed the time by planning all the nasty things some of his friends could do to Mike, a voodoo curse, a haunting, a spell or two. Mike would make a very adequate toad, decided Benny with relish.
But that wouldn't get him free. Though his shoulder and ribcage ached whenever he moved, he had made a good beginning on loosening his bonds since the last time Mike checked the knots. His wrists were chafed and sore from the effort, but he'd once met an escape artist who had told him that his body could move if only he would let it. The Amazing Nardini claimed that his father had learned his techniques from Houdini himself. He had taught a few of them to Benny, and now Benny was calling himself names because he hadn't paid more attention and learned how to fake the knots looking tight when they were ready to unravel.
But it was coming. Patience had nothing to do with it, simply the fact that there was nothing else to do but dodge kicks. Give him half an hour and he would be free. If only Mike would keep his distance.
Once the light had gone, Benny heard Jerry on the phone arguing with his wife. The phone had rung and rung earlier but no one hand answered it. After it had stopped ringing, Jerry had placed his call. "Look, babe, I know. I'll make it up to you. No, of course he hasn't hurt Mick. You think I'd let him do that? We'll be fine, love, I promise, and you can have that new VCR you've been wanting and a bigger diamond for your engagement ring. Mike will give us our share. All you have to do is drive us to Newton. Mike's got someone waiting there. You can take Mick home with you after."
Mike had grabbed the phone away from him. "Just get over here, you bitch, if you want to see your kid safe." He slammed down the receiver. "You spoil that woman, Jerry. I always told you that."
"She's my wife. Leave her out of this. Once we get you to your ride, she and Mick are out of it."
"Sure. With that ghostbuster in there able to identify both of you. That make you feel safe, little brother?"
"You won't kill him?"
"No, I'm gonna split the take with him. You damn fool, I have to kill him. But I'm not stupid like you. We'll set those candles up again and make sure they start a big fire. Then it'll look like an accident and nobody'll be any the wiser, except for you and me. And you won't squeal on your dear brother."
"I won't give you away."
"Good for you. You're smarter than I thought."
Benny worked even harder on the ropes after that, but it wasn't much later when Mike returned with the candles. "Well, spook chaser, we'll let you get on with your séance." He pulled the gag off
"Don't go to a lot of trouble on my account," Benny said quickly.
"Oh, but I insist." Sarcasm didn't become the swarthy man, but he laughed as if he'd made a very clever joke. Benny held his peace, wondering how Mike thought the ropes would be accounted for. Maybe he thought they'd burn away. But better to have them and be conscious than to be knocked out before they left. At least he had a chance if he was conscious.
Mike positioned the candles as they had been before. "This mean something?" he asked. "Do the spooks like candlelight?"
"Yes. They'll come now that it's night, and I wouldn't want to face them if I were you."
"There's no such thing as ghosts. I've been in and out of this place for three days and not one damn thing happened to me except for you."
"Don't bet on it, pal. It's night and it's cold and they'll be here seeking shelter. The candles will draw them, you wait and see."
"Oh yeah? Well, you won't be here to see it." He laid out a sheet that looked like it once covered furniture and positioned two of the candles on it. "When the flame melts down to here, you'll have a nice blaze. At least you won't be cold."
But Benny tensed suddenly because the cold that had burned him yesterday was back. As he had lain here, he hadn't felt it, but it was here now. "Yo, David," he said. "Give me a hand here, okay?"
"What're you trying to pull?" Mike glanced uneasily over his shoulder. "Nobody's here."
"Just my ghosts. Listen. You'll hear them coming. Spooks to the rescue! Way to go, guys!"
Mike listened intently. "I don't hear anything."
Then his face changed. Clear and vivid in the still of the night air came the sound of a single horse's hoof beats clopping up to the old house. "David," Benny said triumphantly. "I knew It."
"Who the hell is David?" Mike demanded, peering out the window, fingers tight around his gun.
"My ghost. Do you know what day this is? Ninety years ago tonight, David and Rebecca eloped, ran away from her folks and got lost in the blizzard. They sheltered here, but they died anyway. That's why you didn't hear them before. The timing was wrong." He was making it up as he went. He didn't know what night it had been except that the month was right.
"Nobody's out there," Mike insisted. "Nobody."
"Listen. They're coming." Even in a position like this, Benny was excited by the spirit manifestation. If only he could reach his tape recorder...
"It's a trick," Mike snapped. He kicked Benny again and strode from the room, upsetting one of the candles. It fell onto the sheet and began to smolder. Benny winced with the pain of movement and tried to blow out the flame, but it caught too quickly and he rolled away onto the hardwood floor, upsetting a few more candles and setting his jacket on fire. He smothered that fire by rolling over quickly before it could burn him.
