Jonathan MacKensie looked up at the darkly imposing bulk of the huge brick house that sat on a bluff over looking the Hudson River and wondered what Dr. Moorhouse would say to him if he turned around and went home again. "You can't be serious," he objected.
His companion, Edgar Benedek, grinned. "What's the matter, Jonny? Even you've gotta admit it looks like a haunted house. You'll probably never seen one more haunted. Not even the Crowley House in London. Well, maybe Heck House, but it's gone now."
"Don't you mean Hell House?" the anthropology professor asked with a hint of sarcasm. "Heck House? Really, Benedek, I've never known you to censor your language on my behalf."
"Named," said Benny pointedly, "after Jonas Heck. Most haunted house on record. The Ghostbusters cleaned it up last year. Shrunk it right down and now they've got it in a paperweight on Venkman's desk. I saw it."
"Right, and they've got King Kong in a jar of formaldehyde in their basement," Jonathan replied in disgust. He knew when he was being conned.
"You really never heard of Heck House?" Benny asked, his face proclaiming utter disbelief. "You're yanking my chain. The most haunted house ever and you never heard of it? Georgetown Institute should be ashamed of itself. Don't you read the Journal of American Parapsychology?"
"Not if I can help it," Jonathan replied. "Is this really necessary, Benedek? Look, the place is condemned." He pointed to a sign that had been nailed to the door of the mid-Victorian mansion.
"Condemned but not free of ghosts, buds," Benny replied, gesturing extravagantly. "And if you don't read the Journals, don't you read the Register? I did a big write-up about Heck House last year."
"I can imagine," agreed Jonathan. "Anyway, I've heard about this place. They say it's been de-haunted already. I looked it up when Dr. Moorhouse forced me to—suggested I come here."
"And here I was, waiting," Benny said with a broad grin. "Synchronicity, Jack." When Jonathan showed no signs of delight at such a stroke of good fortune, he went on quickly. "It's been 'de-haunted'. More or less. They had a rite of exorcism in here about a month ago. Funny how the Catholic Church still has all these rites that acknowledge the spirit world. Think the Pope knows something he isn't telling?"
"Certainly things he wouldn't tell the National Register," Jonathan retorted. He didn't like the look of the house at all. If it were actually condemned, it was bound to be dangerous, and he didn't want to spend the night in a place that might collapse around him or, at best, put his foot through the floor and fall through to a sub-basement full of mold, mildew and creepy crawlies.
"Now I'm hurt," Benny proclaimed dramatically. "I got an award for the story on Heck House."
"From whom, Count Dracula?"
"No, the ASPR, as a matter of fact," announced Benny, puffing out his chest in pride. "That's the American Society for Psychical Research to mundanes like you."
"Mundanes!" Jonathan returned, surprised to discover he resented the term. He'd been shadow chasing with Benedek for five years; he was hardly a neophyte, and he did know of the Society for Psychical Research; had in fact been on their mailing list for several years, and unbeknownst to Benedek, had actually joined the society. It didn't mean he was willing to accept the paranormal explanations for their cases that Benedek relished, but the society had a superb reference library and it didn't hurt to try to stay one jump ahead of the tabloid journalist. That he'd never heard of the much vaunted Heck House proved he didn't always succeed, but if he'd seen the name, he would have assumed it was some kind of scam, especially since his partner had written the place up.
Of course these days, Benedek appeared somewhat more legit than he had done when Jonathan had first met him in Fartham. His articles seemed a little more sincere and his theories slightly tamer, though he still plunged with relish into each new unexplained event and still produced weird ally after weird ally to help them through their cases. From wall feelers to ventriloquist's dummies who could channel, Jonathan had met them all. The odd thing was that some of Benny's bizarre buddies had actually produced results.
Jonathan didn't want to believe in paranormal explanations of the oddities the two of them investigated for Georgetown Institute's Unexplained Phenomena department, not when more logical solutions could easily be provided for nearly everything they encountered. There had been a few incidents, though, that didn't quite have sane and sensible answers. Jonathan's world view was considered stuffy and prosaic by Benedek, who was willing to accept a larger and looser explanation for everything from Stock Market Variations to Solar Flares. The anthropologist liked his world to be the way it had always been, safe and normal. Once he opened his mind fully to Benedek's bizarre theories, he would not know what to believe was real. To make it worse, Benedek knew that and never stopped pitching. Jonathan had quickly come to like his at-first unwelcome ally and to consider him a friend, eventually his closest friend, but some of the time he was sure Benedek was setting up their adventures with an eye to convincing Jonathan to open his mind to the world of the occult. And Jonathan didn't want to.
Looking up at the huge brick house before them, he thought longingly of the book he had begun to write about Australopithicus and its quasi-contemporary hominids. If Dr. Moorhouse wouldn't fund his research, he'd do it on his own, in his spare time, and he'd produce a masterpiece. On looking over his notes recently he'd discovered something that both shocked and secretly amused him. The book was not intended for the layman, but the stuffiness and formality that had characterized his earlier writings had disappeared. In its place was a new descriptive style that, while not ignoring the scientific method and the validity of facts to back his theories, was more than likely to pull in the readers, even those who were not scientists. Was Benedek corrupting him with a more free wheeling style? You couldn't tell with Benny. Find fault with him and he'd simply ignore it as if he honestly believed he was right all the time and thus could safely ignore such claims, even from his best friend.
"Yo, Jonny, wake up! You're not going into a trance on me?" Benedek asked, waving a hand in front of Jonathan's face. "Bad enough you rented space upstairs to all the people who died in that old hotel—" he tapped Jonathan on the forehead—"but I don't want you doing it here. This place is weird. Things calmed down a lot after the exorcism, but something was still here." He struck a dramatic pose. "It comes out of the darkness, out of huge shadows."
"Judging from the lack of electric lighting I don't wonder," Jonathan replied, gesturing at the house. No electric wires ran to the old place. "I'm surprised it hasn't burned down from using kerosene lanterns or candles or whatever they use these days."
"I ordered a generator," Benny replied. "Dr. Moorhouse will be happy; I got it cheap. Only a few hundred a day plus installation, plus —"
"Benedek! Dr. Moorhouse did not tell you to order a generator," Jonathan objected, though it could be worse. Benny had flown people to their investigation sites from overseas and once he'd even bought a house and charged it to the institute, though Jonathan had to admit he'd sold it again for a profit. "What else did you buy?"
"Well, I didn't think you'd like roughing it, so I rented some furniture, too, not to mention a portable stove so we wouldn't have to toast marshmallows at the main fireplace. And I got us a cellular phone; bought it yesterday and they said it would be ready to use by tonight. The last thing we want is to be cut off out here. Nearest neighbor's a good hike down the road—well, a good hike for me. For somebody like you who lives behind a desk, it'd be like running a marathon." He grinned. "Come on, buds. It'll be like camping out, only camping in style. I've ordered a dinner catered, and they'll be here in about an hour." He checked his wristwatch. "By then I want to set up. And wait until you see what I brought for you to play with. Bona fide scientific equipment." He bounded up the stairs to the house; at least they were cement and didn't give under his feet. "Come on. Everything's inside, waiting." He took out a key that dangled in solitary splendor from a huge brass ring and unlocked the door, and with a sigh of resignation, Jonathan followed him.
The place was as bad as he'd feared. It was thick with cobwebs, and the Tiffany chandelier overhead was the kind that held candles in the holders. Benedek eyed it with interest. "Anything we can haul out of here we can sell," he said. "I've had my eye on the chandeliers from the first."
"Benedek, if you think I'm going to help you raid the place—"
"Aha!" cried Benny, ignoring the complaint with the skill of long practice. "Here it is." He headed for a couple of packing crates, picked up a crowbar someone had thoughtfully provided and began to open them. The first thing he produced was a hand-held device, about as big as a paperback book only thicker and slightly longer, mounted on a hand grip. A small hood protected a viewscreen, and a projection protruded from the top. Benedek grabbed the protrusion and pulled, and shortly the device had a set of antennae. Turning on the small gizmo, he proceeded to circle the entry hall with it, his face alight with interest. Nothing happened.
"What is that?" Jonathan asked in the tones of someone who is ninety-nine per cent certain he doesn't want to know.
"It's a genuine, certified, official PKE meter," Benny claimed in triumph. "I borrowed it from Egon yesterday."
"Egon?" Jonathan raised an eyebrow. "Dr. Spengler? One of the Ghostbusters?" He heaved a resigned sigh.
"Sure. They were up here right after the exorcism. They said something was here, but it wasn't here all the time, and they never could get it to come out so they could trap it. Egon said it was like it knew the Ghostbusters were here and stayed on the other side where it was safe from being zapped and trapped."
"The other side! Really, Benedek. From the state of that device, it's either broken, unable to record what isn't present, or simply useless in our current situation. Next you'll say you have ghost traps and those weapons the Ghostbusters use."
"Nope, couldn't con 'em out of—I mean convince 'em to lend me a proton pack and thrower," Benny said, disappointed. "But they'll come if we find anything. We're only an hour north of the City after all. With their siren going, they can cut the time a little, specially if they let Ray drive." He set aside the PKE meter and delved into the pack again. "Aha."
"Aha, what?" asked Jonathan warily. He'd been studying the house itself while Benedek played with the meter, and had discovered two side rooms with furniture in Holland covers. Only the paintings that still hung on the walls gave evidence of the house's former glory. Everything was heavily paneled in dark wood, so the late afternoon shadows seemed darker than ever. In one of the parlors, two camp beds had been set up and improved upon with genuine mattresses, sheets, pillows and blankets, and the generator beside them was already giving power to a small refrigerator, while a portable television set stood waiting to be turned on. To MacKensie's dismay Benedek had spared no expense.
The journalist pulled out three or four other esoteric devices, his expression as full of delight as a child under the Christmas tree.
"More Ghostbuster stuff?" Jonathan asked disapprovingly. He had a pretty good idea Benedek would bill the Institute for the use of any Ghostbusters weapons he'd 'borrowed'.
"Some of it, some not," was the reply. "I've got some other parapsychologist friends. This one's a motion detector. If we get readings on that, we'll probably find out we've got a live one sneaking around. And this is a magnetometer. You know what they say, ghosts have magnetic personalities."
"I know that there have been some alleged connections between magnetism and the spirit world," MacKensie replied before he could stop himself.
The shorter man grinned. "Aha. Research. I knew I'd get you interested one day."
"Purely self defense. I'm a scientist, Benedek. It's to my advantage to know what's happening in the field, in other words, to know what's real and what's hype. Apparently one of the reasons the Ghostbusters have been successful is that they have discovered a way to measure energy fluxes that tie in with so-called ghosts."
"So-called? I've seen a few of the ghosts they've gone after, buddy. I was out there with my camera when Gozer tried to take over New York. Didn't I ever show you the great shots I got?"
"Only a dozen times. But what I'm trying to say is that the reason nothing was detected earlier was because scientists were attempting to measure something unfamiliar. It takes the right equipment to quantify and detect anything. So theoretically, if ghosts are real, one would need new equipment to measure them, equipment that could give readings that could be documented."
"No leap of faith for you, Jon-boy," Benny said in understanding. "You have to have the proof. I know. But think about it. Doesn't that take away the sense of wonder?" He sounded serious, as if he genuinely wanted to know.
"You think scientific proof doesn't give a sense of wonder?" Jonathan asked. "You think there isn't a genuine thrill to hold the skull of a prehistoric man and to measure and record it and to know that person lived before cities, even before agriculture. Science is full of the sense of wonder. And sharing that with a class, knowing they feel it too . . . " He smiled, catching himself before he could go on. "It's the scientific sense of wonder that fascinates me in our work, too. You may not need the proof, but I find the proof as exciting as you do the theories."
"Makes us a great team, buds," Benny replied cheerfully, slapping MacKensie on the shoulder. "Come on, let's get all these gizmos set up, so we'll be ready by sundown. Then when the caterers get here we'll take a break and put our feet up. Hope you like Peking Duck. I figured even a white bread and vanilla ice cream kind of guy like you wouldn't turn up your nose at that."
"Do you know how much it costs, Benedek?" MacKensie asked, gesticulating wildly at the equipment that surrounded them. "Dr. Moorhouse has kittens every time she thinks about your expense account. Peking Duck. Probably Dom Perignon."
"Why not? Moorhouse has got pull with the Institute. We're getting results for her, Jonny. She'll complain and yell, but she'll put her John Hancock on the bill, just you watch. Besides, I can cozy up to her with the best of 'em."
