She was the most gorgeous woman he had ever seen, and she pressed up against Sam Beckett like syrup pouring over homemade pancakes. His eyes widened, and he could smell musk perfume as her scarlet lips approached, then--inevitably--he was swept up in the dizzying turmoil of yet another quantum leap into yet another body in his own past. For a moment he could swear he heard Al, his best friend, groaning something about "talk about coitus interruptus," but that wasn't possible, because he always left Al behind when he leaped. Al and the computer, Ziggy, would be back at the lab, frantically trying to center on him so Al could figure out when he was this time.
He could still smell the musk when the multicolored haze around him faded, but Sam knew she had to be gone, and tried to orient himself to his latest incarnation. Leaping seemed instantaneously to him, but anywhere from three to ten days would've passed for Al, and possibly many decades for the blonde woman who had been about to kiss him. There was no use regretting what he'd lost. The important thing was that he had helped Mitzi Harder turn away from a life as a porno movie queen and into a career with the Kinsey Institute; now he had to figure out where and when he was leaping to, and what needed to be fixed there.
Wait a minute. Something was wrong here. Sam shook his head once, hard, as if trying to shake some sense into it. From what he could see, he was in some sort of stodgy, pseudo-Victorian study, but he was looking down on the wooden bookshelves and leather-bound books from a great height. Was he some sort of basketball player this time around?
Slowly at first, but picking up speed, the bookshelves began to revolve around him, like a merry-go-round out of control. Sam squinted, trying to stop the vertigo, then looked down.
It couldn't be, but it was. He was floating a good three feet off the varnished wood floor, and the room wasn't revolving: he was.
"I've got you now, my pretty!" a high voice screeched.
Desperately wishing he had a Dramamine, Sam tried to track the cackle between increasingly rapid revolutions. An elderly woman wearing black fishnet stockings and a black cocktail dress was waving an old-fashioned straw broom at him, and an eldritch stream of purple light poured from the bristles, forming an almost palpable spinning halo around him.
Sam gulped hard and squeezed his eyes shut. It didn't seem to help. There was still some sort of witch in the middle of the study, shrieking curses, and he was still madly pirouetting in mid-air. Something must have gone very wrong with the leap. Either he was somehow stuck between worlds, or in the body of a serious mental case, or in the middle of a special-effects scene from a remake of The Wizard of Oz, or--or something, though he couldn't think what.
"Al! Where are you when I need you?"
There was no answer, of course. It always took Al longer than this to track him down through the multiple parallel universes his time-traveling seemed to be creating. Sam had no choice but to open his eyes again. It wasn't easy. Even though he had managed to survive one incarnation as a trapeze artist, he still felt queasy about heights.
He tried to focus on the hag, but caught only quick glimpses of her as he turned, so that what followed had the jerky quality of one of those simple gum-card stories he'd played with as a child, where you riffled the deck and the stick figures drawn in the corners seemed to move. The woman, spittle foaming in the corners of her mouth, thrust the broom toward him. She was so focused on swatting him down that she didn't see the young man sneaking through the study doors behind her, but she twitched convulsively when he bellowed, "I'll save you, Mickey!"
Even as he shouted, the young man snatched the outstretched broom from the witch's hands. The purple haze shut off at once, as if a light switch had been turned off. Sam stopped spinning and instead plunged straight to the floor. Every bone in his borrowed body seemed to be jarred loose as he hit.
Slipping into unconsciousness, Sam had just enough strength left to moan a heartfelt, "Oh, boy...." and was gone.
As he drove his rented car into the quiet Canadian suburb, Jack Marshak tried for the tenth time that morning to stop worrying about his partners. Ryan and Micki would be fine. They'd rescued over thirty cursed items between them, battling voodoo loas, Druids, vampires, werewolves, and ghosts in the process. In fact, despite being amateurs, they'd been so successful that Satan himself had tried to suborn them. Today, all they had to do was buy back an old broom that had belonged to a Salem witch but was now in the hands of a feminist writer. As the young female owner of a successful antique shop, Micki would charm her, plus she had the advantage that she was proving to be quite a talented student of wicca herself. It was going to be perfectly simple. What was there to worry about?