The flame was small, but it was growing, and he coughed as smoke began to billow.
Then came the tinkle of breaking glass. "Let's get out of here," yelled Jerry. "They're here."
"Nobody's here, you idiot. You don't see anybody, do you?"
"The cops," Jerry insisted. "They're here."
"Cops don't ride horses. This isn't a damn western." In spite of the fire, it was icy cold. Benny shivered as he dragged himself away from the growing flames, seeking clearer air. It should be fresher at floor level, but it didn't seem that way.
Hands touched him. He could feel them vividly, but when he squinted through the smoke, he could see no one. Something dark and cold oppressed the growing flames and they retreated a little.
"Bring him out, David."
It was the voice of his dream. He said vaguely, "Rebecca? Be careful. They've got guns."
"Guns cannot hurt us." Rebecca's voice was soft, a breathy whisper.
"Hey, what about me? Guns can hurt me. I'm not dead, am I? I don't feel dead."
"You're alive," David told him. "We'll move you outside. I fear this fire will spread too quickly. Watch him, Rebecca. Someone is coming."
A squeal of brakes, a slamming door, an urgent yell. "Benedek!!"
Now he knew he had flipped out or died. That was Jonathan's voice. What would Jonny be doing with David and Rebecca back in the 1890s? "Jack?" His voice came out hoarse and raspy. He let out a yelp, half of fear and half of surprise and coughed painfully.
The front door burst open with a crash and there were running footsteps and gunshots. Benny blinked, but the smoke made his eyes water and he couldn't see. "Jon-boy, is that you?" he gasped. He didn't think anyone could hear him.
"Fire!" Max gasped as they drove into the yard of the 'haunted house'. "Look, the place is on fire."
"Benedek's in there," MacKensie yelled. "We've got to get him out of there."
Jonathan was out of the van as soon as it stopped, evading the Master's hand. Right behind him, Max and the Master raced up the stairs and into the house, Jonathan yelling Benedek's name. A shot rang out.
McAllister grabbed Jonathan's arm and jerked him down. "Look out. Let Max and me handle this."
"What about Benedek?"
"We'll find him," promised Max before he dashed after the Master, who had dived through the door and rolled to one side as another shot echoed through the hall. When Max reached the door, he saw the Master jump a man with a gun, who tried to take aim at him.
"No!" Max yelled as he threw a shuriken. It hit the gunman in the arm and he dropped the gun with a curse, grabbing at his forearm. Another man appeared through the smoke and Max dived for him while the Master grappled with the gunman.
Jonathan burst in behind them. "Look out, Max!"
Max turned as a boy of fifteen swung a club at him, ducking under it, and the man he'd been fighting wrestled him to the ground. Behind him, Jonathan grabbed at the boy and pulled him away, taking possession of the club.
"Let go of my dad," the kid yelled.
Max finally pinned the kid's father, then he looked around and spotted the abandoned gun. "Get the gun, Jonathan." Jonathan had to let the boy go to get it, but instead of attacking, he went to his father. "You get away from him," he ordered Max. "Dad didn't hurt anybody."
Jonathan passed Max the gun. "Where's Benedek?" he demanded.
"In there." The boy's voice faltered as he pointed to the burning room. The fire had a good hold now, roaring away. Max knew it wouldn't be long before they'd have to abandon the house. "I'll cover them." He shot a quick glance at the Master who had managed to overcome the leader. Quickly McAllister guided him outside and was back for the other two. "Max, get them outside. This whole place is going up. Where's Jonathan?"
"In there." Max pointed. "Benny's in there." He and the Master exchanged a sick glance, then Max shepherded his captives outside and McAllister raced back into the burning house.
Jonathan halted in the doorway, trying to see. "Benedek?" he called. "Are you in here?" The fire was bright enough to see by, but the smoke was thick and it was hard to tell if Benedek were here or not. "Where are you?" He took a few steps into the room, his arm shielding his nose and mouth from the smoke.
He was prevented from falling over Benedek by a faint voice at his feet. "Here I am, Jack."
"Benny!" Without taking time for questions, he grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him away from the fire just as a beam came crashing down on the spot where Benedek had lain only seconds before.
The Master found them there. "Come on. Let's get him out of here." Effortlessly he picked up Benedek and led the way from the room, Jonathan right behind him.
"Boy, am I glad to see you," Max told the Master when they appeared outside. Covering the two men with the gun, he couldn't come to see. "Is he hurt?"
"I don't think some oxygen would go amiss." McAllister cut his bonds with a small knife as Jonathan hovered anxiously at his side.
"He was conscious when I found him," he said as if the statement could make it true. "Benedek, can you hear me?"