"Yes, and while you're safe in New York, I'm the one she'll yell at," Jonathan said with resignation. He liked Peking Duck very much but it would never do to admit it.
They set up the equipment here and there, a couple of meters at the top of the stairs, one in the kitchen premises, one in the main parlor, where the exorcism had taken place. There was a huge fireplace there; it probably smoked badly if lit, Jonathan thought regretfully. He would have loved to light a fire. It was autumn and likely to be cool at night and he was uneasy about the space heater Benedek had provided. But the house was condemned and he didn't want to take the chance.
"Who's supposed to be haunting this place anyway?" he asked Benedek.
"The Goodsons," Benedek replied as if he'd been waiting to be asked so he could show off his knowledge. "Lived here ever since before the Revolutionary War. Martin Goodson was a Tory, kept it secret from his neighbors but spied for the British. Some of the neighbors found out and they hanged him. His son was in the Colonial army at the time, and his daughter was alone in the house. She died under mysterious circumstances in 1795. The son, Jacob, came back after the war, married a neighbor's daughter and proceeded to have twelve children. And they all had children and so on, down through the years. The exorcism was to get rid of Martin, they say. He's supposed to have been hanging around for a couple of centuries."
"Did anyone actually see him?" Jonathan asked. He seemed a good candidate for ghosthood; at least he was the type about whom rumors would fly.
"Only the family could see him," Benedek replied, picking up the PKE meter and activating it again, a look of disappointment crossing his face when it failed to react.
"Dead batteries?" hazarded Jonathan.
Benedek ignored that. "But everybody could hear him. Deep voice, cursing everyone, cursing the country. They say he could make furniture fly around and hit people he took in dislike. Nasty type. But don't worry about him," he added when Jonathan cast an involuntary glance over his shoulder. "They exorcised him and he's off to the great beyond."
"Then what are we doing here besides waiting for our Peking Duck and preparing for death by cobwebs?"
"He had family. They didn't all go peacefully." Benedek waved a hand at the shadows. "Maybe somebody else stuck around too. We're gonna check the place out, look it over. Here. I'll let you take the PKE meter."
"Thank you," Jonathan replied facetiously but he took the device.
"Come on," urged Benny. "Let's chase some shadows, Jack."
They searched the whole house, discovering more cobwebs, nests of mice and even a rat in the kitchen premises, but none of the devices reacted. Jonathan had begun to think the ghostly legends were mostly hype, caused by a long history of trouble in the house and by its present atmosphere. The two of them had separated early in the search and when Jonathan returned to the ground floor and the room where their supplies were stored, Benedek had not yet returned. No, Jonathan realized. He had been and gone again, leaving a fire burning in the fireplace.
"Benedek, it's not safe to have a fire here," Jonathan called, relieved to see that there was no blockage in the chimney. The flames danced and crackled, making brightness flicker about the room.
"What fire, buds?" Benedek asked, striding jauntily into the room, energetically brushing cobwebs from his hair. "You should see the goodies in the attic. I hauled some of it down to look at later. Old journals, jewelry boxes . . . "
"What do you mean, what fire," Jonathan asked, pointing at the fireplace, to break off in astonishment when he realized the grate was empty. No roaring fire, no wood stacked, nothing. "There was a fire there!" he blurted.
"Where's the PKE meter?" asked Benny.
Jonathan held up the deactivated device.
Shaking his head, the journalist snatched it from Jonathan and turned it on. At once the antennae lifted half an inch, each tip blinking as power stirred the tiny lights. A faint beeping lasted a few seconds and faded as the lights shut down and the antennae returned to their inert position.
"You'll never learn," Benedek retorted. "It can't pick up the right vibes if it isn't even on. So what did you see?"
"I thought you'd built a fire," Jonathan replied, blinking at the empty grate. "It was right there. I know I saw it."
"Ghost fire," Benedek mused, his face thoughtful. "I never heard of anything exactly like that before. The door to the other side must have opened. This is great." He pulled a tape recorder out of his pocket and began to dictate into it. "Ghostly fire reported at," a quick look at his wristwatch, "five forty-seven p.m. by Dr. Jon. Vanished immediately. Come on, pal, give. Was it hot? Could you feel the heat?"
Startled, Jonathan shook his head. "I didn't approach closely, but the room feels no different now. The light flickered, though, and made the corners of the room visible."
"Sure it was the same room?" Benny asked.
"I . . . " He frowned, trying to consider. "Our supplies were still here. Shouldn't they have been? I walked into this room, not a ghostly room that resembles it and not a distant moment in time."
"You might have walked into a room imprinted with strategic moments from the past," Benny theorized.
"I've heard of things like that, but surely such moments would be more dramatic than the burning of an unattended fire."
"So who's to say a whole scenario wasn't playing out and you missed all but the last few seconds," Benny replied. "Either that or the gateway opened for a second and let us see the ghostly version of the house."
"Gateway? What kind of a gateway, Benedek?" Jonathan didn't like the sound of that.
"An opening to . . . the spirit world." Benedek waved his hands in what he considered a spooky gesture and made ghostly noises. "This might be better than I thought. We'll leave this on. The Ghostbusters have the right idea. Nothing can sneak up on us now."
"I wouldn't say it too loudly, Benedek. You might be tempting fate," Jonathan replied, smiling, just as someone pounded on the front door.
"Fate, in the wings," Benny proclaimed with a grin as Jonathan jumped. "Probably the caterers. Come on." He darted into the hall and flung wide the door, proving his theory. "See, dinner." He gestured the two men in.
They came reluctantly, eyes darting everywhere. Probably local, they must have heard stories about the house all their lives, and they didn't like what they saw. They spread the feast on a table and withdrew as quickly as they could.
Benny grabbed a plate and began to fill it, gesturing Jonathan to do the same. They dragged chairs up to the table and Jonathan had to admit, privately, that he was glad of the food, which was excellent, well prepared, and exactly suited to his taste. For once, Benedek didn't do anything weird with his such as pouring syrup on his baked potato or producing some bizarre foreign delicacy that was probably an obscure part of an even more obscure animal.
Setting the activated PKE meter on the end of the table, Benny grinned as he took a mouthful of potatoes. "Now we'll be ready," he said somewhat indistinctly.
"I'm not quite sure what we're supposed to do if that thing goes off," replied MacKensie. "We're not Ghostbusters and we don't have the equipment they use to trap ghosts."
"We'll talk to the ghost," Benny proclaimed. "Find out what it wants here. It's got unfinished business; that's why ghosts stick around. Otherwise, they'd head for the bright lights and big city and party down on Fifth Avenue rather than hanging out in the boonies like this."
"So we're to psychoanalyze the ghost and make it want to go to the Big Apple?" Jonathan shook his head. "You just want an article."
His friend nodded, grinning. "And you want Moorhouse to give you a break so you can finish the new book. When do I get a sneak peek? After all, I'm a writer. I can give you pointers so you won't bore the pants off your readers—though if they were female . . . "
"Really, Benedek," Jonathan chided, refusing to let his amusement show.
The PKE meter went crazy, the lights beginning to blink so fast they seemed to be lit continuously, the beeping rising to a shrill sound that hurt Jonathan's ears. Suddenly the fire blazed up brilliantly in the fireplace; he could even hear it sizzle and crackle as the flames danced higher. Behind Benny, the outside window shattered and a huge sliver of glass whizzed past the startled reporter's ear, so close it drew blood. Benny yelped and flung himself down under the table and Jonathan threw up his hands to shield his face.
A moment later everything was quiet again. The flames dwindled down to nothing, the last shards of glass tinkled musically to the floor and a damp wind stirred the tablecloth the caterers had spread. At the end of the table, the Ghostbusters' meter lay quiet again.
"Whoa! What a great manifestation!" Benny erupted from beneath the table, fingering his earlobe, which was slightly reddened with a smear of blood. "Day one: the ghost nearly cuts my throat," he said into his tape recorder. "I love it." Grabbing the meter, he studied it with interest. "Especially the 'nearly' part."
"You love having someone try to cut your throat?" Jonathan demanded, still a little shocked at the unexpected incident.
"No, I love it when things heat up. I'd have a boring story if nothing happened. Now I've got sinister specters who have it in for yours truly. This is great!" He pulled a cellular phone from his pocket and dialed quickly. "Lenny? Benny." Evidently the rhyme amused him because he quirked an amused eyebrow at Jonathan. "Call the Ghostbusters. Tell 'em we've got a lethal class three. But tell 'em not to come until tomorrow. This is my story."
Jonathan groaned. He'd met the Ghostbusters and found them as irreverent as Benedek; even the brainy Dr. Spengler had a wicked sense of humor, though at least he believed in the scientific method. The last thing he wanted was for any of Benny's weird friends to show up, because the odds were, Benny would stick the Institute with the bill, and the Ghostbusters didn't come cheap.
Ending the conversation, Benny stuck the phone in his pocket, approached the broken window, and poked his finger through the new opening. "Yep, genuine. The door opened again. Something made it mad."
"Our presence?" Jonathan asked. "We don't actually have to stay here all night, do we?" The glass could have killed Benedek if it had been an inch closer. That kind of near miss alarmed him, though Benedek had taken it in his stride.
"We don't have to stay in this room," Benny replied. "It'll get cold in here with that window gone. We'd better haul our stuff into the next room before it gets completely dark."
"You mean the room where they had the exorcism?" the professor demanded with a marked lack of enthusiasm. He glanced at the window. It was still daylight but the sun was dropping below the horizon even as he watched. It wouldn't be long before dark. "Your ear is bleeding," he observed.
"So stick a band aid on it." Benny touched the slight cut, and then studied the faint stains on his fingertips. "No biggie. Come on, Dr. J, let's finish our dinner before it gets cold and then move our stuff."
It took them the better part of an hour to rearrange the equipment Benny had purchased and rented. All during the process Jonathan had the feeling he was being watched, but the meter gave no warning. When they were all moved, Jonathan found a band aid in the well-stocked first aid kit and bandaged Benny's ear. It wasn't a deep cut and it had long-since stopped bleeding. Benny cheerfully referred to it as a battle scar, and the minute Jonathan had finished, he opened up the refrigerator and produced a bottle of champagne.
"The two intrepid ghost hunters prepare for a night of vigilance," he announced theatrically.
"Too much of it and we'll sleep through any so-called manifestations," objected Jonathan but he accepted the glass Benny passed him. It was superb champagne. Dr. Moorhouse would have a fit when she saw the expense account.
Prepared to stand guard, Benedek limited himself to one glass. Forcing the cork into place, he put the bottle away, bemoaning the fact that he'd forgotten to provide an ice bucket for them.
"What happens next?" Jonathan asked, looking around. In the middle of their move it had become quite dark and beyond the circle of light provided by the lamps Benny had brought, vast shadows brooded, waiting. Not given to fanciful speculation about ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night, Jonathan was annoyed at himself for such a reflection, but he couldn't quite push it aside. He had the sensation that something was waiting, holding its breath.
Benny produced a deck of cards from his pocket. "Poker?" he asked.
"Not with you. I'd lose everything I own," Jonathan replied positively. Benny's memories of his father included winning things from him at poker; he'd bragged about it once, if 'bragged' was the correct word. Jonathan might have complexes about his own Nobel Prize-winning father, complexes he'd nearly lived down, not without help from Benny himself, but he knew Benny probably had a few complexes of his own. Benny's stories of his childhood had always been about his great experiences, filled with astonishing reminiscences that left Jonathan open-mouthed with disbelief. But in spite of a father who was still alive and a grandmother, ditto, Benny had spent part of his youth in an orphanage, and those days were completely glossed over except when they could be part of another tall tale. Jonathan suspected he would be shocked to hear some of the more lurid parts of Benny's childhood, and suspected that Benny knew that and censored himself, not just to protect Jonathan's innocence, which he frequently exposed to mind-broadening experiences—but to protect himself. Benny chose to cover his inner vulnerabilities with quick-witted cover-ups or outrageous stories guaranteed to drive Jonathan frustrated with rage. He was good at it, though something of the inner Benedek had always seeped through.
What surprised Jonathan over the years was the realization that those moments of vulnerability were not as well known to the majority of Benedek's friends. If the fast-talking journalist had gotten to Jonathan, it seemed the reverse was also true. Though Benedek could be maddening and had the world's worst timing, he was also witty and entertaining and fiercely loyal to his friends, among which Jonathan had come to be proud to be numbered. Spending a night in a haunted house would not have been his first choice for the evening, but spending it with Benny would not be dull.
