(Okay, I know I'm a doctor, but I really don't want to cut up this dead body.)
Someone Up There must have been listening for once, because Sam Beckett--and his stomach--were relieved to feel the autopsy room begin to fade in a rush of light. Ziggy and Al were right; Quincy was going to be much happier as an LAPD coroner than as a doctor in private practice, no matter how much money he made. They had helped Quincy make the right career move, but now it was time to leap into another life that needed fixing.
Where would he end up now? As always, Sam entered the leap with the foreboding of a child entering the dentist's office. Would he be on stage in the middle of a speech he hadn't rehearsed? Working in a nuclear power plant, with plenty of opportunities to make an innocent mistake and destroy the world? Nothing would surprise him, after the many different lives he'd already lived by proxy.
As the halo of light encircling him faded, and Dr. Sam Beckett felt his lips pressing against something warm and soft, he blinked. A tongue slid between his lips and gently probed his mouth as he twisted his head and squinted, trying to get a glimpse of his partner. He seemed to be clutching a very bosomy woman, and he could just make out long, curly, champagne-colored hair. She had both hands clenched in his hair, and he couldn't pull away, even if he wanted to end the embrace. It seemed that, as Al would undoubtedly advise him, the only thing to do was relax and enjoy--
A wave of frigid water washed over him.
They jumped apart, the woman squealing, both dripping wet. Picking ice cubes out of his collar, he realized it couldn't have been a tidal wave. Sam looked up into the grimly pleased face of an experienced older woman standing high above him, on the deck of some sort of boat. Through the haze of ice water, it was hard to make out the smeared name on its side. CONTEST? CONTESSA?
"That oughta cool ya off, Allen," the woman rasped. "Tell the rest of the boys on the RIPTIDE to keep their hands off my girls. Mona, head on over to Straightaways and get us some more ice."
"Okay, Mama Jo." The blonde, scantily clad in a scarlet bikini, tossed back her wet hair and smiled apologetically at Sam. "Sorry, Cody. See ya."
Quite uncomfortable, Sam squished damply across the dock under the watchful eye of Mama Jo. His leap had been true to form, beginning with the usual embarrassment. Some things never changed.
At least he had found out who he was without waiting for Al, the Project observer, to fill him in on the computer's data search. He was a definitely heterosexual male named Cody, who lived with other guys on the RIPTIDE, whatever that was.
Shaking a stray ice cube down his pants leg, Sam squinted against the harsh summer sunlight in order to scan the hull of the next boat down the pier. It was white with orange trim, and with the word RIPTIDE emblazoned in black letters across the side.
So far, so good. Somewhat hesitantly, he climbed aboard the boat, feeling like a trespasser, as he always did. When a whirring sound broke out behind him, he spasmed nervously, but it was too soft to be a burglar alarm. Spinning around, Sam confronted a short metal object, an orange-red, barrel-shaped machine with a black-banded middle and silver arms. A computer screen on its chest was lit with flickering green strings of mathematical symbols. The body was topped with an ant-like head, with horizontal metal spikes sticking out where ears would be on humans. Its dark, tennis-ball eyes focused on Sam, then dismissed him. The little robot trundled past him toward the rear of the boat.
"I think I could like it here," Sam mused, and followed it.
The first thing to do was find out more about Cody, before he had to interact socially with the other `boys.' There appeared to be several cabins. Choosing one, he stepped inside a little room almost militarily neat, and masculine in aura. He paused by a dresser, lifting a photograph of a group of soldiers in combat fatigues grouped around a pink Sikorsky helicopter painted with a screaming blue face.
"Cavalry Division Air Mobile Unit," a voice observed over his right shoulder. "That should help Ziggy track down who you are this time, Sam."
Despite the fact that Al Calavicci had been catfooting up behind unsuspecting people for many years even before becoming a holographic illusion trailing Sam into the past, Sam still twitched. He always did. Grimacing, he cast a glance over his shoulder as his partner stepped through the glowing blue-lit `doorway' into the Imaging Chamber back home.
"Am I one of these men?"
"Have you looked in a mirror yet?" Al countered.
Good idea. Sam picked up a hand mirror lying on the dresser beside a hairbrush, and met blue eyes, dark blond-brown hair, and a Robert Redford mustache. The tanned, trim body was wearing a blue-and-white striped jersey with the sleeves pushed up and gabardine pants. There was a similar-looking man in the group before the chopper, about fifteen years younger.
"My name's Cody, and this boat is the RIPTIDE," he threw over his shoulder, watching the stranger's lips move in sync with his voice.
"Good work, Sam." Al scowled in concentration as he punched buttons on his computer hand-link. In this austere cabin, he seemed especially out of place in his skin-tight brown corduroy slacks, orange-striped velvet shirt, and orange goldfish-shaped tie. The white fishing hat cocked over one eye sported an orange velvet band to match the rest of the outfit. "Bingo. Ziggy says you're a private." Al made a face and hit the hand-link with the palm of his hand. It moaned in a melodic falsetto. "Private investigator with Riptide Investigations at King Harbor. Your partners are Nick Ryder and Murray Bozinsky."
"The Boz? That's great! I worked with him on Ziggy's design, remember?"
"Skinny kid who got the hiccoughs when he hadda speak to the Senate committee? How could I forget? Just remember, he thinks you're Cody Allen, not Sam Beckett."
"What am I here for?"
"Ziggy's accessing records now."
Murray's involvement explained the little orange robot he had met on the deck. What had he called it? The Roboz? Vaguely, Sam remembered it pinching Tina on the buttocks and making her hurl a freshly-collated report all over the lab; he'd always suspected Al programmed it to do that.
Seeing Murray again would be great; he was an unusual mix of naivete, enthusiasm, and incredible technical genius. If Murray hadn't been determined to avoid government work of any kind, he'd have been Sam's first choice for Ziggy's chief programmer. Speaking of which. . . .
"I know I programmed Ziggy to be faster than this. Didn't I?"
"Well, yeah, but you gotta remember you also programmed him with an obnoxious personality."
"I thought you said I gave Ziggy my personality?"
Al cleared his throat, then waggled the hand-link. "Do you mind? I'm trying to speed Ziggy up here."
"Fine. You do that. Meanwhile, I'm going to find Murray."
Al followed him out of the cabin and into another. This one was totally different; instead of almost-military neatness, it was wallpapered with computer print-outs, and every available space was covered with delicate tools and scattered bits of motherboards or electrical equipment. In the heart of this technological maze sat two men, absorbed in technobabble. One was Murray, looking just as he had--or rather, would--during their work on Project Quantum Leap: his short spiky brown hair standing on end because he had been running one hand through it, his thick black-rimmed glasses mended with gobs of masking tape, his rumpled plaid shirt pocket stuffed with pens, pencils, and a slide rule. Sitting beside him was a slender, Nordic blond man with a long face dominated by a hawk nose. He was clutching some kind of machine sprouting wires and gauges like a dandelion gone to seed.
"--should stabilize the magno-flux indicator in such a way that the problem won't recur," he was saying in a phlegmatic bass voice, painstakingly adjusting a knob on the box's surface.
A Christmas tree of lights flashed on and off all over the box, and a slim black arm somewhat like a microphone burst from one side and pointed at Sam and Al.
"That's odd," the stranger said flatly. "It should not be registering such an unusual reading. You haven't had any psychic experiences lately, have you? Any ghostly phenomena?"
Murray's eyes saucered. "Ghosts? You think there's a ghost on the RIPTIDE? Again?"
"Maybe it's an interruption in the magnetic lines," Sam suggested uneasily. Could that octagonal box tell that he was a quantum leaper? "Or an ionic disturbance. Since we're on water, the ionic flow would be different, unless you've adjusted for the variance."
Now both men were staring at him. Al cleared his throat.
"Uh, Sam, you barely scraped by in basic science courses at the Ventura County high school. Murray is the scientific genius in this team; you specialize in charm."
Over the continual beeping and murmuring of the machine, Murray said, "Cody, I didn't know you knew anything about paranormal studies."
Sam dredged up a smile, hoping Cody's charm would carry him through. "I guess I've been hanging around the Boz so long that some of his ideas rubbed off on me. Hi. I'm Cody Allen, Murray's partner."
He held out one hand, but the blond stranger was frowning at the box and didn't notice. "Why does it keep registering two abnormal presences? There isn't anyone behind you, is there?"
Sam glanced back at Al, who shrugged elaborately.
"No, there's nobody here but us."
Murray bounced in his worn swivel chair. "Maybe we really are haunted! I mean, after all, I did hear some pretty strange noises last night when I was watching the late, late show rerun of Lady in White."
"You don't believe in ghosts, do you, Murray?"
He cocked his head to one side. "How can you even ask that, Cody? Surely you haven't forgotten Martin."
"Who? I mean, no, of course not."
Oblivious, the other man pressed a button, and the black arm retracted. With a faint hum, the beeping and lights switched off. He pushed his glasses up the hawk nose. "Maybe a flux in the etheric fabric...?"
"Where are my manners? Cody, this is Egon Spengler. Isn't that--isn't it absolutely bodacious? One of the actual Ghostbusters, right here on the RIPTIDE! You see, they're here on vacation, and we've been corresponding for a year--ever since Ray Stantz ran into a problem with the schematics for his destabilizer rectifier unit--so Egon dropped by to visit."
"Egon Spengler? That's great! Dr. Spengler has revolutionized modern physics, particularly with his papers on multi-dimensional--"
"Sam!" Al barked.
"That is, I heard something like that once on Geraldo Rivera's show, didn't I?"
Egon winced, actually looking up from his machine. "I assure you, what happened on that show was totally accidental. We had no idea that a Class 4 arcane entity would escape from Peter's containment unit and slime Mr. Rivera on camera that way."
"Seemed sorta appropriate to me," Al muttered. Sam ignored him.
"Yeah, I sort of figured that myself. It did get you guys a lot of publicity, though."
"Not the kind of publicity we prefer to receive," Spengler murmured, and returned to fiddling with knobs and levers and dials, scowling again.
Al's hand-link to the computer back at the lab beeped, and he squinted at the tiny screen. "Here it is, Sam. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to rescue your partner, Nick Ryder, who's reserved. No, that's not right." He shook the hand-link vigorously, making it emit a stifled, mournful hoot. "He's in the Reserves, and this weekend his chopper--a real junk-heap called the Screaming Mimi--crashed on the way back from weekend duty. According to the newspaper, nobody knew about it until he didn't show up here late Sunday night, and by the time they found him, he'd died of exposure and blood loss."
"Gee, it's too bad our partner's not here. I bet Nick'd love to meet an actual Ghostbuster."
Murray cupped his chin in one hand. "You think so? I don't know, Cody. I didn't think Nick really cared that much for scientists. When I had that High-Q party here last month, he seemed positively uneasy to me, and the High-Q people are a real happening bunch."
"Why don't we just call Nick and ask?"
"There wouldn't be any point, Cody. The guys are going back to New York on Sunday morning, and Nick won't be back from duty until long after they're gone."
"He won't be back at all. He got off early," Al explained. "That's why nobody looked for him until it was too late."
"Look, it's worth a try, Murray. Maybe he can get off early or something."