"You're yelling in my ear, Jack," Benedek said without opening his eyes, his voice raspy with smoke. "What're you doing here?"
"Trying to keep you out of trouble," Jonathan said sternly, hovering beside him. "Benedek, can't you check out a simple haunted house without getting mixed up in a major disaster?"
"Not me, buds." Benedek's mouth curved in a faint smile. "You know how much I like the action. Check it out. Not only did I meet two ghosts— who saved my life I might add because you were about five minutes too late— but I helped catch a couple of bank robbers."
"We caught the bank robbers, Benny," Max reminded him.
"Maybe, but I stalled them until you got here." He started to cough them, doubling over and wheezing, and he felt strong arms holding him.
"Benedek, don't you dare die on me," Jonathan MacKensie threatened him from a distance of about six inches away. "You die on me, I'll kill you."
"Original line, Jack," Benny choked out.
Somehow the words were reassuring. "Benedek, I'm sorry," he said hastily. "I should have known better. When it comes to my father— "
"It's easy to push your buttons." Benedek coughed painfully. "I know, J.J. It's okay."
"Let's get him to the hospital," Jonathan urged, his arm tight around Benedek's shoulders. "I think the smoke's gone to his head. He's always been crazy, but he sounds worse."
"Thanks a lot, pal," Benny grated, his throat raw. "Devotion. I love it."
"You have this knack for winding up in the hospital, Benedek. I don't know how much longer my heart can stand the strain. I'm just a simple professor of anthropology. I'm not used to this kind of life."
"Simple, hah," Benny chortled. "Devious is your middle name."
"Then why do you and Dr. Moorhouse always manage to put one over on me?"
"Years of practice, Jon-boy," Benny panted, coughing again. "Years of practice."
"How is he?" asked Max Keller the next morning. He and the Master arrived at the waiting room at St. Luke's Hospital to find a rumpled and weary Jonathan MacKensie sitting there looking as if he'd spent the night in the waiting room. He probably had, McAllister realized. He'd seen the fear in Jonathan's eyes when he'd helped bring Benedek out of the burning house. People didn't fight like Jonathan and Benny had without caring about each other, and McAllister had never doubted it. He was pretty sure that they were more comfortable with each other now. Something good had come out of all of this.
Jonathan looked up and grinned. "He'll be fine. Or at least as close to fine as he ever gets. You know what he insists now? That the ghosts he was looking for pulled him away from the fire. He says he was right in the middle of it and they came riding up on horseback and broke into the house to save his life."
His voice held a combination of exasperation and tolerant amusement. Maybe he didn't believe Benny's story, but he wasn't quite ready to insist that it was false either.
"Somebody came riding up on horseback," McAllister said. "The bank robbers heard it too. They were trying to duck out the back when we came because they'd heard somebody ride up just as the fire started. Nobody admits being there, though, and we arrived so soon after there wasn't time for a horseman to leave."
"Not you too," wailed Jonathan. "Isn't it enough that I have to take all this paranormal mumbo jumbo from Benedek without having to hear the Ninja version as well?"
"He's only telling you what they said," Max explained with a grin. "You'll never hear the end of it. From what the firemen and bank robbers both say, Benny would have been right in the middle of the fire, but he was off to one side. He couldn't have moved very easily, tied up like he was."
"I should have thought you'd be more realistic, Max."
"Hey, I don't believe there were ghosts there."
"Don't you, Max?" McAllister looked at him with tolerant amusement. "Something strange happened there." He hummed a few bars of the Twilight Zone theme.
"I suppose you watched that in Japan," Max muttered sourly.
"No, in the motel room last night." He grinned. "Let's go see Benny."
Edgar Benedek was holding court with several nurses, aides and orderlies, who were lapping up the tale of the ghosts and his rescue. When he saw Jonathan and the others, he shooed his audience away and said to Jonathan, "We can't hold back the adoring public, can we, Jon-boy?" His voice was still hoarse but it was already better than it had been the night before.
"Adoring public? Benedek, you're impossible."
"Right on, Jack." Benny grinned. He looked past them to McAllister and Max. "Hey, guys, what's happening?"
"How are you feeling, Benny?" McAllister asked.
"No sweat. I'll be out of here tomorrow. I'm practicing my wounded hero routine for the talk show circuit. Merv called this morning to wish me well."
"Wounded hero," scoffed Jonathan. "A few bruises and smoke inhalation do not a hero make, Benedek. Merv can't be that impressed."
"Whoa, you are nasty today, Jonny. Don't worry. I'll let you appear with me."
"No, thank you."
Max grinned. "What will you talk about, Benny? Nobody saw any ghosts."
"I did. Well, I didn't see them, but they talked to me."
"More fool they," Jonathan snapped.