Unoffended, Benny began to lay out a hand of solitaire, his fingers moving expertly as he dealt the cards. "You can kibitz, then," he conceded grandly and began to turn cards so quickly Jonathan couldn't be quite sure if he were cheating or not.
The PKE meter stirred. It didn't blare to life the way it had earlier, but the antennae quivered and a beep or two echoed through the stillness of the house. The two men paused, listening, waiting, Jonathan glancing nervously at the window, then the fireplace. For an instant he had a vision of ghostly flames.
"The fire," he exclaimed, pointing.
Benedek whooped with enthusiasm, then toned it down and approached the faint flames, stretching out his hands as if to warm them before the blaze. About six inches away, he turned and cast a look at Jonathan. "Cold fire," he said eagerly. "Typical. Maybe it's some kind of ignis fatuus, though that should be bobbing around outside to lure us away. Or corpse candles."
"Corpse candles?" Jonathan echoed, dismayed. "I've heard of them. Aren't they supposed to represent an impending death?"
"True, too true, but this isn't a corpse candle, Saint Jon. This is an imprint on the fabric of time." He played the words back in his mind. "That sounds great." Whipping out the tape player, he repeated the phrase. "A recording of a night when that fire was lit and—something happened." For the last two words, he dropped his voice ominously.
"What happened, precisely? You can't tell me you didn't research this place before we came here."
"The last of the Goodsons died last year," Benny replied. "Amelia Goodson, spinster. Well, she was forty-five."
Jonathan hadn't reached that advanced age yet but it wasn't as far distant as he would have liked. "What did she die of?" he asked reluctantly, quite certain he didn't want to know.
"It was a robbery attempt," Benny replied. "She was here alone. No servants, or it was their night off or something. She heard someone break in and called 911, but by the time the police got here, they were too late. The house is off the beaten path. They found her at the foot of the main stairs out there and her neck was broken. But she had a scrap of fabric clutched in her hand and they found it was the pocket of a man's shirt. When they caught two men who had robbed a series of houses in the neighborhood, one of them had a shirt that matched."
"The idiot. He should have gotten rid of it immediately." Jonathan looked out into the main hall. "Poor woman, alone and terrified. I hope the two miscreants were sentenced."
"In prison right now," Benny said with satisfaction. "Too bad she had to stick to the house like this. She'd have been safer with people around her. Probably pretty stubborn."
"That's no reason for her to die," Jonathan argued. "People should have the right to live safely in their own homes if they choose."
"True, but where was her common sense? She had the bucks. She could have installed a world-class security system in here if she had to live in the sticks."
The meter screeched as if going into overload and abruptly the painting over the mantle, a portrait of a 19th century gentleman with mutton chop whiskers, leaped from its mounting and crashed down on top of Benedek, who yelped as it came and tried frantically to backpedal out of its way. A huge mahogany bookcase across the room crashed to the floor as the painting struck Benedek a glancing blow across the head and felled him. The false fire blazed up, its ghostly light casting weird yellow shadows across the pallor of Benny's face.
Huge shadows encircled Jonathan as he fought his way to Benedek's side, shadows that suddenly appeared full of claws and teeth. Though the fire still danced and flickered, growing even brighter, a vast, pulsing darkness enveloped Jonathan and Benedek, and out of it came something dark and murky, pouncing like a beast of prey. Instinctively Jonathan threw himself over Benny's inert form, shielding him from the creature's attack, feeling a rake of hot fire down his back as if he had been clawed. Benedek didn't move or speak; he seemed, for a moment, as if he were hardly present, then the claws came again, burning across his forearm as he raised his hand to fend of the attack, and Jonathan yelled involuntarily, flinching in pain. Light and shadow warred around him, allowing him brief distorted images of a savage muzzle and red, glowing eyes, then it faded away, and for an instant, Jonathan saw another face, a human face, though it was too blurred and indistinct to identify. Then it melted away like fog in sunlight.
The meter screeched, the sound growing higher and higher until it vanished beyond the realm of human hearing, and Jonathan's hands clapped against his ears. Then, abruptly, the pain was gone, the fire died, and the dust that had been stirred up when picture and bookshelf fell began to settle, thick motes dancing in the light from the generator-driven lamps. In their glow, Benny was starkly illuminated, and he didn't appear to be breathing.
"BENEDEK!" Jonathan threw himself down at his friend, yanking the heavy painting free of him as if it weighed nothing at all. "Benedek, answer me this minute. This isn't a game. Wake up!" His fingers pressed against the side of the shorter man's neck, feeling for a pulse, then jerking back when he couldn't feel it. "Ah, Benny," he breathed, his eyes wide with horror, then he bent down and positioned the injured man and bent over him, checking the airway, then breathing into his mouth. After a few breaths, he pulled back, positioned his hands on Benny's chest and began external cardiac massage. Arm and back reminded him something had attacked him, but he ignored the pain as unimportant.
"Don't you dare die on me, Benedek," he insisted fiercely, his voice quivering. "I won't let you die on me. Not for something as stupid as this. You breathe! Do you hear me! Breathe!" He bent again to continue the CPR, breathing for his friend, knowing he lacked the medical expertise to know if he should stop or not. If only he could get help. But if he stopped long enough to call 911 Benedek might truly die. He concentrated on the rhythm of it, talking to Benedek whenever he wasn't blowing air into his lungs. "You're not going to die! I won't let you die, do you hear me." And all the while, a cold, sick knot in his stomach told him it was already too late.
He wasn't sure how long he worked on his friend but it couldn't have been more than a minute or two when something happened. He felt the body beneath his pressing hands suddenly bunch and compress as if he were somehow being sucked within himself, then Benedek began to flail about wildly, moaning, fighting free of Jonathan's grip as if he believed himself in the hold of a monster. His eyes shot open and he gazed up at Jonathan blankly as if he couldn't focus or as if he had never seen him before, and deep in the brown depths of his eyes was a question of such intensity that Jonathan found himself opening his mouth to answer before it was asked of him.
Then Benny's eyes slid closed and he heaved a vast, shuddering sigh.
Wait a minute. Brown eyes? Benedek's eyes were blue!
"Benedek? Answer me, Benny," Jonathan pleaded, by this time desperate for reassurance.
The supine man groaned heartrendingly, then his eyes opened, and they were blue, as they had always been. He must have imagined the other color, or it had been a trick of the light. Dazed, the injured man stared up, then he said in a voice that quivered, "Jonathan?"
"Thank god," cried Jonathan and grabbed for him, hugging him with all his strength. It was a sign of how traumatized Benedek was that he permitted it, even leaned into it for a minute, before he caught himself and fought free, glancing around wildly.
"The picture attacked me," he exclaimed. "This is a great story. I think whoever arranged that exorcism better get their money back, 'cause they got rooked." He looked at Jonathan's face then and his eyes narrowed. "What's wrong?"
"You were dead, Benedek." Jonathan flung the words at him as if it were Benedek's fault. "You weren't breathing."
"And you gave me the kiss of life?" Benny asked. "Whoa, heroics. This is gonna be a better story than I thought. You brought me back, Dr. J. There's a medal for you in this somewhere. Write it up and maybe you'll finally get your Nobel."
"They don't give Nobel Prizes for parapsychology, Benedek," Jonathan snapped at him, reaction setting in. He sagged back on his heels and reached up with his other hand to touch his arm. It burned like fire under his exploring fingers.
"What did you do to your arm?" Benedek asked suspiciously, his eyes narrowing in on the gesture.
Jonathan still wasn't sure what had happened when the darkness had surrounded him. Something had attacked, but what? Surely not a ghost. Even assuming ghosts were real, they were not physical; they couldn't cause the kind of pain he felt in his arm and back. He wasn't sure what he'd seen and while he knew there had to be a rational explanation for it, that explanation eluded him completely.
"Let me see," Benny insisted. Gripping Jonathan's wrist, he eyed the fabric of his sports jacket. "Look at this. It's ripped." He frowned. "Not all the way through though, but something sharp nearly got you. Come on, strip."
"Really, Benedek!" But Jonathan obediently pulled off the jacket, wincing at the motion. His shirtsleeve was intact; whatever had assaulted him out of the darkness had not cut through to the flesh. He unbuttoned the cuff and Benny helped him roll up his sleeve to expose his forearm. Revealed were three red welts, cutting sharply across his arm, puffy and painful looking, as if he'd been touched by a chemical that had burned and inflamed the flesh.
"What did that?" Benedek demanded, eyes popping open wide. "And have you got any more of it?"
"My back," admitted Jonathan, knowing Benny would discover it sooner or later.
"Okay, lose the shirt." Benny helped him strip to the waist and edged around behind him, letting out his breath in a sharp whistle. "You made something really mad, buds," he said sympathetically. "Whatever it was did a real number on you. And whatever it is has three claws, too. That's kind of strange. Where's the first aid kit? Maybe there's a cream or something we can use on it."
Jonathan was up for that idea, too. "But only temporary, Benedek. Because I'm taking you to the nearest hospital. Right now. You were not only unconscious, you weren't breathing, and I'm not prepared to take chances of a relapse." He sucked in his breath as Benedek smoothed an ointment on his back and jerked his body more erect, wincing away from the touch.
"Easy, easy, I'm being careful," said Benny as if someone had denegrated his medical abilities, but underneath it Jonathan heard a thread of worry. He was suddenly sure he'd get Benedek to the hospital only because he wanted Jonathan there, too. "But we're coming back afterwards," Benny insisted, his voice growing serious. "Nothing will chase me out of here."
"If it chases you much further, we'll need to order a coffin," Jonathan pointed out.
Benny looked at him, and for an instant Jonathan saw a flash of that strange look he'd noticed when Benedek first awakened, then it was gone and Benedek grinned crookedly and started to apply the lotion to Jonathan's arm.
"So what did you see?" he demanded, pausing for a moment to massage his temples. "I want a blow-by-blow description here. Don't leave something out just because you can't explain it."
"Just because I can't explain it—yet—doesn't mean it doesn't have an explanation," Jonathan reminded him.
"I heard that meter going off," Benny reminded him. "It's a proven fact that a PKE meter detects the presence of ectoplasm, and ectoplasm is what ghosts are made of. So I know there was something here. But what did it look like? A misty form, an ominous shape, transparent female figure." He sketched an hourglass shape with his hands, a hopeful look on his face.
Then, for just a second, his expression changed, hardened, and he looked like a stranger instead of the familiar Benedek as if he'd never really seen the anthro prof before. He glared at Jonathan, the hardness in his eyes defying MacKensie to give a false answer, and it was only when Jonathan said, "BENEDEK!" sharply that the tension eased out of him and his expression returned to normal.
"Well, come on, spill the beans," he urged as if Jonathan's shout left him unmoved.
"It got dark," Jonathan began, then realized his prosaic words did not offer an apt description. "No. Darkness came. It wasn't everywhere, it was just around us. I could see through it, out to the unaffected parts of the room, where the lights were just as bright. But the darkness was palpable, almost a physical presence."
"Bingo!" cried Benny enthusiastically as if his excitement could make him forget his headache. "That's classic. I've heard of that before. I know what this is."
"Good, then enlighten me," Jonathan urged, certain he would not find the answer as wonderful as Benedek obviously did.
"It's the passage between our world and the spirit world. Some ghosts are here all the time. They make a real nuisance of themselves and get caught when the Ghostbusters trap them. Some ghosts are only here as recordings, playing back on the fabric of their haunting site. They're the classic apparitions; you know, the misty figure that walks down a passage at midnight when the moon is full and will walk right through you if you stand in the way. It isn't a conscious entity and doesn't know you're there. It isn't even there; it's just a playback when conditions are right. And then there are the ghosts that fall somewhere in between."
"And I'm willing to bet that's what you'll say we have here," Jonathan said with resignation. "Why am I sure you'll claim these are the worst kind?"
"Because they can be. They lurk around their old stomping grounds, but they're not always here. Some occult types say there's a spirit realm beyond our own and most spirits go there when they bite the big one. But some of them aren't quite finished here and they pop in from time to time. It isn't like taking a bus to Cleveland, either. They have to come through a door or a passage. I think what happened with you is that somebody propped open the door and you got a quick look at 'the other side'."
Jonathan thought of that and wondered if Benedek was rubbing off on him because that made a peculiar kind of sense. "What made it open?" he asked, then he felt the color drain from his face as an answer occurred to him. "It opened for you; you weren't breathing, you were dying, Benedek! That creature came for you!" He realized immediately how ludicrous that sounded, but he'd been badly shaken by Benedek's apparent death and the theory was not quite as unbelievable as it would be if he were sitting in his office back at Georgetown safe and insulated in academia. Shoving aside the desperate wish that he was sitting there right now, Jonathan looked at Benedek, wondering if he'd fought off a creature that had come to take his friend to the Other Side.