Murray was unconvinced. "I don't think it's a good idea. After you called him to ask for Brandi's phone number, and I called to ask if he'd seen where I left my Feinberger--do you remember where I put my Feinberger, Cody? I can't find it--anyway, he said if we bothered him anymore, he'd get in really big trouble, and we don't want that, do we?"
"No, we certainly don't."
Al sighed. "I'll get the right numbers from Ziggy, and you can try calling the base from one of the cabins."
Sam shrugged. "Whatever you say. Listen, it was nice meeting you, Dr. Spengler."
Spengler touched the button again. The arm zipped out, pointing at Sam, and positively quivered as he leaned toward it, squeaking an alarm. With an uneasy smile, Sam backed away, right through Al.
"Hey, watch it! Good thing I can't feel that," the hologram muttered, and followed him out. "Gee, that was close, Sam. That ghost-busting thingamajig must've picked up your readings. Or maybe mine. Anyway, it's a good thing Spengler doesn't know what it means."
"He's a brilliant physicist, Al, no matter what conventional scientists say. He might be able to figure it out." Inspired, Sam stopped short. "Why don't we just tell them both the truth?"
"No way, Sam."
"Why not? Murray's got top security clearance, just like us--he helped me create Ziggy in the first place! What difference does it make?"
"Plenty! The Pentagon'd toss both our butts in the brig and throw away the key, just for starters. You know the rules as well as I do; you can't tell anybody about the Project." Al punched the keyboard as if it were a boxer's outstretched chin. "Don't make this any more complicated than it has to be, 'cuz so far this looks like a real easy leap. I'll have Ziggy give us the number for Ryder's unit, and you find us a phone, and we can leap right outta here, okay?" He cast an anxious look back toward Murray's cabin. "Those ghost-buster guys make me nervous. What if they, like, attract spooks?" Al shuddered. "You know I hate ghosts and dead bodies and stuff like that. So let's hurry up, okay?"
"This probably has more to do with a hot date you've set up than ghosts."
"Sa-am!" Al put his hand on his heart, his eyes wide. "I take my work very seriously. I would never try to speed up this date, just because Miss June from last year's Playboy offered to show me her cute pair of--"
"--puppies. Soft, roly-poly puppies that I'd just love to pet. So let's go make that call and get this over with. It's not nice to keep ladies waiting."
As his partner left the cabin, Murray said, more to himself than to Egon, "Something's just not right."
Egon looked up. "Do you suspect--as do I--that the problem does not lie with my equipment?"
"Huh? Oh. I don't know, Egon. Cody just doesn't seem like himself."
"And you did hear unusual noises aboard this vessel. Judging from the readings I picked up, something distinctly supernatural is going on here." Egon rose, clutching the box to his chest. "With your permission, Murray, I'll get my partners. Ray and Winston were strolling down the pier, and Peter was trying to pick up a bar-girl at Straightaways. If the problem is paranormal, we'll deal with it. If it's psychological in nature...if your partner is somewhat disturbed...well, Peter is a psychologist."
After a moment, gnawing on his lip, Murray nodded.
By the time they reached Nick Ryder's cabin, Al was already triumphantly announcing the right telephone number.
"--555-1769, and ask for Colonel Mick Groomes. That's the head honcho. If you tell him there's a family emergency, he'll probably send a chopper after Ryder when he doesn't answer radio calls. Piece of cake." He shuddered briefly. "Just as well. I really hate ghosts. The sooner we get this leap over with, the better."
"Relax. Just because a Ghostbuster is visiting Murray doesn't mean a ghost is involved."
"Just make the call, Sam, okay? Usually your leaps aren't this easy to handle, and I don't wanna jinx it. I promised to take Denise to this intimate little cafe tonight."
"I thought you were meeting Miss June," Sam protested. He had always suspected Al made up ninety percent of his wild stories, and this sounded like the proof.
"Well, not until tomorrow, and it's sort of a tentative date, because I can't go to Santa Fe until I'm sure you've leaped out, but even in the middle of a leap, I gotta eat dinner, right?"
"With Denise. Does Tina know about this?"
"Hey! This is business. We're gonna discuss the book she's writing about me. How does the title Reach for the Stars grab you?"
"I think you've grabbed more starlets than stars, myself."
"Very funny, Sam." Al reached out and picked up a lit cigar from what appeared to be thin air; things in the Imaging Chamber but not actually touching Al were always invisible to Sam. "Just make the call, okay?"
Sam picked up the telephone. "Relax, Al. Even if this doesn't work, we can always call the Coast Guard or someone with an anonymous tip about seeing a crash, right?"
Al's eyes narrowed. "Uh-oh."
"What?" Sam glanced at his partner's taut, suddenly immobile face, then followed Al's gaze to the doorway. "Oh. Uh, hi, Murray. Is there something I can do for you?"
Murray's skinny body was as tense Al's, his expression just as blank. "Who were you talking to, Cody?"
"Talking. Oh. Right." He held up the receiver. "The phone."
"The phone? Were you calling Nick?"
"Well, yeah. Sort of. Murray, I have a really bad feeling about this. Bad vibes, you know? I just think there's something wrong with Nick, and I want to check it out."
Bozinsky frowned, his dark eyes concerned, and for a moment Sam was thrown into the future, remembering a night when he and Murray were up until dawn, debating whether or not working on Project Quantum Leap would be giving the military a new, uniquely dangerous weapon to misuse. Murray seemed to swallow a hiccough. He shook his head slowly, as if trying to deny something. "Cody, this isn't like you."
"We've known each other for a long time, Murray. Can't you just humor me on this? We could rent a helicopter or something and fly over a spot--um--"
"--thirty-five miles southeast of King Harbor, hidden in some trees. Ziggy has the exact location on file."
"--near here, and if nothing's wrong, we'll come back to the RIPTIDE. Nick'll never even know we were there. What do you say?"
Murray stared at him a moment longer, then turned away. "We could take the EBBTIDE."
"She's their motorboat, Sam."
"That's fine. Thanks, Murray."
Not looking back, Bozinsky raised and lowered one shoulder, but didn't speak. Sam followed him into the fading late-afternoon sunlight, and shaded his eyes against the glare until the four shadows on the ship's deck solidified into four men in uniforms, laden with high-tech equipment.
"Oh, Murray, no," he sighed.
The computer scientist twitched. "Cody, it's for your own good. You--you're acting really weird, saying things you've never said before, and you were talking to thin air a minute ago. You called it Al." He swallowed hard. "Are you talking to a ghost?"
"There's definitely a paranormal reading here," exclaimed the shortest Ghostbuster. His pudgy baby-face was glowing with excitement. "Egon, have you ever seen anything like this before?"
"No, Ray. Of course, all PKE forms have constant ionization rates, but what I'm registering doesn't even match anything in Tobin's Spirit Guide."
One of the other Ghostbusters snickered. "How about trying Overstreet's Comic Book Price Guide?"
Al stuck the cigar in his mouth and bristled. "Sam, Gooshie says you better do something fast. Ziggy's going crazy trying to predict what that goofy machinery might do to you, but the records are mostly classified. After all the bad publicity they got, the Ghostbusters got kinda gunshy."
"Well? Is it a ghost, or isn't it?" Murray demanded.
"It's not a ghost," Stantz assured him. "But the readings are skewed, almost as if we're dealing with two entities, not one." He pursed his lips. "Maybe even two-and-a-half."
"Maybe the dude's a schizo," the third Ghostbuster suggested, looking bored. "Sort of a male Sybil, which was a great movie, by the way. Are the movie rights to this case signed up yet? As your consulting psychologist, I definitely think I should get a cut--"
"Possession?" Egon asked Ray, ignoring the interruptions.
Sam snapped, "I'm not possessed! This whole thing is a mistake. If you'll just give me a chance, I can explain everything."
"Don't you dare!" Al snatched out his cigar and pointed it at Sam like a torpedo-launcher. The black Ghostbuster slowly pivoted, his arcane rifle pointing toward Al. He raised one eyebrow. "Aw, you're bluffing. You can't see me, and I won't show up on that doohickey. I'm a hologram, linked to Sam's brain-waves, not a ghost." To prove his point, he walked a few feet to the left.
The wire-studded rifle barrel followed him.
"I know. Listen, guys, this has gone far enough--"
With a nervous glance at Cody/Sam, Murray said loudly, "Whatever you do, don't hurt Cody!"
"Oh, we won't hurt him, Dr. Bozinsky. The proton pack and particle thrower fire ionized proton bolts that can separate a body's atoms, but we always set them so they'll only affect supernatural entities, not ordinary human beings."
"You're not an ordinary human being, Sam! Get out of here! I'll distract these weasels." Al ran back, skidded to a halt in front of Spengler, stuck his thumbs in his ears, wiggled his fingers, and yelled, "BOO!"
"Whatever it is, I think it's attacking!" the smart-mouth yelped.
Al ducked behind the Roboz as a crackling radiance surrounded him. The stubby robot seemed unaffected, but Al threw up his arms with a startled cry.
Sam tackled the black Ghostbuster, knocking his particle thrower aside, but the smart alec kicked a box down the deck, attached to a long cord. As he stamped on a trigger device, the box yawned open, emitting a blinding light.
"JUMP!" Al bellowed.
Al was engulfed by the light. Desperately, Sam wrenched free, ran to the railing, and dived into the harbor far below.
The light behind him snapped off.
One minute, Albert Calavicci was standing on the deck of the RIPTIDE, staring at the open trap; the next minute, it swallowed him.
After rocketing into space, marrying five times, and leaping into the past to link with Sam--adjusting to the surreal experience of being simultaneously in the Disneyland-sized Imaging Chamber and strolling through city streets decades in his past--he'd thought nothing could surprise him again...except possibly Tina's suggestion for the peanut butter last night. Now he wasn't so sure.
Where the hell was he, anyway? Was he standing up? Sitting down? Was he even right side up?
He seemed to be floating in a sort of hallucinogenic haze, a cosmic white cloud the color of the middle of an Oreo cookie. When he cautiously reached out, he felt nothing, not even the walls or floor of the Imaging Chamber.
His voice echoed hollowly, as if tossed back by the creamy haze.
"I feel like an egg yolk," he muttered, but there was nobody there to laugh. "Gooshie? Hey, Gooshie, center me on Sam!"
Nothing happened. The hand-link was dead, all lights and colors erased. When he tapped on the keys, it didn't even burp. Wherever he was, he'd lost communication with the Project.
What happened back there on the RIPTIDE? Did those nozzles catch Sam, too, or did he get away?
This was getting him nowhere. Al thrust the useless hand-link into his pocket, and stuck the stogie in his mouth at a jaunty angle. Maybe if he started walking, he'd find some kind of exit, or at least a wall. The problem was, all he could see was mist, and he couldn't get his balance. Even when he lifted his foot and put it down a few inches away, he didn't feel anything firm. It was as if he were walking on a cloud, not knowing if he was going to keep on an even keel or just sink right through it, like a cartoon character suddenly realizing it was no longer on solid ground.
Al swallowed. Dammit, he hadn't been seasick since he was a cadet, and he wasn't going to lose his stomach now.
"Just think of it as taking a walk in space," he told himself sternly. "You loved that, didn't you? So now you're in outer space on a cloudy day."