Benny gave him an unexpectedly serious look. "Are you still pissed about that article about the Nobel laureate, JJ?"
Jonathan hadn't been expecting that, not after his hasty apology of the night before. He started to speak then fell silent. "You were the one who..."
"Who was mad?" Benny finished. "Yeah, but I've got a bad memory. Probably caused by the smoke. So long as you remember not to screw up again, I think I can overlook it."
It was said with such highhandedness that McAllister expected it to set Jonathan off again, but instead, he said, "You're an idiot, Benedek," in a voice that didn't even sound mad.
Benny grinned at him and turned to McAllister. "See how it is, McAllister? Do you have to put up with this from your assistants?"
"Assistants!" yelled Jonathan. "Assistants!?! Let's remember who's in charge here, Benedek. I have enough trouble getting Dr. Moorhouse to tolerate you as it is."
Benedek waggled his eyebrows at McAllister and Max. "Oh, come on Jon-boy," he said. "Where would you be without me? I've got the contacts and I'm the one who knows about ghosts and ghoulies and— "
"And other assorted nonsense," raved Jonathan. McAllister caught Max's eye and they let themselves out of the room grinning at the battle behind them. Declarations of friendship came in all sorts.
Max muttered a few choice curses to himself then glanced at the Master, who was sitting across the desk at Walter Picek's office. "I'm sorry," the businessman said. "I wish I had better news for you, Mr. McAllister, but this just came." He passed over the letter he held. "Teri isn't coming back. I'm sorry to lose her. She's a lovely girl and the best pilot I've had working for me. But this article bothered her. She's been soothing her mother, and she's decided to move on. She says she'll be in touch later and when she does, I can tell her you were here. I'll get an address then. You can check with me later."
"I will." McAllister took the letter and read it through, his face stiff and expressionless, but when he had finished, he folded up the letter with hands that were not quite steady. "May I keep this?"
"Of course. I'm sorry Teri wrote rather than calling; I could have told her you were here. But I'll let her know you came when you saw the article." Picek looked regretful. "I like your daughter, McAllister. I hope you can find her soon."
"So do I," McAllister said quietly. "So do I."
Max went back to the hospital that afternoon. The Master was depressed about missing Teri, but Max knew he'd go on looking. Maybe next time they'd find her. In the meantime, Max would stick with him and they'd continue the search and his ninja lessons. But for right now, the Master needed a little space, and Max went back to the hospital to give it to him.
He found Jonathan on the phone in Benny's room, talking to Dr. Moorhouse, no, arguing with her, and promising to return the following day. "Tell her about the ghosts, JJ," Benny called as Max came in. 'She'll like that."
"Oh yes," MacKensie said into the phone. "Benedek claims that two ghosts rescued him from the fire. Preposterous. I was there. I didn't see any ghosts."
"You probably couldn't," Benny snorted. "If I were a ghost I probably wouldn't appear to you either. "He grinned. "Yes, I would, to prove I existed. You couldn't ignore me if I was haunting you. Maybe I will, if I croak first. Hey, Max, come in. You look gloomy. What's up?"
"Teri's not coming back," Max announced, flinging himself into the visitor's chair. "She got fed up with the article and she's going off someplace else."
"Too bad. Her dad was so anxious. Besides, I would've liked to meet her. It isn't everyday I get to meet a member of Jonny's family."
"None of that, Benedek," Jonathan said without losing track of his phone conversation, though he shot Max a sympathetic glance. "Where did Teri go anyway?"
"I think she left to soothe her mother's feelings," Max admitted. "From what I've heard of her, the last thing your paper wants is to have Laura Kennedy breathing down your neck."
"Laura Kennedy!" Jonathan hung up on Dr. Moorhouse without even realizing he'd done it. "Teri's mother is Laura Kennedy!?"
Benny and Max regarded him with great interest. "Yes, "agreed Max. "Why? Does it make a difference?"
"No, but I know Laura. She wrote a series of articles about my father. Excellent ones, too. He enjoyed them."
"Aha! So the story's got a grain of truth after all," Benny said triumphantly. "All Addison got wrong was the date!"
Max grinned. "You mean Laura Kennedy and your father—"
"Were just good friends," Jonathan insisted stubbornly. "I wonder how Addison found out."
"We know how to get a story at the National Register," Benny said with a satisfied smirk.
"Next time, keep my father out of it," Jonathan warned him, but without a shred of malice. He even smiled.
"Chill out, Jack. The next one'll be about me. HAUNTS HELP HOSTAGE. FIGHT FIRE WITH FEAR. I can see it now."
"Is he always like this?" Max asked Jonathan with interest.
"No," said Jonathan MacKensie with a fond and exasperated smile. "Usually he's worse."
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