"So what did the monster look like?" Benedek asked, fascinated.
"I couldn't really see it, only glimpses, as if there was a strobe light and when it flashed on, I saw a part of it. I saw claws, teeth, a muzzle. It was black, blacker than the shadows, a black so dark it was like a hole in the universe." He groaned. "God, it's making me sound poetic."
"There's a black dog in folklore," Benny said. "It's huge, big as a calf, and it's supposed to be a death sign or a representation of the devil. That can't be what you saw. I'm too young to die and I'm too saintly to go the wrong way when I pass over." He brushed his hands together as if to dismiss the very thought, the momentary vulnerability in his eyes gone so quickly Jonathan nearly doubted he'd seen it.
"Maybe it guards the passage," Jonathan theorized, then he jerked himself to attention and reached for his shirt, easing himself into it carefully to avoid jarring his welts. "Listen to me! I'm beginning to sound like you. We're going to the hospital, and we're going right now! No arguments, Benedek."
"Guards the passage. I like it," Benny agreed, climbing to his feet with no trace of dizziness and putting out a hand to haul Jonathan up after him. In spite of the reddened swelling over his left eye that would likely turn into a fierce bruise by the following day, he was completely steady on his feet, though he moved as if he ached. "Okay, the hospital it is, but we're coming back here afterwards. We're not done here yet."
"We should be. This house is a menace. At the way we're accumulating 'war wounds' neither of us will be alive in the morning. The Ghostbusters will have to bust us."
"And I'm too young to die," Benedek insisted as he dug in his pocket for the car keys, producing a completely separate key chain from the huge ring with the house key. Jonathan held out his hand for it. In spite of the pain in his back and arm, he was determined to do the driving. Benedek might well experience blurred vision or periods of dizziness. He said so. The journalist hesitated, then he shrugged and dropped the key into Jonathan's hand. "Go for it."
"Don't worry, Benedek," Jonathan said, his mood lightening as they headed for the door. "You're not going to die. I have it on good authority that only the good die young."
"See, I told you I was too young to die," Benny observed cheerfully as they returned to the Goodson house and he let himself in with the key. "Not even a concussion. Heart like a drum. I'm in perfect health. And that's more than I can say for you."
"They were only welts," Jonathan returned, somewhat embarrassed by the doctor's reaction to his wounds.
Benny chuckled, his face alive with amusement. "He thinks you're into S & M, buds."
"I know he does." Jonathan was mortified. He hoped nothing else would happen. The doctor hadn't believed that Benny had needed CPR; claimed he was too healthy for that. He'd found a very slight fever but nothing more than the forming bruise on Benny's forehead to indicate anything was wrong for him at all. The doctor had suggested both of them to go bed and when he learned they were staying at the Goodson house, he had warned them of the dangers of a condemned property and shooed them away. Jonathan had muttered to himself all the way back.
"Cheer up, Jon-jon. Everything's fine," Benny said, the last two words ringing with unusual emphasis.
"Meaning?" Jonathan asked as they returned to the room where the picture had attacked Benedek.
"Meaning?" Benny asked doubtfully. "I always thought 'cheer up' was pretty self-explanatory.
"I'm not sure everything's fine," Jonathan replied, wincing slightly as he lowered himself into a chair.
"Neither am I," agreed Benny, stretching painfully. He went over to the refrigerator and opened it, digging around in the contents, looking for a snack.
"Then why did you say it?" MacKensie asked.
Benny looked at him strangely. "I didn't. Here, buds. Have some ice cream." He pulled out a small carton of Haagen Daas in one of its more exotic flavors and hunted around in his supplies for spoons and bowls.
"Yes, you did."
Benedek turned and stared at Jonathan and for a moment Jonathan saw the same unfamiliar look he'd noticed once or twice since the darkness had surrounded them both, and a darker glow in the journalist's eyes. He passed Jonathan a bowl of ice cream without speaking and Jonathan had a sudden feeling something had changed that he didn't understand.
"Your eyes . . . " he said dazedly. "They're brown."
At that, Benedek quivered as a chill ran through his body, then he blinked. When he opened his eyes again, they were their normal blue, and very perplexed. "What's going on, Jonathan?" he asked, and the use of MacKensie's full name made the professor realize how serious he was. He shook his head as if to clear it, then he headed for the PKE meter, reaching out for it, his hand stopping a mere inches away as if he could not force it to go the rest of the way. Struggling as if he was trying to push his hand through a solid wall, he cast a dismayed look at Jonathan.
"Jonny, the meter. Test . . . me." He reeled back as if he'd been struck, and Jonathan, confused, jumped for the meter, snatched it up, and turned it on, pointing it at Benedek. It didn't react the way it had when the darkness had come, but it did respond, the antennae quivering, lights blinking. Jonathan watched the pattern on the screen, untrained in how to read it, but when he moved the device to point in another direction the reaction faded. Carefully he aimed it directly at Benedek and frowned. A printed text below the grid read, 'class three'.
"What does it mean, Benedek?" he demanded.
Benny leaned in and stared at the readings. "Whoa! Major paranormal event," he blurted with much of his normal enthusiasm. "Documented possession."
"Benedek, I'm afraid the doctor didn't diagnose you correctly," Jonathan insisted, shaking his head. Benedek had been unconscious; he'd nearly died, for all the doctor insisted he was healthy now. Who knows what trauma could have led to bizarre behavior. "I think you have a concussion after all."
"Concussion?" Benedek echoed in wild disbelief. "Concussions don't register class three on PKE meters, buds. I've doubled my occupancy. Rented out space to a squatter and this time I've got scientific proof." He struggled against the compulsion that had stopped him before, grabbed the meter from Jonathan's hands and turned it on himself.
"Nonsense, Benedek," objected Jonathan. "The meter recognizes electro-metabolic changes in the human body or some such thing. It doesn't indicate a ghost has taken possession."
"Where's a mirror?" Benedek asked, looking around the room. "I've gotta see this. Not only have I got uninvited guests but don't they make my blue eyes brown. That's what you're saying, right?"
"I'm not sure what I'm saying, Benedek, except that I think I should take you straight back to the hospital."
"That's right, medical science is everybody's first thought when they're possessed. Come on, Jack, we've got to find out who it is and what she wants."
"What she wants?" Jonathan demanded, astonished because he'd been expecting Benedek to say 'he.' Maybe it was gender stereotyping, but the way the language was set up, he'd been so certain of it that the use of the female gender had startled him. "You claim it's female?" Most people except for feminists would not have said 'she' at such a time, without good reason. "You know who the ghost is?" It was the logical conclusion, but Jonathan did not want to encourage Benedek's fantasy. He wanted him to sit down long enough for Jonathan to telephone the doctor and describe Benedek's reaction to him.
"Not yet, but in a couple of minutes I'm gonna let her come out so you can question her."
MacKensie regarded his friend with concern. This might be a classic delusion though he didn't think glancing blows to the head generally caused multiple personality disorders. "No, I don't want you to do that. I want you to sit down."
Benedek sat down promptly in the room's one comfortable chair, after whipping off the dust cover with a flourish. "See? I knew this would be a good place to sit," he said with a grin.
"You knew it was the only armchair in the room just by looking. Don't make a paranormal event out of it. Benedek, you've just sustained a blow to the head. When I got to you, you weren't breathing. In spite of what the doctor says, I think coming back here was a bad idea."
"No, it was a great idea. Where's my tape recorder. I've gotta get this down. I don't know how I knew she was female, Jack, but she is."
"The last of the Goodsons, no doubt," Jonathan said sarcastically, though he reached out and grasped Benny's wrist to take his pulse.
Touching his friend was a mistake. Benedek erupted out of the chair, arms flailing, his mouth opening and emitting sounds that were not part of his friend's normal vocabulary, let alone the tone and pitch of his voice. The words that followed were even more strange and ominous. "Leave…me…alone." Slow, measured and commanding, the instruction was cold and full of threat. "You will regret it if you do not let me go at once."
Jonathan loosened his grip and held up both hands in a conciliatory gesture to reassure Benedek. "Easy, Benny," he said as soothingly as possible. "I'm not going to hurt you."
"But you threaten my very existence," the answer came, the unfamiliar sounds only distantly resembling Benedek's normal voice, as if a spirit had to use his friend's physical equipment for speech but found it unnatural. The thought made him shudder. It was merely part of the delusion brought about by the head injury. This was one of those delayed reactions the doctor had talked about. He had to get Benedek back to the hospital.
"Come on, Benedek, you know the last thing I'd want to do is hurt you. I'm trying to protect you. You've sustained a head injury. The meter is obviously picking up chemical changes to the brain."
"You think so, do you? I know of these meters. But you are a skeptic." There was still nothing of Benedek in the voice. "He tells me this house is condemned."
He tells me? Jonathan didn't like that sound of that. He'd read that emerging personalities in multiple personality disorders spoke of the originals in such a way. He'd have thought Benedek's mental state, dubious as it was, was utterly sane. Benny had enough emotional safety valves to maintain his sanity under great stress, but that wouldn't stand up to physical injury. On the other hand, the meter was a piece of scientific equipment designed to detect ghosts and Jonathan had seen plenty of bizarre and even unexplainable events in his life. He'd even undergone so-called possession himself, and while he'd been able to explain away most of what had happened on the basis of that test he'd undergone, Benny had reminded him he'd known things he had no way of knowing. When he'd protested, Benedek had asked him how he'd known and suggested that if he insisted on the testing process, he'd have to believe it had opened him up to the collective unconscious or enabled him to enter a trance state, and Jonathan found both of those suggestions equally unlikely. But to believe the conscious essence of a departed human could find a host within a living person . . .
"The house," reminded Benny with asperity. "Is the house condemned?"
"You know it is. We saw the sign on the door. It's not been maintained; it's dangerous. Remember the loose floorboards, the proof that the attic roof has been leaking? The whole structural integrity—"
"Enough! This is my home. It must not be condemned. I will remain, and you will not stop me. I have had enough of housebreakers." Benedek reached into his pocket and withdrew the cellular phone. "This will be an inconvenience. I will not fight you for it." He removed its power cell and shoved it into an inner pocket, setting the now-useless phone on the table.
"Benedek, are you . . . " he let his voice trail off. "What are you doing?" he asked instead, a safer question.
"Your attitude was satisfactory earlier, but his . . . " Benedek made a dismissive gesture. "I thought I could reason better with you, but now I see I was wrong. He might be irritating, but he was the believer of your team. He might have listened, entered into my plans, where you will not. No matter, the choice is made." Benedek rose from the chair and walked toward the door, his whole stride different, shorter, more purposeful.
"Benedek is gone," said Benny devastatingly and vanished through the doorway.
For a moment Jonathan stood staring after him in blank dismay, then he caught himself and rushed after his friend. If Benedek believed he could control his 'possession' and had 'let' the spirit come out, maybe he could deliberately come back, though surrendering to a delusion must be dangerous. When he had touched Benny and the journalist had come up swinging, Jonathan had experienced a peculiar feeling, that the body under his hands was no longer that of his friend. The eyes that had glared at him so maliciously had been brown, not the familiar deep blue, and there was none of the usual mischievous spark in them that Jonathan had come to know so well. In fact there was no humor at all, and that had always been one of the things Jonathan had liked about Benny, his ready humor, even when it was misplaced enough to make Jonathan its target.
Benedek was halfway up the stairs when Jonathan emerged from the room, evidently undismayed by the darkness that lurked up there. Wary of darkness because of the thing that had come at him out of it last time, Jonathan went back into the room with the generator long enough to grab one of the powerful flashlights Benedek had provided, then he raced for the stairs and hurried up after his friend. By the time he got to the top, Benedek had vanished.
"Benedek!" Jonathan yelled. "Where are you? Answer me. This has gone beyond a joke!"
There was no response.
Beginning to be seriously worried, Jonathan stopped where he stood and frowned, wondering what Benedek would do in such a situation. He knew Benny would track him down and help him, though in his own peculiar way, so it was up to Jonathan to do the same thing for his friend. And the thought of tracking gave him an idea. Pointing the flashlight at the floor, he tried to see if he could tell by footprints in the dust which way Benedek had gone.