An eerie chuckle reverberated somewhere near his right ear, and Al spun around. There was no one there, just the impenetrable vanilla mist.
"It wasn't that funny," he muttered, biting down on his cigar.
This time the chuckle came from behind him. Trying to ignore it, he kept on walking, even though he didn't seem to be getting anywhere. He could feel the hairs on his arms standing on end. Someone was watching him; he could feel that, too.
Those Ghostbuster nozzles caught ghosts in this trap.
How often did they clean them out?
Fetid breath hissed against the back of his neck. He turned quickly, yelling, "Chi va la?" He didn't get an answer. Maybe whatever thing was following him didn't speak Italian. "Hey, who's out there?"
Maybe it didn't speak English, either.
"Oh, God, I hate this," he whispered, and started slogging through the mist again.
Like the hand-link, his Rolex no longer worked, and with no landmarks to gauge by, he couldn't tell how long he'd been walking, or if he was even getting anywhere. It was chilly here, kind of like being stuck inside an ice cream cone, but this didn't smell sweet; in fact, it smelled sort of...dead. Like rotting meat, and mold, and swamp gas.
Something snarled in the distance, and he twitched a little, but kept walking.
"The important thing is getting back to Sam," he told himself calmly. "I know he's out there somewhere looking for me."
Off to the left, a pair of elongated, red-tinged eyes appeared, about neck-high, staring at him, the pupils dilated. Al stopped short and stared back, then closed his eyes, like he was back in the orphanage and trying to make the Bad Things disappear. This time it worked. The eyes closed, too, and the haze was again creamy smooth, unmarked.
Through clenched teeth, he told the giant egg all around him, "I've been on the streets and in the orphanage. I was spit on and beat up at Selma. I spent six years in a tiger cage in 'Nam, and I've been married five times. What can you do to me to equal that?" Something hissed in the clouds. The veins swelling in his neck, he hollered, "I ain't afraid of no ghosts!"
"Is there someone there? Oh, please, help me!"
Ahead of him, the whipped cream sagged, and he dimly made out a woman running toward him, a small woman wearing a white nurse's uniform, her face framed with short dark hair. He felt his jaw practically hit his shoes. In a weak voice that he didn't recognize at all, Al said, "Beth...?"
The instant that he hit the water, Sam sucked in a lungful of air and ducked underneath the boat. It was lucky that the body he was using was in such good shape, for he had to swim underneath both the RIPTIDE and the CONTESSA before he felt safe coming up for air. Tossing wet hair out of his eyes, he treaded water and gazed back at the RIPTIDE. The uncanny light was extinguished, and he could see men running around the deck, peering over the railings at the water. He couldn't see Al anywhere.
Laboriously, Sam climbed up the nearest post and wriggled onto the pier, despite the soaked clothing weighing him down. Now what?
He couldn't blame Murray for being worried about his friend; he knew how he would feel if Al began acting unbalanced and giving off strange medical readings--although with Al it might be hard to tell.
A breeze whipped against him, and Sam shivered. There was no point in going back to the RIPTIDE, outnumbered and unarmed, but he ached at the thought of abandoning Al. No matter what catastrophe he had gotten himself into, in leaps or with government funding, the one certainty he could always count on was that Al would be there for him: patiently teaching him how to deal with the military, exhorting him to try harder, digging vital facts out of Ziggy or out of his own exotic past--doing whatever it took to help.
(I'm not abandoning Al,) he told himself. (I'll get to a phone and call Murray. I'll make him understand that I'm a physicist he's going to work with in a few years, who leaped into the past and took over Cody Allen to save Nick Ryder from death, and Al is a neurologically-linked hologram, not a ghost.) He paused. It really didn't sound very believable, did it?
The sun was setting, and his teeth were beginning to chatter. If he went to the CONTESSA, Mona would surely agree to help Cody...but Mama Jo would delight in getting him in trouble. But he had to do something. The Ghostbusters would be swarming along the pier after him any minute now.
Grimly, Sam squeezed as much water out of his pants and jersey as he could, emptied his Nikes, and checked his wallet. Cody Allen had the usual credit cards, and $95.00 in cash. Making up his mind, he strode up the pier toward the city, looking for a cab to make a quick getaway.
It really ate at him that Al was in trouble. From the night that he first walked into Project Star-Bright's lab and found a drunken, raging Italian smashing a vending machine with a hammer, he'd worried about Al Calavicci. A man so bright, so unusual, so full of a zest for life, should be encouraged and protected, not slapped down with rules and rejections. Despite the advice he got to help dump Calavicci and work with someone more conventional or even take over the project himself, he persevered. With Dr. Verbena Beeks' help, he weaned Al from the bottle. They became a team...and then, on Project Quantum Leap, everything got reversed. It was Sam who kept stumbling into disaster, and Al who worried about him, begging him not to get raped or shot or run over or beaten up. As a hologram, in quantum leaps Al was safe.
Flagging down a cab, Sam frowned. That wasn't quite true.
It was four--no, five--leaps back. He was trying to retrieve two antiques, to save the life of a man named Jack Marshak, and Al tangled with a demonically-cursed hologram of a monster from a comic book. Luckily, he didn't see what happened--Mary Jo Liese was vacuuming out his blood with a cursed transfusion unit at the time--but he remembered seeing Al afterwards, his arm soaked in blood, his throat swollen and burned. Even after the week-long gap between that leap and the next, Al had appeared in the next leap coated with Technicolor burns and bruises.
Were those shouts behind him? Sam closed the cab door and leaned forward. "Um, excuse me. Could you tell me today's date?"
"You're kiddin', right?" The cabby met his eyes in the rearview mirror. "You're not kiddin'. It's still 1990, buddy, just like it was yesterday and like it's gonna be tomorrow."
"Take me downtown, okay? Some place where there's a phone."
"There's a phone right here on the corner."
"I want one farther away. In fact, by a library."
For some reason, the cabby seemed dubious. "You got any money, mister?"
Sam held up Allen's wad of soaked bills. Apparently satisfied, the cabby pulled away from the curb. The angry cries of four frustrated Ghostbusters arriving at the street seconds too late didn't even rate a backwards glance from him.
In the linear time Jack Marshak and his partners had lived, it had only been three months since Sam Beckett and Al Calavicci saved his life. He wouldn't have forgotten. And Al couldn't complain about Sam giving away Pentagon secrets if he got them involved, since when Marshak's psychic friend Rashid saw Al and demanded an explanation, they'd told him about Project Quantum Leap.
If anyone could defeat the Ghostbusters and their paranormal control systems, it would be the crew at CURIOUS GOODS, who claimed to have faced the Devil and won.
(Hang in there, Al, wherever you are. Help is just a phone call away.)
Even before the weeping woman leaped into his arms, he knew she wasn't Beth, and his heart started beating again. If there was one thing Albert Calavicci knew, it was women, and this one didn't move like Beth, didn't smell like Beth. When he gently pushed her away, he could see that the "nurse's uniform" was just a white sheath dress, somewhat tattered and stained, and her face was rounder than Beth's. His wife had been slender, not all curves and bounces, and she never wore that much make-up.
"Take it easy," he said soothingly, feeling the woman tremble in his hands. "I'm not gonna hurt you. It's okay."
"I'm sorry. I'm just so scared! It's--it's so awful here!"
"You got that right, lady. What's a pretty girl like you doing in a place like this? And how do we get out?"
"There is no way out. This is the Netherworld. Only it's just a little corner of the Netherworld, because the G-G-Ghostbusters fenced it off somehow." She drew in a deep, shuddering breath. "My name is Mary. I was on my way to these auditions--"
"Ecdysiast, actually." Giving him a tremulous smile, she pulled her dress down tighter, accentuating the curves. They were curves he really wouldn't mind traveling. "I really, really wanted to go there, but I got in this car accident. Now, it wasn't my fault--I'm a very careful driver, you know. Fra--everybody says so. Anyway, I still kept trying to audition, only they wouldn't let me, and then--then those awful Ghostbusters came and sucked me up in their trap!"
"Wait a minute." There was this sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach, like the Titanic going under, the same sort of feeling he got every time he stepped into divorce court. "You're telling me you're dead?"
In a very small voice, digging one foot into the cloud beneath them, she said, "I guess maybe that's why they wouldn't let me audition...."
"Geez Louise!" He pushed her away and jumped back, shaking. "Geez Louise, you're a ghost!"
"But it's not my fault!" she wailed.
Somehow he found the strength to flap his hands at her. "Shoo. Go away. Get lost."
"I already am lost, and there's nowhere to go." Tears wobbled down her Revlon-enhanced cheeks. "Please don't make me leave, they'll get me!"
"Aw, no. Don't cry. I hate it when ladies cry. Even dead ladies."
She sniveled, "Th-There are monsters in here!"
Now not only was he shaking, his whole body was covered with goosebumps. "Monsters? What kind of monsters?"
She pointed behind him. "Like that!"
Even though a hundred tinny voices inside his head were screaming DON'T TURN AROUND, Al turned around.
At first it was just a shadow, a dirty stain in the fluffy cotton balls around them, but it was moving toward them and the shadow began to take on form. It had a vaguely canine appearance, but this had to be the Andre the Giant of the dog world, at least five feet high at the shoulders. Instead of fur, it was coated with scales the color of old scabs, and two sharp horns glinted high on its forehead. It was snarling, a leprous yellow foam dripping from butcher knife-sized fangs. When its flaming red eyes focused on him and dilated, Al felt like a deer caught in the headlights.
"For cryin' out loud, what is that thing?"
"It's a D-D-Devil Dog." Mary's voice started climbing like a ship's whistle going off. "If it catches you, it eats you alive, piece by piece, forever, and you're in agony but you can't die because you're already dead--"
"I'm not dead," Al gritted, and backed away from the approaching horror. "Yet, anyway. Come on, let's get out of here!"
He was scared of the pretty ghost, and he flinched when she grabbed his arm, but the Devil Dog was a thousand times more terrifying. In fact, one insane howl from it was enough to drive him into beating the Olympic sprinting record, even though running had never been one of his sports.
It was a race through a nightmare, almost like running in place, because the scenery never changed. There was no place to hide, no winning line to cross. All he could do was run until his lungs felt like half-smoked cigars, until his legs were leaden anchors that could hardly be lifted.
Yet still the Devil Dog growled behind him. He knew he shouldn't look back--it would slow him down--but he couldn't help turning his head. You wouldn't think a human heart could beat any faster, but the eerie sight of that gigantic hound closing in, making long cat-like bounces that brought it almost to his heels, practically triggered a coronary.
Oceans of sweat were blinding him, stinging his eyes; he blinked fiercely and ran on. There was a stitch in his side that was killing him, but better that than ending up as a doggie treat. He yanked Mary forward, wondering how the hell a ghost could weigh you down so much, and kept running.
This was worse than a nightmare. Okay, in a nightmare you ran and ran and never got anywhere, just like this, but at least in a nightmare you finally woke up, and the pain wasn't real, and everything was okay.
(Right now Gooshie is going crazy trying to pull me back. If he doesn't do it, Sam'll get me out for sure. All I have to do is hold on!)