With his thumb, he pushed back his battered tweed walking hat and sighed. For one thing, for all their puppy-like enthusiasm, Ryan and Mickey were amateurs. They hadn't his decades of experience in the occult. Over the years, he had dabbled in--or at least studied--every variation of the occult, starting with simple stage magic when he was barely out of toddler pants. In fact, he'd read Lewis Vendredi his first Tarot, getting Lewis interested in the supernatural, which probably started this whole awful mess. Now Lewis's heirs had to track down every antique he ever sold from CURIOUS GOODS, because he had sold his soul to the Devil, and everything that passed through his hands carried a deadly curse. Who know what the broom might do, if wielded by someone who had succumbed to temptation? The curses on Lewis's antiques were all different. Perhaps it would let the owner possess someone, or give her the ability to fly, or--
Well, there was no point in fretting over it. Between the two of them, Micki and Ryan had more than enough pluck and intelligence. Right now, he had to concentrate on the business at hand, which was retrieving an old-fashioned transfusion unit that Lewis had sold to a prominent surgeon. A little research in newspaper morgues proved the surgeon had died in a bizarre operating room fight with scalpels when other doctors accused him of unnecessary surgery. "Blood-letting" was the term they'd used, actually. Clearly, the curse had claimed another victim.
Yesterday, Jack had tracked down the much-younger widow of the late surgeon, who had sold her husband's belongings in a massive garage sale. Luckily, her maid had written receipts and kept the carbons. Jack glanced at the yellow sheet of paper laying on the seat beside him. The new owner, who sounded sweet but rather--well, Micki would term it "ditzy"--on the phone, had been more than willing to sell the unit at a profit. With any luck, he could drive straight back to the Heights and help Micki and Ryan get the broom tonight, before anything could happen.
Realizing what he was doing, Jack snorted. "Stop worrying so," he told himself firmly. "They're perfectly capable of looking after themselves."
Almost there. He spotted Derleth Drive coming up on his right and turned down it, shading his eyes with one hand when a stray sunbeam glinted off the massive signet ring on his left hand. Jack grinned ruefully at this reminder of his biggest failure in life. His dear wife, who had left him when she couldn't stand his constant traveling around the world on bizarre quests--the Marshak wanderlust, inherited from his seaman father--would never believe Jack Marshak had settled in one place for over two years and was finally gainfully employed as a respected businessman. He was the treasurer of the Antique Dealers' Association, no less. The very idea would have left her speechless, for once. It was too bad she hadn't stuck around long enough to see it happen.
Lewis's cursed antiques usually had a wanderlust of their own, driving their owners to increasingly gory sacrifices until the owners themselves were consumed, and the deadly object passed on to another victim. At least Mrs.--he checked the receipt again--Mrs. Mary Jo Liese seemed to have escaped contamination so far. He'd tracked down the I.V. unit just in time.
She lived in a neighborhood of brick ranch-style homes that had once been middle class but were beginning to sag into blue-collar neglect in their old age. Her home was a one-story, somewhat sprawling corner house, with a fenced in vacant lot beside it that had once aspired to park-like gardens but was now straggling with weeds. Even the front lawn was overdue for mowing. Jack stepped onto the porch, removed his hat respectfully, and reached for the doorbell, but the front door was already opening.
"Mrs. Liese? I'm Jack Marshak. We spoke earlier...?"
For a moment she stared at him blankly, from a face that was much like her home: what had once been a Barbie-doll plastic beauty was now settling into wrinkles around her too-pink mouth and eyebrows that looked like McDonald's arches during a brown-out. Then the somewhat glazed blue eyes focused on him, and she smiled.
"Why, yes, of course, I'm expecting you, aren't I?" She swept the street with an anxious, myopic stare. "There isn't anyone with you, is there?"
"No, my associates are busy in the Heights, trying to buy an old broom."
"I'm so glad." She stepped back, gently tugging him in by his left arm. "I made tea, you see, but there's only enough for the two of us. Do come in, won't you?"
"I'm afraid I can't stay."
"Oh, but you must!" She made a moue that must have been quite fetching thirty or forty years ago. "I got sticky buns to go with it. They have the most marvelous sticky buns at the bakery round the corner." The smile was coquettish as she fastidiously patted what was presumably her stomach, swathed in the billowy folds of an out-of-style pink taffeta dress. "Of course, I don't often indulge--my figure, you know--but this is a special occasion, now, isn't it?"
She tried to maneuver him to a dumpy sofa studded with a gaudy pattern of crimson roses, but Jack stiffened his knees. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Liese--"
The aging ingenue clicked her tongue reprovingly. "You must call me Mary Jo. Everyone does. I just don't think of myself as a Mrs., you know? Even when my dear late husband was alive, I was Mary Jo to just everyone, not Mrs. Liese at all. Mrs. Liese was my mother-in-law, and she was much older than I am, of course."
If he didn't act quickly, he'd be stuck with this flirtatious biddy for the rest of the afternoon, and Micki and Ryan would be left on their own. Jack pulled out his wallet and said firmly, "I'd like to see the I.V. unit now, Mary Jo. You do have it, don't you?"