Unfortunately, both of them had come this way before in their search of the house. Muttering to himself in annoyance, Jonathan stood listening for the slightest evidence of Benedek's presence. A faint sound in the darkness to his left alerted him, and he set off that way, darting the beam of the torch here and there in hopes of locating his friend. "Benedek, when I get you out of here, I am going to break your neck," he muttered under his breath.
Before he could become seriously worried—or any least any more seriously worried than he already was—Benedek poked his head out of one of the rooms at the end of the hall. "I had no idea you would be so slow," he said in the unfamiliar tones that meant he was still possessed.
Possessed? Jonathan shook his head, realizing he had begun to lean in that direction in spite of the odds against it. But were the odds so strongly against it? He hadn't imagined the savage beast that had mauled him;, the one that guarded the passage; at least he hadn't imagined the painful red welts on his back and arm because the doctor had seen them, too. Maybe the beast had come for another reason; not to carry Benedek away to the afterlife, not to guard the door, but to distract Jonathan to allow the ghost a chance to take over when Benedek was weakened from the accident, when his guard was down.
Shaking aside that capricious theory, Jonathan raced to Benedek's side and grasped him by the arm. "You may be able to see in pitch darkness but I can't," he responded. "I had to go back for the flashlight." Maybe it was best to play along. "We haven't been properly introduced. I'm Dr. Jonathan MacKensie from the Georgetown Institute."
"Not the Nobel Prize winner?" the 'ghost' replied so promptly Jonathan began to suspect Benedek was pulling his leg, though it would be an unkind act so soon after Benny's brush with death. Then the journalist shook his head, and even that gesture didn't look quite right. "No, you're too young. That was Leonard anyway. A pity. I am Amelia Goodson. This is my home."
Jonathan should have expected that. Benny had set him up for it, but even if he hadn't, a recent, violent death in the house was likely to be considered grounds for haunting. "I see," he said, hoping his attempts at humoring the 'ghost' wouldn't make it angry. Benedek had read about Amelia Goodson before they came here. He might have sympathized with her. A head injury might well cause him to fixate on that. On the other hand, Jonathan thought, prepared to argue Benedek's side of the debate as well since he wasn't doing it for himself, if Amelia Goodson's ghost were actually here, she remained for a purpose, for something left unfinished. When Benedek was injured, his resistance was weakened. She might have been able to take him over, or at least get a toe in the door. Benedek had fought back to consciousness and had probably struggled against her at first, while she learned her way. But now she was comfortable in her new home.
Benedek's face contorted in a haughty sneer that would never have appeared there in his normal state. Proof of both sides of Jonathan's argument. "You see nothing," 'she' snapped at him. "Your friend is the believer. He accepts the concept; that was why I could take him. He annoyed me with sexist remarks and I—"
"Broke the window? Threw the picture at him?" Jonathan demanded. If she was irritated with Benedek, she might not care if he survived the experience or not. In fact she might well relish the thought of a living body so much she wouldn't let go. Jonathan struggled to think of the exorcism rituals Benedek had told him about over the years. "In the name of Jesus Christ I abjure you…" he began.
Amelia laughed. "How medieval. I won't depart until I'm ready and don't use religious rituals against me, because I was an atheist in life and do not believe in any deities you might summon against me. This body may not be as . . . decorative as your own but it is healthy and fit and might well serve me. A pity there was no woman here to take, but perhaps this is for the best. I always fought the limitations society imposed upon my sex."
"Society doesn't impose that many, for those who can rise above them," Jonathan pointed out. "It's the 90s, after all."
"Yes, and by the time we achieved the present state of women's rights, I'd fought for years against those who would deny me my place. I think the time has come for me to see what I had missed, to enjoy life as a man." She frowned, nibbling her bottom lip, and Jonathan realized that he had passed into belief. He didn't think Benedek was that good an actor, though Benny could scam with the best of them. "A pity, though. You're quite decorative and I would have enjoyed . . . " Letting her voice trail off, she ran one hand down his cheek in a gesture that was akin to a caress.
Jonathan leaped backward as if he'd been scalded. "Benedek, if you don't cut this out, I'm going to break your neck."
Brown eyes gazed into his. "But I am not Benedek," Amelia Goodson reminded him. "Oh, honestly, don't stand over there like an offended virgin. I'm hardly going to rape you. I have far more important things on my mind than a little nookie. I have important things to do, before I make my decision."
"Decision?" Jonathan asked warily.
"Whether to keep your friend's body or to take it out into the world where I can find a more compatible one."
"How would you do that?" Jonathan asked in disbelief, hoping to learn her answer in time to stop her.
Amelia slid her hand into Benedek's pocket and came out with a set of keys. "A bar would do it. Find a willing, young, attractive female, lure her away and at the moment of lowered resistance, take her over." The brown eyes gleamed with something akin to lust.
"You would use Benny to rape her?" Jonathan demanded, outraged as he realized what the 'moment of lowered resistance' entailed. She could hardly risk a blow to the head for fear of damaging her new host body. The injury to Benny had not been staged for possession, merely pique. If she made a conscious choice of victim, the last thing she would want to do was risk damaging her. Instead she'd pretend to be Benny or at least male and lure the victim to a seduction, using the victim's lowered resistance at the moment of orgasm to make the transfer. From the gleam he'd seen in her eyes, he was certain that was what she had meant. "You can't do it!" he insisted hotly.
"Oh, don't worry. There'd be no rape charge. Once the transfer was complete I'd be the 'victim' and I assure you, I would take no time to make a complaint, though it might amuse me, just as sex in a male body would amuse me." She took a predatory step closer to Jonathan and he backed up once more. "He made remarks I found offensive," continued Amelia.
"He ‘s done nothing to deserve a fate like this!" Jonathan replied. "It's just his way, it's the way men talk. I've heard my female students talking about men in just such tones when they didn't know I was listening. He's not a male chauvinist. I've known him for five years. But even if he were, it isn't a crime, only a narrow way of thinking, and it doesn't deserve what you're planning. Benedek, if you're in there, fight against her. Talk to me!"
"He can hear you perfectly well," Amelia said. "And he's struggling to get free, but he can't, not unless I let him. And I control the situation." She advanced on Jonathan again, grasped him by the shoulders with all of Benny's strength and shook him lightly. Then, before Jonathan knew what she meant to do, she pushed him away roughly enough to make him stagger back against the opposite wall, pain flashing through his injured back. He sat down on the dusty floor and Amelia knelt before him, reaching out to touch his cheek again. Realizing how much Benedek would hate this manipulation, Jonathan grabbed his friend's wrist and held on tight. "Listen to me, Benedek. You can fight her. She's demented; she's been here alone too long, too full of hate, but you can fight her. I know what a strong will you've got. Hold out against her."
For a moment, the eyes flickered, switching to blue then back to brown, then to blue again. The outstretched hand clenched tightly into a fist, then went lax, fingers spreading. Benedek blinked at him dazedly, faltered, "J-jonathan . . . Help me . . . "
"Right here, Benny," Jonathan said reassuringly. "Tell me what to do to drive her out." Freeing his wrist, he gripped Benedek by the upper arms and held onto him, unwilling to let him go.
As he watched the eyes blurred over, the brown of possession obscuring the desperate blue, and Amelia threw back her head and laughed. "If that was his best shot, I feel sorry for him," she retorted. "Oh, not enough to let him go, of course. But how pathetic. 'Help me, Jonathan,'" she mocked, a hard edge of scorn running through her voice. She didn't sound anything like Benedek except in the depth of the tone.
As if he were holding a live wire Jonathan let go. The minute he did, Amelia snatched the flashlight from his hand, swung it at his head and dealt him a glancing blow just above his right ear. Darkness descended as the bulb shattered. The movement was so unexpected Jonathan hadn't had time to do more than put up his arm to block it, and he realized if he hadn't, he would be unconscious. Instead, he stumbled shakily to his feet in a darkness so thick it was almost palpable, listening to the fading footsteps of Amelia as she fled in triumph. She knew the house well enough to travel it in the darkness, and even if she hadn't, maybe ghosts could see in the dark.
Dizzy from the blow, Jonathan put his hand to the wound. Under his fingers it was tender and aching but there was no blood. Collecting himself, he began to feel his way along the passage toward the stairs again. There was no light to guide him at all. Amelia must have gone down and turned off the generator. Could she trap him in the house? She had the car keys; if she drove away, Jonathan didn't have a prayer of stopping her insane plan. He didn't mean to allow Benedek to be sacrificed for a ghost's ambition, nor did he mean to risk the life of an innocent woman so that Amelia could have a new host. Yet he knew if he were the deranged woman in Benedek's body, he would flee immediately. He had to hurry.
When he reached the stairs, he realized there was still light downstairs; he could see well enough to hurry down to the main door and fling it open. The car sat where he had parked it earlier, and as he saw it, he began to smile. The keys Amelia had displayed were Benedek's personal keys. On the way to and from the hospital, he had driven the rental car because of Benedek's injury, and when they had returned here, he had pocketed its keys automatically. Amelia might have the keys to the house, which Benny carried on a separate ring, and his own keys but she didn't have the keys to the car.
Relieved, Jonathan rushed to the car, to make sure it was unharmed. Then he stopped, staring in dismay. Amelia had been here all right. Maybe Jonathan had been stunned for a few moments longer than he thought because Amelia had found time, in her rage, to drive a knife blade into the two front tires. Even if the spare was in good condition, it would only replace one of them. Amelia hadn't bothered to damage more than two; there was no need. But now she was trapped here too. In her anger she had reacted without stopping to think that she might find a way to force the key from Jonathan. Or maybe Benedek had struggled for some control, to prevent her from getting away.
"Benedek!" Jonathan bellowed, looking around the crisp October night. Nothing moved except the branches of trees, waving in the breeze. Remembering Benedek had the key to the house, Jonathan raced back, determined not to be locked out. He found Amelia in the room with the generator, savoring the melty remains of the ice cream Benedek had dished up.
"It's been so long since I've eaten," she said, poking out her tongue to lick away a smear at the corner of her mouth. She looked so normal, so unchanged that if not for the darkness of her eyes and the tone of her voice Jonathan would have suspected Benedek had freed himself. Yet she had mocked Benedek's so-called weakness and insisted he could not defeat her.
"Enjoy it while you can," he returned. "I plan to stop you. I’m going to get my friend back. What gives you the right to take over another human being?"
"What gave those men the right to push me down the stairs?" she countered. "They killed me, robbed me of my life, too soon, just one day too soon—" great grief came into her voice—"and because of that, I don't owe anyone any consideration at all."
"We came here to help you," Jonathan burst out.
"You came here to get rid of me, and don't deny it. I don't think you'll lie to me, Jonathan." She let her voice slide caressingly over his name. "You interest me, even if you lie. When I find a female body, I'll come looking for you, and you will never know it's I, not until it's too late. Perhaps I will switch over and possess you, too, and the poor victim I use to do so will no doubt cry rape, as I will not when I leave Benedek. He was at least up front about what he meant to do, with his PKE meters and Ghostbusters."
"You're dead, Amelia," Jonathan insisted. "You don't belong here any more. It's a tragedy, and it's every bit as unfair as you claim it is. No one disputes that, not even the Ghostbusters. But you've stayed here for a reason, and that reason is something left undone. It isn't to steal a living body. That's not why you are here. That's not why you can't rest."
"It seems an excellent reason to me." She opened the refrigerator and took out the champagne. "Will you drink with me?"
"No, I won't drink with you," Jonathan snapped, then he caught himself. If he could get her drunk, her resistance might be lowered, allowing Benny to free himself.
She pinned him in a deadly brown glare. "I know what you are thinking. How like a man! Make me drunk to use me at my moment of weakness! How many women have you seduced with liquor, Dr. MacKensie?"
"None," he snapped. "I don't need to make women drunk to interest them, and I wouldn't do it even if I did."
"Interesting. Benedek agrees with you. He says you're a gentleman." She tilted Benedek's head to one side as she considered the matter. "One small glass, to remind me of the pleasures of life," she said and poured a small amount into a glass, sipping it, eyes closed with bliss. "Ah, very nice."
Jonathan jumped her, grabbing her wrists. "Let him go," he insisted. "Let him go now! If you need to possess someone, take me instead."
"Such chivalry," she retorted with a tinkling and affected laugh that came oddly from Benny's lips. "I don't think so, Jonathan." She toyed with his name, letting it roll from his lips. "Such a waste. You intrigue me, your loyalty intrigues me, and I do like that nose." She put up a finger and traced it down Jonathan's nose, over his lips. "I felt you kiss me when you gave the breath of life to your friend. It was . . . very pleasant. A pity this form doesn't tempt you enough for you to do it again." Jonathan let her go and stepped back quickly.