Somehow Mary's legs got entangled with his, and he sprawled flat on his face, losing his cigar. Since there wasn't any solid ground in this nuthouse, it didn't hurt, but he couldn't seem to catch his breath. He fumbled for his cigar.
"Al, look out!" the ghost shrieked.
Dazed, Al rolled over just as the Devil Dog, barking wildly, pounced.
When the massive body landed on Al, it practically flattened him into a paste. Involuntarily, he threw his arms up, and his fingers closed around the hard, pointed horns on its head. He felt the cigar squishing in his grip. Worse, the horns radiated heat, searing his hands. Gritting his teeth, he stiffened his elbows and squeezed hard, forcing the huge head back. The teeth snapped shut bare inches from his throat. They rolled back and forth, struggling for control. Dripping foam splattered on his cheek like acid. Distantly, he could hear himself screaming.
The Devil Dog dug at him with razor-like claws, plowing long furrows down his body. Afraid it would disembowel him, Al tried to arch his stomach away, then brought up his knees, jabbing at the beast's belly. His arms were weakening. Its savage growls took on a triumphant pitch.
In a desperate, last ditch effort, Al released one horn. As the hell hound lunged down at his throat, he drove the flattened but still-lit cigar into its left eye.
Its screech drowned out his as the eye sizzled, bubbling around the cigar with a stench like burning sausage. Yelping, the Devil Dog rolled off Al, pawing frantically at the cooking remains of its eye.
(Roll over. Get up on your hands and knees. Never mind how much it hurts--you don't have much time. You have to run away, because now that thing's really gonna be mad.)
Some part of his mind was still rational, but it was hard to concentrate on it, and harder to obey it.
His lungs were still working, because he took a shuddering breath as he levered himself to his feet, but something inside was broken. Every breath stabbed him quick and hard in the left side. Dumbo the Elephant Dog probably snapped a couple of his ribs when it used him for a trampoline.
(Check him out. Even though it's scary, you have to be sure he's still out of it.)
Judging from the red-and-yellow ichor dripping down its muzzle as it clawed at the remains of the stogie, the Devil Dog was going to be a little slow on the uptake. Good.
One hand supporting his ribs, Al hobbled away. Progress was slow, but he'd build up speed once he got his breath back. His throat felt raw.
"Are--are you all right? Where did it hurt you? I was so scared!"
How could he ever have mistaken her for Beth? His Beth would've been scared and confused by all this, but she was a romantic at heart, and she'd have tackled it like a fantasy novel, Knights vs. Dragons. Hell, Bethie would've straddled that mutt's shoulders and belted it on the head with both fists until it let him go.
"Where were you?" he croaked.
"What?" Mary jiggled his left elbow, and he had to bite back a curse when it fired pain torpedoes up his side. "Al, what if that was poison it was drooling?"
Now, there was a cheerful thought. His cheek felt burnt--did heat destroy poison? Moving a little faster, he glanced down at his tattered shirt and the eight bloody gouges running down to his thighs. Dio mio! That was close. Instead of his belly, he should've been worrying about the family jewels.
The ghost fretted, "If it comes after us, you'll never be able to get away."
"What are you, Little Mary Sunshine?" he snapped, but he lengthened his stride again. "Tell me something useful. What can we use to stop it?" She just looked at him, open-mouthed. "For werewolves you use silver; for vampires, garlic; for Devil Dogs--?"
"I--I don't know."
"Don't they give you an initiation when you die? Classes? A guide book?"
Mary looked utterly blank. Just his luck; not only was his blind date dead, she was ditzy to boot.
Timidly, she reached for his left arm again. He twisted away. "Not there! The other side."
"Oh. Of course. Sorry."
Maybe when you're dead, you get out of the habit of thinking about bodies. Too bad he couldn't forget about the pain--every step reminded him that his body would like to lie down in a soft hospital bed surrounded by attentive, buxom nurses in crisp white uniforms about one size too small.
This was even worse than that acid trip he took in the early Seventies. At least that trip involved lots of weird music and more colors than the 88 Crayola pack. All he got here was masses of fluffy white, marked here and there behind him with specks of blood.
Oh, well. The good news was that he could no longer hear or see the howling Devil Dog.
Sam would be coming after him any time now, and Al wasn't really certain how he felt about that. Worrying about the kid already had him worn to a frazzle. Sam was so naive, a born do-gooder who refused to take no for an answer and was too pigheaded to give up. Letting him wander alone and unarmed into the gunsights of a Senate Committee would've been like feeding a newborn kitten to sharks. Ever since he stubbornly insisted on taking that first leap when he damn well knew it was dangerous, he kept getting himself kidnapped, beat up, shot, strangled, knifed...the list was endless. God alone knew what kind of trouble he'd get into in this creepy place. Without helpful advice from Al, he'd probably try to pet the Devil Dog instead of running. Not that he usually listened when Al gave him perfectly good advice.
"I gotta rest for awhile," he told Mary.
She tugged him forward. "Oh, but we can't stop. The Devil Dog will find us. Or something worse."
"What could be worse?" Mary promptly opened her mouth. "No, don't tell me. Isn't there some way out of this hole?"
"Only if there's a power failure." She frowned prettily. "But...it may be too late."
"Time passes so differently here, you know. Really, you could be dead already, out there." She gestured vaguely. "That would explain how the Ghostbusters could keep you here, don't you think?"
It actually froze him in place for a moment, then he shook his head and started walking again. "Nope. I'm not dead."
Mary was unconvinced. "Think about it, Al. Maybe this is Hell, our punishment for our past misdeeds, for interfering in other people's lives."
"I'm not going to Hell. Purgatory, maybe, but that won't be so bad. I'll probably run into some of my ex-wives and old pals there."
She gave him a thin-lipped scrutiny. "You're trying to tell me you've never done anything wrong? You?"
"I've done some things wrong, but not evil. I dumped bombs on 'Nam, but they more than paid me back, so I figure we're even. My divorces were mostly mutual, or my wives' ideas, except for Maxine, and she forgave me--it was just a misunderstanding. I never hurt anybody to get myself ahead. I was pro-Civil Rights. I work for environmental protection groups--what we've done to the oceans is a real crime. Lately, I spend most of my time helping Sam fix up people's mistakes." He started to shrug, but stopped when his cuts all complained at once. Too bad; an Italian shouldn't have to talk without body language. "The only harm I ever did was screwing up my own life, and that's my problem, nobody else's. The Devil'd be real disappointed in me."
For some reason, Mary seemed distinctly peeved. Who understands women? Sharon, his second wife--or was it his fourth?--had wanted to think of him as an outlaw, a real hell-raiser, then turned around and got furious when he went drinking with the guys; while Ruthie, his third wife, wanted him to be an upright citizen, a real mentsch, even though she married the hell-raiser. Go figure.
Al squinted down at his shuffling feet and wished he had another cigar. How long did he have to walk to be safe from the Devil Dog? The whole thing was weird. The trap that Ghostbuster nozzle had slid down the deck was a little square box, but from the inside, it didn't seem to have any end.
He was getting real tired of feeling like a lone aspirin rattling around in a bottle stuffed with cotton.
"Oh, no!" Mary practically leaped into his arms, which might have been pleasant under other circumstances--like if she was alive, for starters. "Something's out there. Something's coming!"
Al followed her alarmed gaze to his left. At first he couldn't see anything but white; then the bleached haze thinned. Someone was standing there, veiled in the haze: a girl, shorter than he was, heavyset, with masses of brunette curls. She was sobbing.
"Wh-why'd you leave me, Bertie? Why?"
No. No, it wasn't. It couldn't be. No way. He squinted, but her face was obscured, either by the haze or by the mist welling up in his own eyes.
"You said you wouldn't leave me `lone in that place, Bertie. You promised."
He choked, "Trudy...?"
It took every ounce of willpower in Murray Bozinsky's wiry frame to keep him from thudding both clenched fists down on his computer, or just hurling it right through the empty monitor screen. Always before in his life, whatever problems he had could be dealt with by--or at least sublimated through--his beloved computers. When he was the youngest and geekiest kid on the M.I.T. campus, thoroughly baffled by social niceties and terrified at the thought of actually speaking to female students years older than he was, at least he knew he was the best hacker they had. The other guys even came to him for advice when their programs crashed, or got him to help them with pranks by invading the campus computer systems. Then, when his career in the corporate world crashed, he earned a place with Nick and Cody because his computer wizardry made investigating cases so much easier. Having the two best friends a man could wish for made his life practically complete, and it was all due to his computer skills.
But now his two best friends in the whole world were in trouble, and there was nothing he could do. His computer might as well have been an abacus, for all the good it was doing him.
Shuddering, Murray rubbed his aching eyes, shoving his knuckles hard against the closed eyelids until pulsing white and purple cursors were left behind.
"You really should get some sleep, Dr. Bozinsky," Ray Stantz said reasonably, glancing up from the equations he and Egon were working on.
"I got a couple hours when you guys were using my mainframe," he mumbled. "Did it do any good? Have you figured out what's wrong with Cody?"
"Well, no. Not exactly."
"The case so far is not progressing as the ordinary possession would," Egon rumbled. "According to Lukowski's Density and Etheric Stamina of Paranormal Possessions, it seems possible that--"
That distracted Ray from Murray's problems. "But wasn't that paper contradicted by Bahmer's Theory of Multiphasic Personality Overlay in the Supernatural Stratum? It seems to me--"
What was the use of sitting here, praying that Cody would use one of his credit cards, so that his location could be traced? Even if it happened, by the time they got to wherever he'd used the card, Cody would be long gone.
Murray kicked back his swivel chair and stumbled to the porthole, resting his forehead against the cool glass. There were beautiful women already lounging on the deck of the CONTESSA, catching the early morning sunshine, but he stared right through them.
(Where is Nick?)
At some point in the night, he'd wrestled with the fear that maybe, possessed or not, Cody knew something important about Nick. Even though the Ghostbusters all agreed that demonic personalities got a kick out of scaring people with lies about life-and-death situations, he had to consider that this time it might be true, some kind of precognitive foreknowledge of a disaster, perhaps. He'd spent forever, alternately on the modem and then on the phone, going through dozens of transfers from one officer to another, and all sorts of confusion, before finally getting hold of Colonel Groomes. That's when the nightmare really began.
Colonel Groomes said Nick was sent home yesterday.
Murray scrubbed at his face again. This time the heels of his hands came away wet.
If Nick was sent home yesterday, where was he? Nick wouldn't just go off and party; he got really paranoid when he was on his duty weekends because he said Murray and Cody always took crazy cases behind his back. He'd have checked in with them first.
What would it hurt to take Cody's warnings seriously? He could take the jimmy and try to find the spot `near here' that Cody had wanted to go to. If he used a map, and followed Nick's probable course--
"Ahoy the RIPTIDE."
"Ahoy yourself!" Peter Venkman hollered back, somehow making it sound like an obscene suggestion.
"Can we come aboard? We need help."
"Sure. It's no skin off my nose; it's not my boat."
"No!" Murray ran for the door, hardly even noticing when he rammed his hip against a table edge. "We can't take any cases, not now!"
It was no use. Two strangers had already boarded: a young man, and a truly beautiful red-haired woman. He had to forcibly wrench his eyes away from her, even put one hand up to shade them as if the sun were bothering him, before he could make himself sound firm.