Mary Jo rolled her eyes. "That old thing. Of course I have it. I never throw anything out, don't you know. Frank--that was my husband, Frank--he always bragged about the way I could pinch a penny until Lincoln squealed. In fact, that's how I got it. You see, I've always gone to garage sales--you can get the most incredible bargains, if you're willing to haggle a little bit, except that those ritzy neighborhoods are the worst. They always sell the most awful old things, all moldy or broken, and they try to charge you top dollar, which is why I was so surprised to get that I.V. thing at such a good price. And just when I needed it, because of Frank's condition." She heaved a sigh, remembering.
He cleared his throat. "His...condition?"
Her hands fluttered aimlessly in the air, then clasped demurely at her waist. "Well, yes. It was rather nasty, really, but they showed me how to do it at the hospital, and we saved so much money, you can't imagine what it costs to hire an LPN these days, and I'm sure Frank was much happier at home with his loved ones. Don't you think?"
It was like drowning in a sea of excess verbiage. He grabbed at the momentary pause in her monologue as if it were a lifesaver. "The I.V. unit?"
Mary Jo shrugged and pointed toward the hallway. "It's in his bedroom, of course. We always shared a bedroom, you know, but after Frank took sick and needed all those transfusions and medicines and icchy things, I set up the guest room as a sick room, just for him. Now that he's...gone, I keep it just the way it was, except without him there. As a sort of memorial." She gazed up at him through black false lashes. "It's hard to think of me as old enough to be a widow. But then, they do say you're as young as you feel, don't they?"
Jack nodded helplessly and inched toward the hallway. "Could I just get the I.V. unit? I don't want to keep you, Mary Jo. I'm...er...sure you must have a busy social schedule to keep up with."
"Why, how nice of you to say so!" She fluttered down the hallway after him. "You have a way with women, you know, just like my Frank did. But actually, since Frank...passed on, I've kept to myself. He didn't leave me with very much, really. That's why I was so glad. About your call, I mean."
His shoulder brushed a black-velvet painting of a big-eyed little girl clutching a handful of posies, and she lingered to straighten it as Jack hesitated by a closed door. Straight ahead was the open door to a bathroom done all in pink. To his left was a half-open door leading to a room that smelled like an old perfume factory. Hesitantly, he touched the doorknob to his right.
"That's right. You go on ahead, dear."
Jack opened the door and stepped inside the sickroom. Compared to the rest of the house, it was rather skimpily decorated, with only two pictures hung on the sickly yellow wallpaper: one of a group of laughing dogs sitting around a poker table, the other a Norman Rockwell print of a doctor's office. On the near wall was an oval mirror in a plastic frame sprayed a sort of walnut color, looking like a mirror hung inside an old-fashioned horse collar. His nose wrinkled a bit. Even a too-generous spraying of a floral air freshener couldn't remove the sickroom stench. That would have betrayed the room's last use, even if the only furniture hadn't been a four-poster maple-framed bed, a portable refrigerator, and an ornately-decorated metal pedestal with a plastic bag handing from its outstretched arm. He didn't really have a chance to study it, because that's when his head seemed to explode.
He didn't lose consciousness, but at first he was only conscious of the pulsing waves of pain. It was rather like that time in Australia when he'd astral-projected: he was aware of his body, yet detached from it, unable to make any of the parts move. Dimly he was aware of being manhandled, dragged, and of hearing a shrill voice drone monotonously in his ears.
What had happened? Had he suffered some sort of stroke? Jack battled to control the pain. Why was he seeing double?
"...so much weight," the voice was saying cheerfully. "My Frank lost so much weight, it was like moving a great big doll, at the end."
He blinked. His fingers twitched, then strained to touch his aching head, but his arms, outstretched over his head, refused to move. When he tried to lower them, plastic sheets beneath him rustled. Jack struggled to raise his head and focus on Mary Jo, who was at the foot of the bed, fumbling with his ankles.
"What--?" he croaked.
"It's so fortunate that I didn't bother to get rid of these after I finally lost Frank, isn't it?" she asked, deftly fastening the last manacle on his left ankle. "Of course, I had no idea that I'd need them again so soon, but that's always been my way, saving absolutely everything, because you just never know. A regular packrat, you might say."
The blow to his head must have concussed him, for he saw two middle-aged women straighten up and walk briskly to the I.V. unit. He groaned when Mary Jo reached for the needle, and she gave him a reassuring smile.
"Oh, I know how to insert this, don't worry about a thing. Relax. It'll hardly even hurt. See?"
My God! He writhed desperately, trying to swing his arm out of her reach, or to tense the muscles against the needle, but Mary Jo deftly slipped it into his wrist. "No--please, you mustn't--"
"I knew this thing was old, an antique and all, but I had no idea what it could do, until the day I got a teeny bit careless changing bags and spilled just an eensy spot of Frank's blood on the money I got out for the paper boy. Would you believe it? I saw a one dollar bill change into a ten dollar bill, right before my very eyes."
Horrified, Jack watched a single crimson drop roll slowly up the tube and into the flat, empty plastic bag. Blood. His blood.