Her eyes flickered, brown, blue, brown again. Benedek was still in there, still fighting. Amelia reasserted her control, looked at Jonathan with interest, then, before he knew what to expect, brought up a fist and sucker punched him on the jaw.
With a yell, Jonathan staggered back. He'd be black and blue all over at this rate. Amelia pushed past him and headed for the doorway again, and Jonathan followed her. Hand on his aching jaw he called after her, "At least tell me what you want. Maybe I can help you. You stayed here for a purpose, or at least you stayed in a limbo connected to the house. You can hide there, because you did when the Ghostbusters came, but the house drew you back again and again. You've left something unfinished. Tell me what it is, and maybe I can help you."
"Leave me alone!" This time, there was an edge of tears in her voice, such a change from her normal, haughty tones that MacKensie was astonished. He wondered if Benedek knew. Amelia could evidently take knowledge from Benedek's mind, though perhaps not everything because she hadn't guessed about the car keys. Could Benedek guess at her motivations, too. If he could find a way to get through to Benny long enough, could he solve this mystery, discover what bound Amelia to the house, and free Benedek.
"Amelia," he called, hurrying after her. "What's more important? Stealing a body so you can play games? Or the purpose that kept you from crossing over?"
Halfway up the steps, she flinched, her feet slowing. For a moment she stood there, one hand gripping the rail; in the light from the second flashlight, Benedek's knuckles clearly whitened under the intensity of her grip. Whatever her motivation, it was a powerful one. She'd been so upset when reminded of her death, claimed it was too soon, which meant something vital to her had been on the verge of happening. Jonathan didn't think Benedek had known about it or he would have told him when they were discussing her death. But she had known; she had planned. The housebreakers had robbed her of something essential, and if Jonathan could find out what it was, maybe he could find a way to help her move on to whatever waited for her in the afterlife.
"Leave me alone," she wailed and rushed up the stairs.
"What are you looking for up there?" Jonathan called after her. "There's nothing. The house is empty. We searched it earlier."
"You're a fool," cried Amelia and hurried up the stairs.
Edgar Benedek was scared, but he was fascinated, too. He hadn't expected the possession, though when he'd revived after the picture fell on him, there had been a moment of blind panic as if something was different, something that didn't feel right. Then Jonathan had been there, exuberant in his relief, and for the moment, everything settled down. In spite of the fierce pounding of his skull, Benedek knew he wasn't seriously hurt. Yet Jonathan insisted he hadn't been breathing. Jonathan had given him mouth to mouth resuscitation. Jonathan had saved his life. Warmed by the concern in his friend's face, Benedek had tried to voice his belief that something was different, but they words would not come. He couldn't explain to Jonathan, even after he felt himself momentarily dispossessed two or three times.
When it happened, it was as if the part of him that made him what he was had been shoved away into a small corner of his mind, where he could watch and observe, but not really comment. Once he realized what was happening, he was intrigued and had tried to get his point across to Jonathan, realizing he had to fight his 'tenant' to get to the PKE meter. He hadn't known who she was until then but he'd know it was a woman and it hadn't taken a stroke of brilliance to guess it was Amelia.
It was scary, even for him, even if he was intrigued as hell by the whole process. She had just oozed into him and taken over, and while he could see and hear and feel himself breathing, his body still working, he had no control of anything voluntary. He couldn't even close his own eyes. Amelia had used his voice to talk, used his hands to hit or caress, used his body as her own. After her first, clumsy attempts, she even became comfortable inside him. He hated that. It was as if she was a voyeur, getting off on watching him, on being him. And she was strong. Something had driven her, holding her trapped this side of death, and whatever it was, she could use that motivation to fight him, to stomp him down and control him while she taunted Jonathan, teased him with sexual innuendos and even used Benedek's hands to hurt him. Benny really hated that.
Since then he'd fought against her to no avail. He'd watched her challenge Jonathan, come on to him, protest her rights while ignoring the rights of everyone else around her and in general come to resent her with every fiber of his being. She could take information from him, though not without effort, and when she tried, he could momentarily assert himself. It was easier when Jonathan touched her, somehow, as if the physical contact affected her. Maybe it just affected him; he could draw strength from Jonathan because he, too, was alive, while she was ectoplasmic and couldn't. He'd studied about possession, but hadn't learned anything to help him in his own particular situation. Much of the so-called possession of the Middle Ages and even later had probably been undiagnosed mental illness, just as today's diagnoses by psychiatrists might occasionally be incorrect as they tried to slap the trendy labels on people who were genuinely possessed. Benedek knew there was a middle ground, was willing to grant both sides of the picture, and from the worried look he kept seeing in Jonathan's eyes, he realized his buddy was a believer this time around. He could feel the difference, and he could hear it. Somewhere along the line he'd abandoned the head- injury theory and replaced it with the truth. Benedek knew it hadn't been the PKE meter that had proved it but his own knowledge of Edgar Benedek.
Despite Jonathan's good intentions and determination to rescue Benny, he wasn't an exorcist and that was what was needed. Either that or the Ghostbusters, who could take Amelia's settings and Benedek's (which they had on file) and use their equipment to pull Amelia free of him. Aerobic exorcism might work, too. Benny grinned, remembering the time he'd tried to use that on Jonathan. Amelia was not religious; none of the traditional rites would work on her, even assuming Jonathan knew them. Benny wondered if he could do them in here and even tried a few, but it didn't work.
What he needed was information. Amelia had come upstairs to look for something before, not realizing the house had been cleared out. Maybe he just needed to go with the flow for awhile. See what Amelia wanted, let his own mind drift in hopes of picking up something from hers. She'd made him a passenger in his own body and that pissed him off. She'd also treated Jack pretty badly, and if anyone didn't deserve that kind of treatment it was Jonathan MacKensie. Amelia had taken a couple of Benny's kidding remarks as sexist and had decided to take advantage of him because of it, but Benny wasn't sexist. He enjoyed women but didn't mind if they enjoyed him in return and it didn't occur to him that a woman couldn't do something simply because she was a woman. His pleasure in female company was harmless, never intended to dehumanize, and if Amelia had taken him that way, then it was she who had the problem, not Benny. What she'd been doing to Jonathan was what was really sexist, and Benny thought it loud and clear as she stormed away up the stairs, trying to get the point across to her.
Then Jonathan had called out to her, asking about the purpose that had held her here, and he'd felt pain radiating through her entire essence. Whatever bound her to the house was something grave enough to keep her from the grave. He gave a mental grin at the play on words, then concentrated, trying to find out what he could.
She also was convinced she was strong and in control, but Benny knew better. He'd tried to come through before, had asked Jonathan for help, but he hadn't used every fiber of his strength. Reminded him of the Doberman he'd heard about that was out on a chain each day. It had been teased by a smaller dog in the neighborhood, and the crafty Doberman had struggled to the end of its chain in a frantic effort to get its tormenter. Each day it had held back a little more and each day the smaller dog had grew nearer, convinced it was safely out of range. Then, when the Doberman had lured it to well within its range, it had sprung out to the far end of the chain and attacked the smaller dog. Benny decided he had to be like that. He couldn't let her see his full strength. Maybe he could convince her he'd never break free, and then, when she was least expecting it, he could drive her out. Until then he had to seem to struggle occasionally, and fail. Then, when she believed him no threat at all, he'd pounce, just like the Doberman had. And maybe by then he'd know what she was here for.
She returned to the room she had been aiming for when Jonathan had interrupted before and stalked into it, pausing to look around. It had been an elaborate room once with heavy panels, ornate with carvings, and a huge fireplace taking up most of one wall. Beside it nearer the window was a closet, standing ajar, empty but for a few hangars and a hatbox on a shelf. Amelia ignored it. Instead she stalked over to the other end of the fireplace, put up a hand and pushed the center of a daisy carving in the middle of a bunch of other daisy carvings. "Whoa, secret panel," Benny said to himself even before the whole wall between the fireplace and the hall swung slightly in on itself and then to one side, revealing a hidden closet composed of five shelves. Whoever had emptied the house hadn't discovered the hiding place, and Amelia laughed out loud with relief when she saw it.
"You've gotta see this, Jon-boy," Benny muttered, surprised when the words emerged audibly. Amelia's attention was so caught up in her findings that she hadn't censored him.
Triumphantly, Benedek yelled at the top of his lungs, "Yo, Jack. Come on. We found it!"
At once she clamped down her control and the last word broke off in mid-utterance, but the damage was done. Benny could hear Jonathan's footsteps thudding down the hall toward them. Amelia heard them too, and she yanked out a legal-sized envelope and tucked it inside Benny's sports jacket, then to Benny's horror, she reached onto the top shelf and grasped something cold, hard and metal, pulling it into sight. It was a small gun. Smiling in satisfaction she pushed the daisy button again to close the panel before Jonathan burst into the room.
"She's got a gun, Jon! She took something out—" Benny tried, but the words wouldn't come. Instead they rang uselessly inside his head. He was trapped again, and Amelia was alert and wouldn't let him out again. He tried to sneak a hand toward the inner pocket, but he couldn't control his movements. Instead, Amelia turned to face Jonathan as he burst into the room.
"This is my bedroom," she said haughtily, leveling the weapon at him. It looked like a small caliber but that wasn't especially reassuring. "How dare you come in here?"
"I dare because you've got my friend," Jonathan returned, his eyes lingering on the gun then raising to stare her right in the eye. Benny could see he was uneasy about the weapon but he didn't back down. "I'd dare anything to free him. Talk to me, Amelia. I know there's something you want badly. I think you want it more than you want to be alive in a strange body. Tell me what it is, and I'll help you, only let Benedek go first."
"I'm not such a fool," she snapped. "Once Benedek was free, you'd have no reason to help me. You'd want to hurt me, to drive me away, to trap me. Well, you won't. I need to be alive. You fool, what do you think would be the point of resolution if I were dead? I have to be alive to do this. Don't you understand?"
"I understand. I don't approve," Jonathan returned. "You have something unfinished, I understand that. But so does Benny have something unfinished, his whole life. He's not dead. You hated the men who stole your life away but you're no better than they are."
Anger convulsed her, such hot fury that Benedek felt it flowing through him and driving him to anger, too, though his anger was not, as hers was, directed at Jonathan. "How dare you!" she raged. "How dare you compare me to the men who killed me."
"Easily," said Jonathan, standing his ground. Old Jack looked pretty heroic, but then that was his nature, thought Benedek. He would have looked pretty good as one of those old knights who rode around slaying dragons and rescuing damsels in distress. Even now, a part of him felt concern for Amelia, in spite of his anger at her for possessing Benedek. "Because I think you don't realize how twisted you've become. And there's a reason for that. It's because this isn't natural; it isn't meant. It's twisted you. You've fought to stay here to finish what you need to finish, but the fight has made you into something you are not. Tell me what you need to be done and I'll try to help you. I mean that. But let Benny go. Don't burn him out for something that may never work. Give me my friend back and I'll help you, and that's a solemn promise."
He means it, Benedek thought with all his strength. This guy's got honor written all over him. Believe him.
I believe him, Amelia replied. But I don't care. I can't give up now. I have to— I have to—" A complex jangle of emotions flooded her, overwhelming her so thoroughly that Benedek decided to take a risk.
"She knows, Jack," he said quickly. "But it isn't enough for her."
At once she caught him, sending pain pulsing through him. That it hurt her with him evidently didn't matter. Benny doubled over, moaning, feeling the heat that flushed him. The doctor had claimed he had a slight fever. Was it higher now? Was possession burning him out?
Amelia straightened up. "You see," she told a horrified Jonathan, "I am in control. I will suffer pain if I must to prove it. But I have something I must do first."
"If I help you, will you free Benedek when you're done?" Jonathan asked.
"I'm becoming quite comfortable here," Amelia said, though Benedek knew it wasn't true. She wasn't comfortable in his body. He could feel her shifting around every so often, as if to adjust the fit. What's more, he wasn't sure how much longer he could take her presence without giving in. If he stopped fighting her, she'd be able to adjust, to conform to her new home, but if he did that, he wasn't sure he'd be Edgar Benedek any more. He had to keep fighting her, even if he burned out in the process, because the alternative sucked warty pickles.
"Well, forget comfort," Jonathan replied. "Because I'm going to get Benedek back, and the only way to stop me is to kill me, because I won't give up."
No, Jack! Don't give her any ideas!