"I'm sorry, Riptide Investigations isn't accepting any work right now."
"That's all right. We didn't come for Riptide Investigations, actually; we need the Ghostbusters." The young man grinned. "You wouldn't believe how hard it was to track you guys down. My name's Ryan Dallion, and this is Micki Foster."
Venkman seemed torn between continuing to eyeball the CONTESSA, and switching his attention to Ms. Foster. Doctors Stantz and Spengler hadn't bothered to leave their equations. That left Winston Zedmore to say, "I'm sorry, but we're here on vacation."
The redhead clasped her hands close to her bosom. "Oh, please. You must help us."
Venkman abandoned the CONTESSA, clearly preparing to cast off for sea, for the woman at hand. "Come on, Winston. What would it hurt to listen?"
He was rewarded with a grateful smile from the redhead. Her companion explained, "We need you to come immediately and de-ghost our house. Money's no object."
"Well, it's a real object with me. Number one, in fact."
"Not so fast, Peter. If they went to all the trouble of tracking us down out here, and they're willing to throw lots of money at us, what does that tell us?"
Quickly, Venkman said, "We're on vacation! No way am I going to tackle a Class 7 entity on my vacation. I didn't come to California to get slimed."
Ms. Foster cocked her head, looking puzzled. "I'm sorry. A classy what?"
Dallion brushed that aside. "It's not like we went really out of our way to find you; we live not far from here. It's just that Micki heard you were in King Harbor in a gossip-columnist's radio show, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to clean out the spook."
Zedmore eyed him dubiously. "What sort of things does this ghost do?"
"Oh, the usual." Dallion shrugged. "Weird noises late at night. Sobbing in the bedrooms. Ghostly figures drifting down the stairs. You know."
"It doesn't seem malicious, or dangerous, or anything. It's just nerve-wracking," Micki assured him. "Besides, the ghost seems unhappy. It would be a kindness to put it to rest."
"Doesn't sound bad, Winston. We could handle it in a couple of minutes." Venkman leered at Micki. "Besides, I can't say no. You know how I love redheads."
Skeptically, Winston said, "Janine's a redhead."
"Oh. Right. Well, okay, I hate redheads, but I'm willing to make an exception in Ms. Foster's case. Let's do it."
"Not so fast, Peter. Exactly where is this house, Mr. Dallion?"
"Well, that's a problem." He seemed embarrassed. "You wouldn't happen to have access to a helicopter or something, would you? Because it's out in the middle of nowhere, pretty much hidden by some trees."
Murray said, "No. No helicopters."
He shrugged. "We only bought the house a week ago, and we're not real familiar with the area, so it might take a little while to get there. The sooner we leave, the better."
"How far away is it?"
"About thirty-five miles southeast of here."
Murray scowled at the deck. What was going on here? Was it just coincidence that these strangers happened to come after the Ghostbusters, here on the RIPTIDE, and want to visit a spot quite near here? Could there possibly be some connection to Cody's strange behavior?
"I don't trust these people, guys. You can't just--"
"Please." Ms. Foster's voice trembled. "You don't know how scary this whole thing is."
He never could refuse a pretty woman anything. Or an unattractive woman, for that matter. Resolutely, he turned his back on her. "There's something not right about--"
She slipped in front of him, and he saw tears sparkling on her cheeks before he could shut her out by closing his own eyes. "It's a matter of life and death. Really."
"Then it's settled. Winston, you get our equipment, and I'll take care of our clients."
Murray protested, "You can't leave! We have to find Cody!"
"No problem-o. The two of us can handle a measly little Class 2 spook, and you three Great Brains can deal with the Cody situation." Venkman crooked his elbow at the redhead. "Shall we go?"
She withdrew a few inches, with a polite smile. "Actually, I'd rather stay here. The ghost really frightens me."
"Oh. Hold on a minute." Peter threw open the door to Murray's cabin. "Ray, Winston needs you to help clear out a Class 2 spectre in a haunted house near here. Egon and I'll hold down the fort here while you're gone."
"What? But, Peter, we're in the middle of--"
"No buts. You can't turn down a client, that would be really unprofessional. Hurry up, they're waiting for you."
It was true. Winston had two proton packs, particle rifles, and traps already piled on the deck. Looking dazed, Ray let his partner drag to the pile.
"Is this stuff safe?" Ryan asked.
"Of course it's safe."
He nudged one of the traps with his foot. "These things are empty, right? I mean, you empty them out after every catch, right?"
"These are empty. We're very careful about that, aren't we, Peter?"
Venkman pursed his lips and tried to whistle, developing a sudden interest in the horizon. His companion stiffened.
"Peter, you did empty your trap before we left New York, didn't you?"
"Sure. Probably. I mean, I meant to."
"Peter, we just used that trap, and we're not sure exactly what we caught--and now you're telling me it was already occupied?"
"We'll talk about it when you guys get back, okay? Our client's in a hurry. Bye, now."
Wide-eyed, Micki Foster turned to Murray as the two Ghostbusters and her friend carried the equipment away. "We're not in any danger, are we?"
"From this ghost-trap that was already occupied?"
"I--I don't know anything about their equipment, not really," he admitted.
"How could we be in any danger?" scoffed Venkman, his professional pride at stake.
"Well, I'd feel much safer if I knew exactly where this trap was. So I could avoid it."
"No." Murray was too tired to reason it out, but he didn't trust this woman, and he didn't intend to give an inch.
Dr. Venkman, on the other hand, was obviously bent on giving two or three miles. "You have nothing to worry about, my dear. The nasty old trap is in the Boz's cabin, so Egon can play with it."
"My partner. He takes care of the equipment, and I do the thinking."
"In this cabin?" Deftly, Ms. Foster eased the door open. "Hello. I'm Micki Foster. Your new client." Dr. Spengler grunted but didn't look up, so he was taken by surprise when the woman slid her arm under his. "Please come up on deck, in the sunshine, and explain things to me."
"I can do all the explaining," Venkman protested. "Egon doesn't talk English, he talks mumbo-jumbo jargon."
Egon shoved his glasses back up his nose, trying to sit down at the desk again. "My work. . .it's not finished. . . ."
"I'm sure you'll think much more clearly after you've had a break," Micki said smoothly, leading him to the door.
"I can converse equally well here, while contemplating my algorithms."
She shuddered. "Oh, but it's much too scary here, in the same room as that trap-thing full of ghosts." Carefully, she pulled the door closed and hung her tiny green shoulder-purse from the doorknob, then drew Egon after her. "I do so admire your work, you know. And anything I don't understand, I'm sure Dr. Bozinsky can explain to me."
She turned that dazzling smile on Murray, and he found himself automatically trailing the other three into the sunshine. He always believed the best of people, and his partners were always complaining about his gullibility.
But today he was weary, and cranky, and worried sick, so after a few steps he stopped and thought long and hard.
There was more to this than met the eye....
Listening to the childish sobs in the mist, Al screwed his eyes tightly shut. "It wasn't my fault. I was just a kid when they put you in that asylum. It wasn't my fault."
From somewhere to his right, a man said harshly, "But it was your fault I died in 'Nam, Lieutenant."
The voice didn't sound familiar. "Who are you? Levon? Billy?"
"Your cowardice--your lack of leadership--killed me. But you made sure you came back alive, didn't you?"
"I gave Billy my bowl of rice, but it didn't do any good, he died of dysentery anyway," Al said softly, more to himself than anything else. His voice tightened. "You talk about cowardice, but you haven't got the guts to tell me your name!"
"I'll tell you my name." This time the voice came from behind him. He spun around, scowling. "In fact, I gave it to you. You're my only son, and you've been a failure at everything you ever did. Always running away, always changing careers, because you couldn't succeed at anything."
"Non e vero, Papa."
He couldn't really make out the figure's features, but then, he didn't want to see the expression on his father's face. Inexorably, the voice went on. "I raised you a good Catholic boy, but you got divorced five times. You couldn't even make a marriage work."
"Non sei arrabbiato con me, Papa?" There was no answer. Al made a fist with his right hand, forced himself to relax it when the seared fingers protested. "You're not angry with me, Pop, are you? What's the matter? Cat got your tongue? Or don't you speak Italian? You, born and bred in Abruzzi?" He swung around to smile at Mary. "Or is the problem that you don't speak Italian?"
"I--I don't understand. Al, what's wrong with you?"
"Nothing's wrong with me, sweetie. You're the one who's a lousy actress. For instance, I never introduced myself to you, so how did you know my name? Or how about the way you kept coming up with new ideas to scare me? Or the way you conveniently managed to trip me so I'd turn into instant dog treat?"
"Oh, but, Al--"
"Don't give me that teary-eyed innocent routine," he said scornfully. "I've been lied to, cheated on, and dumped by five wives and God knows how many other women; how could I not know you were trying to con me?"
The dim figures faded into nothingness in the fog around them. Al watched in fascination as Mary, too, disappeared. Cracks fissured the makeup, and the features crumbled away like sand swept away by a sudden wind. Underneath it all was an older face, twisted with hate until whatever former beauty it might have clung to was gone. Pink swirled over the white sheath dress, which billowed into a taffeta 1950's ingenue's gown. On the chest, a splotch of blood darkened the pink.
"I didn't lie," she said sweetly. "My name is Mary, after all."
"Mary Jo Liese." He grimaced. "I don't get it."
"You killed me! All I wanted was to make you hurt, to see you suffer the way you made me suffer."
"I didn't kill you, lady. You killed your husband with that blood-sucking machine, and then you tried to do it to Marshak and Sam. You even tried to carve up Ryan with a butcher knife." Flushing, she put one hand on her hip and thrust out her jaw, so he speeded up before she could interrupt. "None of us killed you; you tried to crawl out the window and stabbed yourself with the I.V. needle, remember? I think it's called `just desserts' or something."
"Well! If it wasn't for you running back and forth, tattling, they never would've found me! That blood transfuser was mine. You had no business sneaking into my house, spying on me, trying to steal it!"
Geez Louise, the daffy dame actually believed all that guff. She was all puffed up with righteous indignation. Not for the first time, Albert Calavicci marveled at his ability to hook up with the worst possible woman. If he walked into a Vegas hotel staffed by a Bryn Mawr graduate, a former Peace Corps worker, a Red Cross volunteer who raised foster children on the side, and a high school dropout with one or more husbands--all equally lovely women--he'd walk out with the floozy on his arm every time. It never failed, even in the Netherworld.
Her lips quivered as she began to cry. "Vandalizing my home--picking on a defenseless widow--"
Talk about chutzpah! She was only a widow because she vacuumed out all her husband's blood to pour on money and transform ones into hundreds. Ruthlessly, he cut her off in the middle of her self-pitying monologue.
"So your big plan to have me quivering on the ground like a bowlful of Jello didn't work. Now what?"
Mary Jo's eyes narrowed. "Now I hurt you, so your buddy Sam will see what's waiting for him. Then I make him pay for pretending to be that tart, and destroying my plans for my retirement."
Uh-oh. Al bounced on his heels, ready to start sprinting the minute the Devil Dog appeared.
With a smug little smile, Mary Jo plucked something from the bloody splotch on her chest. Her smile broadened as she held up what looked like the needle from the blood transfusion unit that had killed her. He started sweating.