Amelia was quick on the uptake. "Well, if that's what it comes down to, you can always die," she retorted. "Because as near as I can see, your advantage here is purely decorative. You're in my way, you're stopping me from my purpose, and I won't have it." She made a quick gesture with the weapon. "I won't hesitate to shoot you if you interfere in my plans. Remember that. I'm not like those two men. I'm not. But I am desperate and I won't endure interference. Turn around, Jonathan. What does he call you? Jack? Buds?" the nicknames sounded warped and nasty when she said them. "This is amusing," she continued. "I know so much about you, Jonathan. I don't want to kill you. I'd rather enjoy getting to know you better. However, don't fool yourself that I'll abandon my purpose because I find you attractive. I won't. I will shoot if I must. Tell her, Edgar."
"She means it," Benny said, quick to take advantage. "Don't take the chance for me, buds."
"Of course I will, Benedek, don't be a fool." Jonathan looked at him levelly and Benny knew it was him Jonathan was looking at, not Amelia. Then his expression changed. "If you hurt him, you'll regret it," he said. "But why do you need to? I've said I'll help you. And I will, as long as it doesn't entail stealing the body of someone who doesn't want to give it up or hurting anyone. Anything short of that, I'll help you. Ask Benedek if you doubt me."
She looked at him a long time, and Benedek crossed his fingers. Well, mentally anyway. He couldn't get his hands to do his bidding, or he would have thrown the gun through the nearest window first chance he had. Then she shook her head. "Downstairs," she ordered, her hand rock- steady on the gun, her other hand sliding into the jacket to feel for the envelope she had placed there.
Jonathan shot an anguished look at Benny and turned obediently. The gun made him nervous, but he had the look of a man who is waiting for a chance to jump his enemy. Jack wasn't the athletic type, and Benny was afraid trying that would only win him a bullet. He'd already been forced to slug his friend and brain him. He wouldn't shoot him too.
They went down the stairs in silence, Benny thinking furiously, Jonathan's back a rigid line. From the way he moved it was still hurting him, but he was steady on his feet. With grim determination he led the way into the exorcism room, stepping around the fallen painting.
"Now what?" he asked, his voice sarcastic.
"Now I make a telephone call," Amelia replied. She took out the power cell for the phone. "Put that in place and if you dare think of damaging the phone or calling 911, I'll shoot. I don't need to shoot you, you know. I can put a bullet in Benny's foot, and then when the pain is too strong, I can switch over and possess you. I'm not powerless and I'm the one with the gun."
From the look on Jonathan's face it was plain he expected the worst of her. He replaced the power unit and looked at her. "Do you want me to make the call, too?"
"I'll give you the number." She took out the envelope and looked at it. On the outside was the name 'David Kelly' and a phone number. Benny wondered if it was an old boyfriend she wanted to talk to one last time. It seemed like a lot of threat, violence and effort for such a simple thing.
Jonathan punched in the numbers and then handed her the telephone. She juggled it and the gun for a moment, but not long enough for Jonathan to risk lunging for her to knock the weapon away. Benny hoped she'd concentrate on the mysterious phone call long enough for him to make a break for it.
It was a male voice, adult but fairly young. Benny could feel Amelia stiffen up, his muscles tightening. She said quickly, "Is this David Kelly?"
"I'm calling for Amelia Goodson. Do you know the name?"
This time there was a hesitation then the voice said warily, "And if I do?"
"Then I want to ask you to come to the Goodson house now, tonight."
"The Goodson house? But it's shut up. Ms. Goodson is dead. What is this about?"
"Something to your advantage," Amelia said. "Some papers that will be of interest to you."
"Who is this?" Kelly demanded suspiciously. "Is this her lawyer?"
"No, but I'll explain that when you come. I promise you this is not a scam and that you will be in no danger." Not much you won't, thought Benny cynically, feeling the cold steel of the gun in his hand, but he was unable to break through to warn Kelly away. "Ms Goodson couldn't contact you; she died before she could do that, but we both know why she wanted to contact you."
"Is this some kind of threat?" Kelly asked. "I know what you're talking about and it's not a big mystery. I know, my wife knows, even my folks know and so does my boss. You aren't going to shock me and there's no way you can harm me."
'Oh, I think I might manage a little shock," Amelia said in a voice that quivered faintly around the edges. "Please. I won't need much of your time. But it matters to me. I would like very much to speak with you."
"Oh!" Evidently something occurred to Kelly. "Is this—" he broke off. "All right. I'll be there in half an hour. I don't live that far away. But I'm telling my wife where I'm going and if I'm not back in a reasonable time she'll have the police come looking for me."
"I'm not concerned with the police," said Amelia positively. "You will be in no danger. I have something to give you that you might find valuable, that's all. David? Please come."
A hesitation, then the voice said impatiently, "I've said I'll be there," and he hung up.
When Amelia turned off the phone and set it on the table, she was smiling a strange, contented smile. Whatever secret had existed between her and David Kelly, it did not appear to pose a threat to him, yet why else would her contentment radiate through him the way it did. "Now we wait," she said. Gesturing with the gun at Jonathan, she pointed to the armchair. "Sit there, Dr. MacKensie, where I can watch you."
Jonathan hesitated, then he agreed. "You've gotten what you want," he said. "Let Benedek go now. You can deal with your visitor in spirit form as well as you can this way. Better, anyway."
"Perhaps I can," she agreed. "But I'm not sure I can hold a gun. I don't trust you not to harm me if I give him up. He's my weapon, even more than the gun is. Unless you want to lose your friend forever, you'll do what I tell you to do."
"All right," Jonathan said, his voice conciliatory. "But what harm can it do you to let Benedek talk to me. You'll control it, after all. If you want to silence him when your friend arrives, I'll understand it but I want proof that Benedek is all right. I know him. He'll hate this. Well, part of him will be planning the story he means to write about it but the rest of him won't like giving up control."
Jonathan had called that one on the money. Benny didn't like it; he was in here fighting and hadn't given up, but he was pretty steamed at her for controlling him this way. Benny knew he'd go down fighting if he had to, but he didn't want to go down, not without a last chance to say goodbye to all his friends; Theo and Melanie, Boom-Boom, Jordy, even Merv, all of them. And Jack. Who'd have thought the stuffy, whitebread professor he'd met in Fartham would have turned out to be such a gem. Jonathan had proven himself early on. Though he had his annoying quirks and stubbornly refused to believe the truth when it was staring him in the face, he was gold all through, especially when the chips were down. Whenever Benny was in trouble, Jonathan was there for him, taking on threats he'd never even imagined before, facing down crazed gunmen; he'd done this before when the nutcase who'd believed he was Wyatt Earp had decided Benny was a Clanton and meant to waste him. Jonathan had calmly stepped in between Benny and the loony tunes and nearly blown it by claiming to be Judge 'Ray' Bean. Trust Jonny. But it had worked anyway. Look at him sitting there now. Benny knew that expression on his face. It meant his mind was going a mile a minute, trying to come up with a solution.
"Let me talk to him," Jonathan persisted. "How's it going to hurt you? If you don't, I'll know you've changed so much you've become like those men who killed you, and I'll tell David Kelly as much when he gets here."
He couldn't have known that barrel was loaded, but it was plain to all of them it was. Amelia flinched, the gun jerking in her hand. It went off but her aim wasn't true and it dug a hole in the armchair not two inches from Jonathan's ear. He erupted from the chair with a dismayed yell and tried to duck behind it, emerging again with his hands raised. He must have seen an exit hole in the back of the chair and realized it wouldn't shield him if she chose to shoot again.
"You will tell him no such thing," Amelia insisted. "If I even suspect you mean to do such a thing I will shoot you where you stand!" Benny felt his finger begin to tighten on the trigger.
This was it, the moment he'd been waiting for, the moment he had to act because there was no choice. Gathering in every shred of stubborn determination he possessed, he compressed it into a tight, hard knot and threw it at Amelia, forcing her back with every ounce of his hoarded strength. The gun went off again and Jonathan yelled, but it was a yell of outrage rather than pain and that encouraged Benny to keep fighting.
Everything resolved to a small, dark place that suddenly expanded around him. Somewhere nearby the PKE meter screeched as if it were going into overload. Benny blinked, realizing the darkness was thick enough to have solidity as if he could put out his hands and feel it. Out of it swarmed something only visible in flashes, savage and growling, the beast Jonathan had seen before, the Black Dog. With a yell, Jonny charged at him, jumping between him and the half-seen creature to protect him. Benny struggled, still battling the pressure in his brain, and then, abruptly, it was gone, and he was falling, spent, to hands and knees, his head hanging low between his shoulders as he sucked in huge breaths of air. The very act of breathing seemed to cleanse him as if he could erase all traces of possession.
Jonathan yelled and Benny found the strength to push himself up, erupting to his feet with a yell of his own as Jonathan sagged down, the beast slashing at him with a huge paw. "NO!" cried Benny, lunging at the beast. He felt its physical body as he hit it hard, knocking it away from Jonathan, who reeled back, clutching at his chest.
"Jonathan? Are you okay?" Benny cried, grabbing his friend by the arm and yanking him to one side as if to pull him free of the blackness. A face leered before him, huge and distorted, but vaguely human, and then, as both men stared it shrank down to normal size. The blackness retreated leaving the two of them facing the image of Amelia Goodson, slightly transparent, so that shapes were vaguely visible behind her. The black dog was gone and they heard the PKE meter gasping its last breath as the overload caused it to sizzle and pop, smoke oozing from its casing, then, finally, silence.
"Benedek?" demanded Jonathan. "Are you all right?" He grabbed Benny by the arms, shaking him lightly, slapping his palm against the journalist's forehead to test for fever. Peering into Benny's eyes, he heaved a sudden sigh of relief. "She's gone, Benedek. You did it! I don't know what you did but it worked! She's gone." He flung his arms around Benny and hugged him enthusiastically.
"No, she's there, buds," Benny replied, good-naturedly fending Jonathan off. "She was going to shoot you, Jack. I couldn't let her take pot shots at you. So I threw her out. Seems like it must have needed an adrenaline rush to make it work."
"You didn't get one when she brained me with the flashlight or punched me out?" Jonathan demanded in some outrage but it was good- humored outrage. "And in case you missed the action, she did shoot me."
"What? You're hit? What kind of an idiot are you that you couldn't duck?" He looked Jonathan up and down and found the injury immediately, a very slight graze on his right arm. It was barely bleeding. "Look at that! That's no worse than my ear!" Relief made him sag for a minute, suddenly realizing he was dead beat. Jonathan, unconcerned about the tiny wound, put an arm around his waist to hold him up. Shaking with reaction, the two of them turned to confront the ghost.
"I was so close," she moaned, "so close. It's not fair."
"Better this way," Benny replied. "What good would it do him if I did the talking. This way he'll see you—the real you. That's what you want anyway, isn't it?"
"What are you talking about, Benedek?" demanded Jonathan, steering him over to the chair with the bullet hole and making him sit down. Funny how being possessed turned a person's knees to rubber.
"I think I've got it," Benny replied in a Rex Harrison kind of voice. "By george, I think I've got it." He started grinning. "No wonder you've got an anti-male thing." He eyed the ghost with interest. "It took a long time for you to find him, didn't it?" he asked.
"I found him the day they killed me," Amelia replied, the frustration and misery evident in his voice. "I'd looked for years—years and years, and no luck. It was only at the end when I found out he had been looking for me. It was arranged I'd phone the next day, but we never talked. Then the housebreakers came, and I fell down the stairs and I knew I would never see him, never touch him. Damn them! They don't know what they did to me."
"What's going on, Benedek?" demanded Jonathan. He hadn't had Amelia inside his head, giving him clues. Benny waved a hand at MacKensie to quiet him. He needed to get his answers first.
"Just a minute, Jon-jon. Okay, Amelia. Talk to me. I can help you. How old were you when it happened?"
"I was seventeen," she confessed. "I thought it was the answer; I thought everything would change; I thought I'd be free of this dreadful house and my grandfather and his dictatorial rules, and instead Kevin backed out and left me in the lurch and in the end Grandfather covered everything up and sent me to finishing school in Europe afterward. It wasn't done then, you see," she said. "It was a scandal. Nowadays, no one would mind but I was seventeen and Kevin was gone, and Grandfather wouldn't let me keep my baby."
Jonathan drew in a breath of shocked realization. "You gave him up but you tried to find him later," he realized.
"At first I could get nowhere. Records were sealed; Grandfather had been very sneaky, but then he always was. Everything had to be his way. He died two years before I did, and I spent those two years greasing palms, hiring lawyers. The trail was cold and I ran into roadblocks everywhere." She shivered, wrapping her arms around her ectoplasmic form as if the gesture could keep her from the chill of death.