(No fair. She can make whatever she wants outta this fuzz, because she's dead. All I can do is run--and right now I'm not up to doing that so good, either.)
"My Frank never thought much of my pitching, but I've learned a few tricks since then," she cooed, and hurled the needle at him with a delicate underhand throw.
Al ducked, cradling his ribs with his left arm when they protested. The needle made a U-turn and flew back into the ghost's hand.
Beaming, she tossed it again. This time, he wasn't quite fast enough, and the needle clipped his right ear before looping back to its owner.
Licking her lips as if she'd just bitten into a Fanny Farmer chocolate, Mary Jo pitched the needle at him again.
Al was already stumbling into a trot, praying he could out-run this the way he'd out-run the Devil Dog. No such luck; he stopped short as the needle slid into the back of his neck. It didn't really hurt--it felt like a mosquito bite, actually--but he yelped as he twisted around, grabbing at it with both hands.
It was making sucking noises.
Even yanking at it with both hands, he had trouble getting the needle out; as it sucked, it seemed to be sinking deeper into his flesh. When he did drag it out, it wriggled in his grip like live bait. Repulsed, he flung it into the fog, as far from Mary Jo as he could, and started running again. Not only was he covered with goosebumps, he was trying not to toss his cookies.
"Oh, you can't leave now--the fun's just beginning!"
Giggling, Mary Jo clapped her hands. Something hummed briefly behind him, and he felt another sting on the back of his neck.
Sam felt self-conscious lingering in front of Straightaways, even though Rashid and Jack casually moved to block him from view when any early morning folks strolled by. Would Murray have warned his neighbors to keep an eye out for Cody, or not?
At least it felt good to be doing something constructive to save Al. Maybe the optimistic attitude of these two demonologists was rubbing off on him, or maybe it was just wishful thinking, but he'd decided Al was probably doing fine in the Netherworld. Sure, he was scared of ghosts--who wouldn't be?--but by now, if he knew his partner, Al had probably seduced some deceased but attractive ghostess. He might even object to being rescued.
At least, that's what he had to keep telling himself.
"Ah! Good girl," Jack murmured. "She's moving them to the other end of the boat, so we can board. Now let's hope she was able to locate the right trap."
Briskly, they moved toward the RIPTIDE. Beside her, the CONTESSA was chugging out of the harbor, her deck laden with bikini-clad crewmembers and middle-aged men in fishing gear.
"Oh, hi, Cody!" chirped a brunette.
Forcing an artificial smile, Sam waved to her, then held a finger to his lips. She looked puzzled, but shrugged and turned back to a bait bucket that had spilled. Luckily, nobody on the RIPTIDE had noticed.
Quietly, they walked toward the cabins, keeping a watchful eye on the group by the bow. Micki had anchored Egon and Murray on each arm, but she had to keep releasing one or the other to reach back and pry Peter Venkman's hand from her hip. It was quite enough to keep anyone from observing three silent figures slipping into a cabin.
Holding his breath, Sam edged down the short flight of stairs to Bozinsky's cabin. When he spotted Micki's purse hanging from the doorknob, he nodded and waved the other two down behind him.
Marshak eased the cabin door shut, then gazed thoughtfully around the cabin, crammed with a big-screen TV, piles of print-outs, and countless electronic gadgets. "This must be the infamous trap. Interesting." He lifted it carefully. "I wonder if it could be modified somehow for our use? You know, this works on the theory that paranormal entities have identifiable PKE readings. If cursed objects also give off emanations...."
"You seem to have plenty of success in tracking down cursed objects without machinery," Rashid observed.
"Mmm. Yes. Well. . . ."
Oblivious, Sam paused to quickly scan the print-outs and spiky, almost illegible handwritten notes strewn around the room. Most seemed to be attempts to explain the strange readings he and Al had produced on the Ghostbusters' equipment, and therefore were useless. Taking a deep breath, he moved on.
Stacked neatly in one corner, on top of a pile of computer magazines, were two proton packs and particle rifles. Sam examined them carefully, concentrating, conscious of time passing too quickly, but not willing to risk their lives by overlooking something.
It was fortunate that he'd kept up-to-date on everything in the field of quantum physics, even having Ziggy summarize the most esoteric journal articles for him when he and Al were absorbed with Project Quantum Leap. With a solid grasp of Egon Spengler's and Ray Stantz's mindsets, and the research he'd done while waiting for Marshak, the actual equipment seemed almost familiar. Sam felt his confidence increasing.
He would have to be sure the modifications would treat their living bodies as similar to ghostly forms, so they would be sucked into the trap and not torn apart molecule by molecule, but it no longer seemed like an impossible dream. Good thing the Boz had all these computers on hand.
As he sat down before a keyboard, Sam held up his hands and arched his fingers, almost like a concert pianist about to perform. Respectfully falling silent, Jack and Rashid moved in to watch him type.
Sam scowled at the screen, modified two equations, arched an eyebrow, and changed one decimal point.
"Will it work?"
"Hmm?" He spun around in the swivel chair, lifting a proton pack and scrutinizing the dials and meters on it.
"We don't have much time, Sam. Will it work?"
"Yes. I can recalibrate this to a setting that will safely absorb a human being." He licked his lips and turned off the computer. "I think."
Rashid removed his fez and slowly, absently, twirled it between his hands. "I would like you to be quite certain. Consider that I am the one to pull the trigger, and it would greatly distress me to kill you."
"It would distress me even more to be killed," Jack rumbled. Experimentally, he held the trap to his ear and shook it, with no apparent result.
Fastidiously, Sam readjusted a setting, squinted at it, then fine-tuned it. "Oh, it's safe. Basically. We don't have time to do a trial run, but I'm willing to go in alone--"
"Nonsense. I'm going with you. Otherwise, how would you and Al get back out?"
"No one's going anywhere."
As one, all three men turned to the stairs, where Murray Bozinsky stood, arms folded, glaring at them. "Look, even I could see that the Foster woman was trying to distract us. Cody, who are these people? What are you doing in here?"
"I called the Reserves. Nick should've been here yesterday." His voice quavered. "What is going on?"
Marshak gently set the trap down. "We're here to retrieve a cursed object, a helicopter compass, that was apparently placed in the Sikorsky owned by your partner, Nick Ryder. The curse is quite deadly, which explains Mr. Ryder's disappearance. I understand it also produced some unusual readings for the Ghostbusters."
Sam shot him an appreciative glance. Why couldn't he think that fast? On most of his leaps, he was too discombobulated at first to think clearly, let alone to come up with such a clever story.
Murray, however, wasn't having it. "The Mimi wasn't here yesterday, when Egon's readings went haywire," he objected.
"I believe the curse has affected Mr. Allen somewhat."
"Then what are you doing aboard the RIPTIDE? Why aren't you with Dallion, looking for Nick?"
Sam said gently, "When the Ghostbusters fired at me, they accidentally caught someone. We're here to set him free. He's the only one who can give us the exact location of Nick and the Screaming Mimi."
"Caught someone? This is crazy, Cody."
"We've worked with Al on cases before," Marshak offered. "In my line of work--tracking down antiques cursed by the Devil--a sort of supernatural partner is a big asset."
"There's no time. Murray, please, you'll have to just trust me on this; it's Nick's only chance. Ryan's going to try, but there's no way he can find Nick in time without precise directions."
Sam handed the proton pack and particle rifle to Rashid, and stood beside Marshak. The Egyptian murmured something vaguely prayer-like in what sounded like Arabic.
"You're not going anywhere without me."
"No. Murray, this is dangerous. You don't know anything about the paranormal."
"Oh, and you do?" His face was drawn, nearly as white as a print-out, but his chin was thrust out in the familiar Bozinsky `I'm-not-moving-an-inch-even-if-the-Pentagon-fires-rockets' expression. "Nick is missing, and you're about to do something dangerous, and I'm not going to be left out of it. We're partners, Cody, and don't you forget it."
Marshak shrugged. "We don't have time to waste arguing with him. Let him come."
"No one else!" Rashid broke off in mid-prayer. "The strain of returning all of you--"
"No one else. Keep an eye on us, Rashid."
He hesitated, holding the rifle stiffly, as if it were something distasteful. Murray stalked to Sam's side, bristling.
"Oh, come on, now, don't tell me you're going to fire that thing at--"
Rashid blurted, "The Power of Light be with you," then grimaced and pulled the trigger.
When the fiery plasma-charged streams enveloped them, Sam's first thought was that it felt like the start of a quantum leap. On second thought, he decided it was like being spun rapidly in a revolving door on a sunny day; he never felt this dizzy when he leaped, and he always came out more confused. At least it wasn't painful. He blinked, and wondered how he had ended up inside a white shoe polish bottle instead of the Ghostbusters' trap. Beside him, Murray hiccoughed.
After a moment, Marshak cleared his throat. "What this place needs is a good interior decorator."
Sam's bellows were muffled by the white curtains enveloping them. Lowering his hands, he turned to Jack as the paranormal expert.
"How do we find him in here?"
"We walk. By its very nature, the portable containment field locks us into a very small portion of the Netherworld. It may look huge to us as we travel, but actually it's a very small area; sooner or later, we'll come across Al."
"This--this is incredible," Murray said softly, as if he were in a church or funeral parlor and afraid to speak up. "What exactly are the parameters? Can this field be accessed without Ray's equipment?"
Jack began to walk, carefully not looking down at his feet. "By magick, if the user is powerful enough and has the right spells. Think of it as similar to a computer; no matter how powerful a hacker's board is, he has to use the right codes to crack into a program."
"Why would you want to?" Sam muttered.
"Oh, you'd be surprised. Not all of the Netherworld is featureless. If a being has the power and the inclination, it can shape the environment to suit it--build a castle, lay out a swamp, toss in a few animals, whatever."
He squinted, trying futilely to penetrate the haze. "If I know Al, maybe we should be looking for a Vegas showroom. Or a harem."
"Do you know Al, Cody?" Murray asked, frowning. "How?"
Jack glanced quickly at him. "This is a dangerous place, Dr. Bozinsky; we should concentrate on making sure nothing sneaks up on us."
His eyes widened behind the thick glasses. "Like what?"
"It could be anything from a ghost to a demonic creation. A gargoyle, for instance."
He swallowed hard. "Vampire bats?"
"Yes. Snakes. Bugs. Even harpies."
"Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" Sam added under his breath.
Murray hiccoughed again. After that, he kept stumbling, because his head was constantly craning around as he tried to check out the entire 360 degrees surrounding them at all times. At least it distracted him from asking difficult questions. It was better for him not to know what was really going on, not just because the government wanted Project Quantum Leap kept secret, but because Murray was such a loyal and caring friend. He was already worried about Nick, with good reason, and puzzled by "Cody's" odd behavior. If he knew that Cody was actually stuck in someone else's body in the future, and might never leave it if this leap failed, he'd be...well, he'd be as upset as Sam was, knowing Al was in danger.
Although the Senate committee believed Admiral Albert Calavicci, Navy war hero and ex-astronaut, was the star of Project Quantum Leap, Sam had never wanted to let Al risk his life as the first time-traveler. Even though leaping had left him with spotty amnesia, he remembered that quite clearly. The whole point in him leaping when it seemed likely the project would be shut down was to shoulder the risks himself, before Al could come up with the idea. Before they were faced with that crisis, they had skirted the issue, with both of them training to be the Project Observer, because Verbena Beeks and Ziggy bombarded them with tests proving no one else in the project was so closely linked, emotionally and intellectually. It had worked out. Besides, Al would've bopped him in the nose if he didn't get to participate, one way or another.
Being Project Observer should've been completely safe. Al's actual body was strolling through the mammoth Imaging Chamber, with only his mind traveling through time. How could he possibly he hurt?
(Well, let's see. . .so far he somehow switched places with me and got himself concussed and almost killed; got torn up and strangled by the Blood Beast of Thulec; got sucked into the Netherworld by the Ghostbusters--)
"Is this real?" Murray asked in a small voice.
"Not only real, but deadly."
He shuddered. "Nothing to see, nothing to hear. . .like being inside a monitor when the program crashes and there's nothing left but static. Am I dreaming?" He hiccoughed again, a series of falsetto barks. "I don't believe this is happening."
Sam patted his shoulder reassuringly. Accepting the supernatural was especially hard for someone so used to manipulating hard facts and figures, instead of the flexible anything-is-possible-and-probably-mandatory flux of quantum physics.
"Uh-oh what?" Murray demanded, alarmed.
Jack knelt on one knee and scraped at a reddish-brown stain on the cloudy `floor.' In his fingers, the haze seemed ropy, somewhat like bleached cotton candy that was getting stale. "I'm not sure, but it looks like bloodstains."
"Oh, no." Sam closed his eyes. "AL!"
Somewhere far away, a familiar voice squeaked, "Sam?"
He plunged into the fog in the direction of that voice, only dimly aware that the others were following. Ahead, the mist seemed greyer in patches, which gradually solidified into two human figures. As he ran forward, he could see first Al's fluorescent orange goldfish tie glowing like a beacon, then Al's face.
The mist creased and pulled back.
His first thought was that Al looked as if he'd been run through a giant blender, judging from the ripped and bloodstained clothing. He was moving awkwardly, too, cradling his ribs with one arm while swatting at something in the air with the other.
About fifteen feet away stood a plump--no, obese--woman in a flouncy pink dress and pearls. Something about her face seemed familiar. Jack sucked in his breath.
"Gods and Goddesses--Mary Jo Liese!"
No, Marshak had to be confused. Mary Jo Liese was dead. Okay, that didn't preclude her being in the Netherworld, but she died a somewhat stocky middle-aged woman, not a stand-in for the fat lady in a carnival.
Yet even buried in those folds of fat, the pink-ringed mouth and heavily outlined eyes were familiar.
"Ow!" Al winced as something thin and silver whipped past Sam and hit him in the right shoulder. "Sam, get outta here!"
Confused, he caught Al's shoulders, supporting him. Murray pointed shakily at the fat woman, his eyes round.
"Look at her. She looks like the Michelin Tire Man!"
Weirdly, it was true. As Al's face whitened, Mary Jo inflated, her girth broadening at least another two inches. Gasping, Al fumbled at his shoulder and wrenched the needle-thing free. Mary Jo promptly stopped spreading. It was as if she were feeding off Al, absorbing him through the needle.
Whatever the needle was, it quivered in Al's hand. Sickened, Sam grabbed at it, trying to steady Al's shaky grip, but the needle yanked itself free of them both and zipped away.
Jack Marshak stepped forward, drawing the ghost's blue-mascara-cemented eyes to him. He held up his right hand, the two middle fingers curled downward, and intoned in a sonorous baritone, "By the horns of Hecate--"
"No!" screeched the bulbous, bloated woman.
His fingers opened and his hand moved in a slow circle. "--the powers of Aurora--"
"It's not fair!"
"--shield us from the sting of Darkness."
Like some elongated mosquito, the needle hovered in mid-air, not ten inches from Al's face, punching at the air as if stymied by an invisible wall. Al flinched at each jab, but the needle never penetrated.
"You have no right!" Mary Jo whined. "Murderers! Cheaters! I'LL SHOW YOU!"
Jack continued walking toward her, his hand raised in the horn symbol again, the horns tilted to point at her. Murray stood stock-still, shaking his head, as if denying any of this could be happening. Trying to take all this in, Sam held Al up, squeezing his shoulders reassuringly.
Behind Jack, something red formed in the haze, immense and muscled and horned, with a gaping pus-filled hole where its left eye should've been. A bull? No, it was scaled, vaguely reptilian. A dinosaur?
Al groaned, "Aw, no, not the Devil Dog."
"Jack, look ou--"
Too late; it vaulted from the clouds with a snarl that drowned out whatever Jack was chanting. One swipe from a colossal paw, and he crumpled at Mary Jo's high-heeled feet.
When Marshak collapsed, so did the protective field. With an angry whine, the needle swooped forward. Sam instinctively stepped in front of Al, his arms spread, trying to shield him.
"Stop that!" the ghost demanded, stamping one foot.
With its fangs about to close on Marshak's throat, the Devil Dog paused, pus-colored drool splashing on the winded man's neck. Reluctantly, it lifted its head and turned toward Mary Jo, growling. At a gesture from her, it backed away from its victim, stiff-legged, gathering its muscles beneath it. The huge head swung around, the one remaining eye flaring as it focused on a new victim. Then, snarling, the monster hurtled over Murray and slammed into Sam, hurling him aside.
The needle bored deep into Al's belly. Choking, he folded in half over it, then dropped to his knees, one knee at a time.
Mary Jo tossed her head and laughed with delight.
Murray Bozinsky had been standing silently near Sam, apparently more-or-less shell-shocked, only reacting by ducking when the Devil Dog jumped over him. Now he stiffened, radiating righteous indignation. "This is just too much!" Murray shouted, and vaulted onto the Devil Dog's back.
Pinned beneath the monster's mammoth brownish-red legs, Sam couldn't inflate his lungs. As his vision began to blur, he had a confused impression of Murray's legs dangling, scrabbling for a foothold against the scaly body, then Murray was sitting astride, making little surprised hoots of pain.
The Devil Dog rumbled a deep-chested threat, twisting its head to snap at its uninvited rider. Pitching back and forth, the skinny young scientist clutched at the horns on its head for support. Startled, the creature began to gyrate, trying to toss him off.
At least the sunfishing and yawing got it off Sam's chest. For a long moment he just lay there, sucking in desperate gulps of air.
Above him, Murray kept opening and closing one hand at a time, as if holding onto the stubby horns was painful, but he couldn't let go, because the furious Devil Dog reared onto its hind legs, and he nearly slid down its massive rump.
Still dazed, Sam forced his protesting body to sit up. What should he do? He was torn between trying to save Murray, and ripping the needle from Al's stomach. Somehow he found the strength to start crawling.
Clapping her hands and giggling, enjoying the show, the corpulent ghost was expanding again.
A quick glance showed him that Murray was flopping back and forth so hard that it looked like his head would snap off at any second. Clinging desperately to one horn, he scrabbled with his right hand for the pens and pencils stuffed in his chest pocket, and then jammed the whole handful into the Devil Dog's right eye.
Both the monster and Mary Jo wailed in agony. She flung both hands over her face, as if her own eye had been destroyed. The scaly beast shuddered, throwing Murray free, then rolled onto its side. Its legs kicked spasmodically, then it faded into tufts of smoke, and was gone.
Sam had no time to relish its destruction; he had finally reached Al's side. Al was curled into a tight fetal ball, arms wrapped around his belly. Gently, Sam tried to pry his arms loose.
"Relax, Al. Please. I can make it stop."
Al groaned, his arms tightening. Sam peeled one arm free and groped until his fingers touched the needle, but it didn't feel like a needle. Instead of cool metal, he felt something warm, soggy, and pulsing as it sucked greedily at his partner's life. Every instinct screamed at him to drop the repulsive thing and run, but Sam set his shoulders and pulled. It struggled, writhing in his grip, trying to burrow deeper.
With both hands, he hauled it out, bracing himself against its fight to escape. Like steel drawn to a magnet, it kept pulling toward Al's prone body.
"Mother and Moon-Goddess,
Ever-changing mistress of the night...."
Jack Marshak, levering himself to his feet, began a shaky chant. Lowering her hands, Mary Jo Liese whirled. She was now so bloated that if she took one dainty jump upward, she would probably float away like a blimp.
"No! Shut up! You can't stop me! He gave me the power, because He wants to stop them interfering in His plans!"
Jack held up the moon medallion in both hands, his eyes gleaming.
"As the moon turns from Darkness to Light,
Turn thy Light upon us and banish Darkness!"
Holding the medallion aloft in his left hand, Jack again pointed a horned fist at the ghost. Was it Sam's imagination, or was she dimming, losing color? On an impulse, he drew back his arm, remembering his brief leap into an aging baseball pitcher, and threw the needle at Mary Jo.
She shrieked as the needle pierced her stomach, and then her yowls were joined by a shrilling noise like an overheated teakettle going off. All the oxygen around them seemed to be swept upward and stirred, as if a tornado had taken shape in their midst. Wind buffeted Sam, punching him back, and he threw himself protectively over Al, squeezing his eyes shut.
Did something explode? All he knew for certain was that his ears were popping. Abruptly, the winds were stilled.
When Sam hesitantly lifted his head, Mary Jo Liese was gone. A few thin, rubbery shreds of something pink littered the `floor' and clung to the creamy mist around them; he didn't want to think about what they might be.
Marshak slung the medallion around his neck and bent to help a somewhat groggy Murray to his feet. Sam rolled off Al, who straightened out slowly, rolled over, and stared upward. After a moment, he smiled. It was a surprisingly sweet, boyish smile.
"She's gone. Ain't that a trip?"
"I'd ask if you're okay, but I can see that you're not. Here, let me help you up."
Al extended his hand. When Sam clasped it, both men grinned. As soon as Al was on his feet, swaying a little but upright, Sam grabbed him and hugged him fiercely. Al patted his back weakly, but with feeling.
"Yeah, I know, kid. I missed you, too."
"Can we go home now?" Murray asked in a strained voice, blinking as he put his glasses back on.
Jack's smile congealed on his face, and he frantically dug in his jacket. "The mirror!"
"Oh, boy," chorused Sam and Al in unison, sounding remarkably Bronx.
Anxiously, Jack unwrapped the bundle of white velvet, then relaxed. "It's all right. It didn't break. Just give me moment to concentrate."
Respectfully, all three backed away. Al glanced at Murray. "Burned your hands, huh, kid?"
Murray gave him a rather glazed look, like an owl unexpectedly awakened in bright sunlight. "Well, yes, a little. I see you did, too."
"Yup." His mouth quirked upward. "Just consider yourself lucky she didn't think about making its whole body hot while you while you were riding it."
"Ouch!" Murray locked his knees together in pain and turned green, just thinking about it.
Covertly, Sam scrutinized Al, not liking what he saw. No way of telling if the ribs were broken without x-rays, and nothing they could do about it anyway. Al was so drained of color that he blended into the fog around them, and he kept touching his stomach as if the needle-thing was still eating away at it. Catching Sam's gaze, he raised one eyebrow, so Sam asked, "Uh, have you still got your hand-link?"