"But then the lawyer called and said he'd gotten a lead. It seems my son was looking for me. The files were finally open and the lawyer was able to find him, very near to here. The next town, in fact. I wonder if Grandfather arranged that on purpose so he could keep an eye on his great grandson. The lawyer talked to David and arranged that I would phone him the following day. And that night they came. They broke into my house and when I tried to stop them, they pushed me. As I fell, I knew I'd never see David and I hated them so much. I hated them because they'd taken away the only thing that would have given my whole life meaning!"
Jonathan had watched her with growing distress, as if this information could wipe away his resentment. Always sympathetic to someone who was unhappy and in need of help, he took an involuntary step toward her. She put up a hand, palm outward.
"Don't come near me," she spat. "Stay away. We're going to wait right here until David comes, long enough for me to see him."
"And talk to him," Jonathan insisted. "Don't you think he'd want that as much as you do? You can talk to him much more openly as yourself. What could you have said to him in Benedek's body? He'd never have believed it. Look how long it took me to believe it. I wanted to believe it was something easily explained like the side effects of a concussion. And I've been a paranormal investigator for five years. David doesn't have that background. You can tell him you stayed, you were bound, because you love him and you had to see him before you went away. Then he'll always have the knowledge that you didn't want to give him up, that seeing him one time meant more to you than the whole afterlife. Isn't that worth it? We would always have helped you."
She stared at him in openmouthed disbelief for a long moment, then she gasped and hid her face in her hands. "I could read that in Benny's mind all along but I couldn't let myself believe it. I couldn't take the risk."
"It's not a risk," Benny insisted. "I told you Jon-boy would help. I told you he was true blue."
"Benedek," Jonathan groaned, sounding embarrassed at the praise.
"Word of honor, Jack, I mean every word," Benny said with a grin. "Thanks for hanging in there. Now we've gotta stage manage this. David's gonna wet his pants when he finds out why he's been summoned here. We want to break it to him nice or he'll run screaming into the night."
"As would any sensible man," Jonathan replied. "I'll talk to him."
David Kelly arrived ten minutes later, and Jonathan met him at the door. "Come in, Mr. Kelly."
"You're not the one who talked to me on the phone," Kelly said, balking. He looked around twenty-five, though he was a few years older than that really, his hair the same rich auburn as his mother's, his eyes as brown, though his face was not as angular as hers. He stood just inside the doorway, feet planted as if he feared he'd be dragged in against his will.
"No, that was my friend Edgar Benedek. I'm Jonathan MacKensie from Georgetown Institute."
"Not the Nobel guy?"
"Oh, bummer." Jonathan tensed slightly, uncertain how to take that. But David added immediately, "I figured nobody with the Nobel was going to try and con me."
"I won't, either," Jonathan insisted. "But what I've got to say is bound to shock you. I take it you know that Amelia Goodson, who used to live here, was in fact your birth mother?"
"That's right. The lawyer told me right before she was killed. I was supposed to hear from her the next day." For a moment, his eyes flashed with disappointment. "I always wanted to meet her, all the more when I found out she'd been forced to give me up and was looking for me. My adoptive parents are great but I always wanted to know. So I was looking forward to meeting her. When I heard she'd been killed, I was devastated."
He sounded sincere. Jonathan hesitated, picking out the right words. "I work for the Paranormal Investigations Unit at Georgetown," he said. "My job is to investigate unexplained events. I'm partnered with Edgar Benedek, who is an expert ghost hunter. We came here to investigate reports of haunting."
"Yeah, this place has a reputation," David replied. "Even when I was a kid, before I knew about Amelia, I knew about this house." He stopped suddenly as if he had just made the connection. "Oh, now, wait a minute. You're not saying this house really is haunted—by my mother."
"I know it sounds unbelievable," Jonathan replied. "But how else would we have known to phone you? She's waiting to meet you. When she died, she was still bound here because of her need to see you." Dr. Moorhouse is going to love this, Jonathan thought, because this time he was actually buying it.
David must have heard his sincerity. "I can't believe it," he said, not in the tones of one who is making accusations of a scam but of someone who has received a stunning surprise. "Where is—can I—is she . . . "
"Come this way." Jonathan led him into the other room. Benny was still sprawled in the armchair, this time talking eagerly on the cellular phone to his friend Lenny, but when they came in, he said quickly, "Gotta go, Len," and hung up. Bounding up with his usual energy, he stuck out his hand to David. "Hi. Edgar Benedek, call me Benny. Yo, Amy, babe, have we got someone here to see you!"
The spirit materialized out of the shadows, as fully formed as she had yet appeared and came closer, not drifting like a ghost but actually walking. "David?" she asked, staring at the young man as if she had just seen a vision or a miracle.
He jerked as if he'd been kicked and his eyes grew huge. "It's real!" he blurted automatically. Then he looked closer and gasped, "Oh, my god, it's really her."
"David?" she repeated, her voice faint and trembling. "David, please . . . "
That was when David Kelly showed what he was made of. He took a hesitant step forward, then he straightened his shoulders. "Mother?"
"Oh, David." She lunged at him, flung her arms around him and it was clear from the way he'd rocked back on his heels that she was solid enough to make an impact. He hugged her closely, speaking soft words, and Benedek grabbed Jonathan by the arm and dragged him out into the hall. "Give 'em a moment," he said. "They've got a lot of years to catch up on."
"What, no interviews?" Jonathan demanded.
"Interviews? What do I need interviews with Amelia for? She was inside my head. I know the whole scoop on her. And I can catch Davy later. Let 'em have their big reunion."
"Sentiment," said Jonathan in a voice full of contentment. "I always knew you had a sentimental streak and this proves it."
"Never mind proving it, buds," Benny said, though he didn't seem unduly upset by the remark. "Look at you. You're a mess."
"You don't exactly look at the top of your form either, Benedek," Jonathan replied. "Sit down. It took a lot out of you, didn't it?"
"What, subletting my body? Gotcha. Sorry she kept trying to make a pass at you, Jack. You should have seen how red your face was—and you're not even my type."
"And I've gotta say I'm not going to get in line for the next possession, either. Did it feel like this after all those people at the hotel?"
Jonathan remembered a series of conflicting emotions and vague memories and realized Benny's experience had been different from his own. He didn't remember it with such clarity as Benny did, and maybe that was to the best. If he'd really been susceptible to those poor folks who'd died in the old hotel, he wasn't sure he wanted to remember it all. Benny had actually been Amelia. The real reason he was out here was because he knew how much finding David meant to her and he wouldn't intrude, even for the sake of a story. Benny had come a long way from the brash and irreverent tabloid reporter Jonathan had met in that Fartham cemetery.
"No," he said slowly. "It didn't, at least I don't think so. They really took over and there wasn't much of 'me' left during the experience. It wasn't really possession in that case, though."
"You bet it was, JJ. Now I know."
"You read up on Amelia before this happened," Jonathan began.
"No. I didn't imagine the whole thing," Benny replied. "You saw it happen. You've gotta know—"
"I do know, Benedek," Jonathan admitted, without even any overt reluctance. "This one is real. But that doesn't mean every other thing that ever happened to us is real, and you know it."
"Did anybody ever tell you that you're no fun, Jack," Benedek replied with mock disappointment. But when David called them in again, he slung a comradely arm around Jonathan's shoulder and they returned to the seance room together, in mutual harmony.
"She left," David said, standing there looking stunned, a little lost, a little excited, and somehow very satisfied. "I can't believe it, even now. But we talked. She told me everything, how she'd been forced to give me up, and why and how hard she fought to find me again when her grandfather died. I'd known she wanted to find me; she'd made her will in my favor without even meeting me, but she had it here when she died; the lawyer could never find it though she'd told him she'd made what she called a holographic will. Just now she told me it's in the secret panel in her bedroom."
"I can take you right to it, if only you won't get on our case from trespassing in your house," Benny said brightly. "Is she gone?" He looked around, somewhat disappointed. Though Amelia had put him through a rough time, his expression was regretful.
"She had to go," said David. "But she told me to apologize to you and to say goodbye." He added, "She told me what she did. I know it's a terrible thing but—well, she did it for me. I guess I can't hold it against her."
"She did it because she loved you," said Jonathan. "We didn't enjoy it at the time, but it worked out in the end."
"And it's gonna make such a great story," enthused Benedek. "Can I talk you into an interview?"
David stared at him in utter disbelief, and Jonathan found himself laughing.
"So what did you do to your shirt, buds?" Benny asked, edging over and lifting up the flap of his jacket as they heard David's car driving away. They'd found the will in the secret compartment and phoned the lawyer to tell him it had been found and that David would drop it by. There had been no mention of ghosts, only that it had been discovered during their investigation and they'd contacted David. The lawyer hadn't been quite sure what to think, but agreed to meet with David when he showed up.
Benny frowned, staring at Jonathan's chest. "Rover had another go at you? I don't know what that doctor's going to say if you've got more of those welts. He's gonna be sure we were into something kinky here."
"I think he missed, Benedek," Jonathan replied. "I felt it at the time but it doesn't hurt now." He frowned, considering. "Come to think of it, my arm and back don't hurt any more, either."
"Let's see," Benny ordered, helping Jonathan pull off his jacket and roll up his sleeve. The reddened welts were still there but they appeared to be fading fast as if the closing of the barrier with the black beast had rendered them less powerful. "Hey, this is great!" he enthused. "I've gotta get pictures."
"I'm not posing for pictures with my shirt off, Benedek and that is final," Jonathan insisted.
"And I don't know why we need to see that doctor again anyway. I was not knocked out when you belted me with the flashlight and I think you made her pull her shot when you slugged me. How does it look?" He fingered his jaw, wincing slightly.
"Well, in the morning everybody's gonna think you've been brawling." Benny reached out and touched it himself. "Sorry, buds."
"It wasn't your fault, any more than this was," Jonathan reminded him, touching his arm. The slight bullet graze was not bleeding at all, though his shirt was slightly reddened where the fabric had torn. "I always liked this shirt," he mourned.
"If we go to the hospital, the doctor's gonna know you were shot and then we'll be in the suds," Benny replied. "Just let Dr. Benny Schweitzer loose on it and I think you'll live."
"What about you?" Jonathan asked, looking Benedek over critically. "You look rather burned out yourself."
"I'll buy that." Benny yawned gapingly. "Nothing a good night's sleep won't put right, and when those caterers show up in the morning with the huge breakfast I ordered, I'll be on top of the world."
"You can't mean to stay here tonight!" Jonathan objected, staring at Benny in rampant disbelief.
"What's wrong with you, Jack? After I've charged all this stuff to the Institute, you better believe we're gonna use it. Moorhouse would come after me with a tommy gun if I wasted all this." He gestured around at the beds, the generator, the refrigerator. "And we haven't even channel surfed yet. We could be missing 'Nymphoid Barbarians in a Dinosaur Hell.' It's one of my faves."
"It would be."
"Here's where I see a problem," Benny said, turning from switching on the television set. He picked up the PKE meter that had overloaded during the beast's last visit. "Opening a gate to the other side twice in one night fried this baby. It's trashed." He held it at arms' length, fiddling with it cautiously as if afraid it would explode, then shook it. Broken innards rattled ominously. "Do you know how much one of these babies costs? Egon is going to have my guts for garters for this one. Oh well," he concluded, relaxing. "Never mind. It'll just go on the expense account. Bought it in the line of duty. I'll tell the Ghostbusters Georgetown will fund them to build another. No prob."
"No prob? What do you mean, no prob, Benedek?" demanded Jonathan, falling gleefully into his old routine. "Dr. Moorhouse will have hysterics when she sees your expense account this time and you know it."
"Not now, Jon-jon," Benedek said, turning back to the television. "Get me a sandwich, willya. I'm gonna kick back and relax the rest of the evening. I've earned it."
Jonathan remembered Benedek's struggles to free himself from the possession and a part of him wanted to give in and spend the rest of the evening fussing over his friend, but the better part of him took charge. "Earned it nothing, Benedek!" he yelled, entering into the spirit of the argument. "You're coming back to Georgetown with me and I'm going to make you explain every single expenditure to Dr. Moorhouse personally."
Benedek grimaced, turned the channel, and then, with loud cries of delight, dragged up his chair to watch, while Jonathan shrugged his shoulders and let it go, feeling much better than he'd ever expected earlier, in spite of all his bruises.
© Sheila Paulson. The contents of this page may not be copied or reproduced without the author's express written permission.
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