Al touched his pocket. "Never leave home without it. But it won't work in here." Terribly anxious, he muttered, "Say, listen, Sam. How long have I been in here? That ghost said--"
"About twenty-four hours, I think. I've been so worried I've kind of lost track."
"That's all? I mean, it's only been a couple hours here, but I was afraid...well, anyway, that's okay, then." But then he looked even more panicky. "You don't suppose ghosts can, like, tag along with us when we leave, do you?"
"No. Absolutely not," Sam said firmly, even though he wasn't sure. "Even if they could, the Ghostbusters are on the RIPTIDE; ghosts are afraid of them."
Murray adjusted his glasses. Some of the masking tape had given way, so one arm was crooked. "Can I just ask one question? Why do you keep calling Cody `Sam'?"
"Slang, kid. I call everybody `Sam'--men, women, children, chimpanzees. Saves learning new names."
"Oh." Murray nodded sagely, as if this made sense. Maybe he had hit his head when he was thrown off the Devil Dog.
Sam shrugged out of Cody Allen's sweater and used it to mop up some of the blood still oozing from the jagged claw marks running down Al's short torso. Sourly, he reflected that the only advantage to leaping into a woman was that she'd have a slip or other filmy underthings that made good bandages; he couldn't possibly rip this sweater in half. What kind of unspeakable filth had caked the Devil Dog's claws? Those cuts were no doubt overflowing with bacteria.
"Make sure they give you a hefty dose of broad-spectrum antibiotics the minute you get back."
Al stiffened, his eyes narrowing. "No rabies shots! None! Once, back at the orphanage, this geeky kid called Alfalfa--quite a rascal, actually--got bit by a stray mutt, and they gave him seven shots in the gut with these huge horse needles--" Absently, he scrubbed the back of his neck with the heel of one hand.
Sam pulled his hand down. "Leave it alone, you'll only irritate it."
"Fair enough; it's sure irritating me."
"Here, let me see." Gingerly, he probed the swollen area where the needle-thing had hit. It was an angry red, streaked with purple-black bruising, more like a venomous sting or bite than the mark of a hypodermic needle. "Tell them to do extensive blood-work, and have Ziggy analyze the--"
"Forget it. A couple Bandaids, some pitchers of beer, and I'll be fine."
"You're thirsty because of blood loss. Al, I feel terrible. This is all my fault--"
Scowling, Al snapped, "That's crazy! It's Mary Jo Liese's fault, and nobody else's."
Edging closer to them, Murray asked uncertainly, "Can she come back?" Both men froze. "I mean, can you kill a ghost?"
Simultaneously, and with great alacrity, Sam and Al moved toward Marshak, with Murray close on their heels. Silently, the older man tilted up the round mirror.
Instead of his own alarmed expression--or rather, Cody Allen's--Sam found himself looking at the salt-and-pepper goatee of Rashid, beaded with sweat. His lips were moving rapidly as he passed his open palms over the the mirror's surface, but he made no discernible sound. It was, as Rashid had described it, like looking through a window.
Carefully, Marshak placed the mirror on the `floor,' so that it seemed to be floating on a frosted cloud. Holding up his open right palm, he folded the middle fingers down and moved his hand in a slow circle, ending the spell with his hand on his heart.
"By the powers of Aurora,
By the shining name of Helos,
The darkened shores of Sharon,
The dying fields of Aramis--
Admit these travelers entry."
As the chant ended, he put his horned fist through the mirror, yet the glass didn't shatter. His arm simply seemed to end at the wrist, which was resting on the silvered surface.
"Now. Step on it, but lightly."
The other three exchanged nervous glances. Al inched back, elaborately polite. "After you."
"Quickly!" gritted Marshak. "Before it closes."
Wild-eyed, Murray straightened his glasses again, emitted one forlorn, stifled hiccough, and stepped forward. He sank downward and vanished, only to reappear inside the mirror, looking surprised when Rashid brushed him aside.
Was it his imagination, or did Sam hear something behind them? It wasn't so much Murray's "squeaking" as the squeal of a dying rabbit.
He nudged Al forward, feeling a wrench in the pit of his stomach as his best friend stepped through the looking glass. Who knew how long it would be before they could once again share a quick hug?
Despite the danger they were in, Jack abruptly laughed. When Sam leaned over the glass, he saw Al flashing a cocky grin and holding up his right thumb. Sam smiled back, and stepped forward.
From his point of view, it felt like stepping through a wave, only he emerged completely dry. In fact, the haze seemed to have flaked off on him, leaving a smoky ash lightly dusting his skin.
Rashid had locked the cabin door, but Venkman and Spengler could be heard outside, pounding on it, demanding to know what was going on. The Egyptian ignored this, grabbing Marshak as he leaped through the mirror on Sam's heels.
"Jack, you're all right? You succeeded?"
Marshak nodded wearily, one hand on the moon medallion, but didn't speak. After a moment, Murray began carefully blowing out the candles Rashid had placed on every open space in the cabin. In the corner, Al was sagging against something invisible, probably leaning on a wall in the Imaging Chamber. Instinctively, Sam reached out to help him, but his hand passed through Al's body; he was a hologram again. One corner of Al's mouth jerked upward in a humorless grin, and he half-shrugged.
"We need the exact location of the Screaming Mimi," Sam told him. "Then you're going to the hospital."
"Nothing they can do for a hologram," Al said flippantly, punching something into his handlink. It squawked and tooted at him, every light flashing. "Maybe you oughtta send me to a Fotomat booth."
"Here it is. Listen up."
Sam repeated the latitude and longitude to Marshak, who had already produced a small radio and thumbed it on. Distantly, he heard Dallion confirm it.
Peevishly, Al looked up over one shoulder and yelled, "I'm fine! Shut up, already--I can't hear myself think."
Murray had hesitantly unlocked the door, and as he stepped back the two Ghostbusters tumbled in, but that wasn't what provoked Al's irritation. Sam asked, "Gooshie?"
"Yeah, the whole crew's goin' crazy."
His memory had more holes in it than Swiss cheese, so he couldn't picture `the whole crew,' but Sam could imagine their distress. They could see Al in the Imaging Chamber, his body developing gashes and burns, but they had no way of figuring out how it was happening to him or how to stop it.
"They can't get to you until you break the link with me, can they?"
"Not since I had Ziggy change the locking system. Good thing, too, or they'd be interferin' all the time and really screw things up."
"What is going on here, people?" Venkman demanded.
Micki forced her way into the already crowded cabin. "Look, if you'll just come back on deck, I can explain--"
Sam turned his back on them, lowering his voice but still trying to sound authoritative. It wasn't easy; admirals don't take orders well. "Go home, Al. You've done everything you were supposed to do for this leap."
Sure enough, Al scowled, looking away. "I'm not goin' to Sickbay, Sam. Not until I know Ryder's gonna make it, and you're not stuck here."
"Murray, what happened to your hands?" Spengler asked abruptly. "I am positive I heard a particle rifle--"
Alarmed, Venkman told Murray, "Our insurance company is not responsible for any injuries if you started fooling around with our equipment. I distinctly told you, probably, that it wasn't safe--"
"Be quiet, people!" Marshak bellowed. "They've found Nick, and they need an ambulance!"
"Oh, my God! How badly is he hurt? Is he all right?" Bozinsky snatched the radio from his hands, ignoring the pain it must've caused his burned palms. "All I'm getting is static. How do you work this thing? Where's my keys? I've got to go--"
Gesticulating wildly, he plowed through the crowd toward the door. Venkman, Micki, and Rashid followed him, babbling defenses, questions, and helpful advice.
Egon, however, still hovered protectively over the proton pack. "These settings have been tampered with. This is most unusual."
"Now that we know Nick's okay, everything here is just fine," Sam said pointedly, glaring at Al.
The admiral grimaced and raised both scalded, blistering hands. "Okay, okay." The familiar blue-lit doorway rumbled into existence behind him. "Ziggy says Ryder's gonna be fine, and they're gonna stick me in the hospital even longer than him if I don't get my butt in gear. See ya next leap, Sam."
He straightened out and squared his shoulders to stroll casually through the doorway, but it clearly took an effort. The doorway winked shut, and was gone.
Egon cradled the pack as if it were an injured child. "What is going on here?"
Sam sighed. "Mr. Marshak came here for your help."
"I did?" Jack was startled; Egon, suspicious.
"Well, yeah. You see, Mr. Marshak and his partners have a business somewhat similar to the Ghostbusters, only they track down antiques that were cursed, instead of ghosts. The problem, as I understand it, is that cursed objects can't be destroyed, so they've got a whole basement vault full of deadly antiques."
Egon looked intrigued. "You think we might be able to destroy the curses?"
Jack raised his eyebrows, considering it. "Well, it's worth a try. You seemed convinced that you could exorcise a possessed human with your technology; you could be able to exorcise a demonic curse. The situations do have a certain theoretical similarity."
"It would require some research first. Are the objects available for examination?"
"I think it would be safe, if we remove only one item at a time."
Egon adjusted his glasses. "Our vacation is, in fact, nearly over. . . ."
Sam felt the familiar vertigo-inducing sensation of an approaching leap, and almost welcomed it. They'd saved Nick Ryder's life, and possibly repaid the owners of CURIOUS GOODS for their help. The sooner he leaped into his next problem, the sooner he'd learn how Al was doing; what felt like an instantaneous switchover to him usually lasted a week in real-time.
As the blinding sunburst of light faded into fairy dust around him, Sam blinked. His shoulders were hunched protectively, and he stood poised to duck, since usually he landed in the middle of a crisis...but nothing happened. This time he didn't seem to be standing on stage, or about to parachute from a plane, or in the middle of surgery. Cautiously, he looked around.
He was apparently crossing a quiet street in some small, rural town in mid-autumn. The street was overhung by white birches gloriously laden with crimson and gold leaves. Pick-up trucks were parked in most of the spaces on the street, in front of weathered wood-frame buildings. Not far away, a medium-sized liver-spotted dog of the Heinz 57 variety, tail erect, was trotting briskly on some no doubt important business. It was the only thing moving in the otherwise placid street.
Sam relaxed, wiping the last Netherworld dandruff from his hands onto his worn, comfortable blue jeans. This was like leaping home to the family farm in Indiana. Maybe the Powers That Be had relented and given him an easy leap this time. Al kept grousing that if they didn't get a vacation soon, he was starting a time-travellers' union and going on strike. Maybe Whomever controlled their leaps had been listening.
On the other hand, maybe not.
He was almost all the way across the street when a heavy-set Indian woman, her long black hair flying behind her like a tail, darted around the corner. "Holling, look out! Stampede!"
Alarmed, Sam swung toward her, wondering why he didn't hear the thunder of approaching hoofbeats. Instead, he found himself facing a herd of enraged ostriches, long necks outstretched, feathers ruffled, charging right at him.
Diving into the back of the nearest pick-up truck, Sam Beckett hollered, "Oh, boy!"
-----Monday, March 3, 1992
Egon, Ray, aim those photon generators this way and shoot me to Jane's Fan Fiction so I can read more tales.
Gooshie, fire up the Accelerator and tell Ziggy to send me to the sequel.
Roboz, send feedback to the author.