"Well, of course, I experimented, but Frank wasn't the goose that laid the golden egg. I mean, it wasn't his blood that was magic, it was this machine. His blood only changed money when I took it with this I.V. The more blood you use, the bigger the bills you end up with, but it took such an awful amount of blood! And Frank was a terrible patient, don't you know. So ungrateful. He wouldn't cooperate at all. I guess he was always a bit of a miser at heart." Smiling benevolently, Mary Jo watched a second drop of blood flow through the tubing, and a third. "I didn't have near enough money stored up when he up and died on me. I swear he did it out of spite. And what was I supposed to do then? I was going to try going out on the highway to pick up some hitchhiker, but that can be so dangerous these days. You just never know what sort of psycho you might pick up that way, now, do you? So you calling about the I.V. unit is sort of a godsend for me. I really am grateful." Her happy smile grew as the tube swelled with a steady stream of his blood. "You're much bigger and stronger than Frank. You're--why, you're just perfect!"
It was ironic, really. He'd worried so about Ryan and Micki, and now, stupidly, he was the one who was going to die....
"Mickey? Mickey, you're gonna be all right."
It was a combination of aches and the somewhat panicked croon that drew Sam Beckett back to consciousness. Was he going to be all right? As his eyelids fluttered, he realized he was being gently rocked in a pair of strong, very masculine arms.
(Oh, boy. Well, I guess I'm sort of overdue. I've been young, old, black, white, male, female...I should've expected to find myself a gay man one of these leaps.)
He gulped, then tried to sit up, still feeling as though he had barely survived a leap into Wile E. Coyote at the end of a Loony Tunes' Roadrunner cartoon. Looked like he wouldn't be able to avoid the classic line in this sort of situation.
"Uh, where am I?"
The grip on his shoulders tightened. "In the shop," the other man replied, sounding taken aback.
"Oh. Right. The shop." Sam glanced up to find the skull of a long-horned steer smirking at him. It definitely wasn't the library where he'd been levitating. The only similarity was the musty smell and the dim lighting; here, the quiet was broken only by the steady ticking of a grandfather clock. "Where else would I be, right?" Since he wasn't near a mirror, he surreptitiously glanced down at himself, noting that he was stuffed into a tight silver lame tee-shirt and matching skin-tight slacks. Great. He was a homosexual with taste in clothing that was even worse than Al's.
The dark haired man holding him was more conservatively dressed, despite the earring in his left ear, and his brown eyes were very worried. He squeezed Sam's shoulders, then eased away.
"Listen, Mickey, you stay here on the couch and relax. I'll make you some coffee, okay?"
"Sure. Coffee. Good idea."
With a distinctly worried expression, the young man rose and walked to the rear of the store, glancing back over his shoulder once. When he was gone, Sam studied his surroundings more carefully.
It looked like an interior decorator's nervous breakdown. The gold-brocaded couch he was nestled in stood on a faded damask Persian rug, but the antique brass lamp in the far corner was standing on a small tan-and-black Navajo blanket. Straight ahead was a polished, fat, contented ivory Buddha statue that was suddenly, miraculously haloed with a flickering neon white light. Sam blinked, rubbing his forehead.
"Sam, tell me, why do you always have to be such a looker?" Buddha demanded in tones of despair.
"Very funny, Al."
His partner stepped right through Buddha's ample belly and tapped his portable computer link. The shimmering doorway to the Imaging Chamber shrank down to the floor and vanished. Al cocked his head and grinned, waggling his unlit cigar toward the couch.
"No, really. It's not fair, Sam. You know how it bugs me when I...uh...start feeling `that way' about my best friend. I'll end up going back to Dr. Beeks for more therapy, and she isn't talking to me since she found me and Denise in my bedroom that night." Before Sam could speak, Al raised both hands, elaborately innocent. "We were working on her book about me, all right? Doing research. Denise is very conscientious about knowing her subject intimately."
"This really isn't funny, Al. I thought you were a lady's man. I mean, you've been married a dozen times--"
"Five, but who's counting, other than my divorce attorney?"
"I just didn't think your taste ran to--well--guys like me."
"What are you talking about? Sam, you look yummy." Al appeared to walk down four wooden steps, to the front of the store, gesturing to Sam to follow. "Here, look at yourself. You've got a figure even my fifth wife, Maxine, would be jealous of. And besides, you know I've always had a thing for redheads."
The somewhat dusty display case was an inadequate mirror, holding a Dresden tea caddy crammed with antique ink bottles and salt-and-pepper shakers, but he could make out enough of his reflection to realize Al was right. Instead of his familiar masculine features, or some other man's features, Sam was sporting a mass of auburn hair combed to one side and pinned with a silver-feathered comb. The tee-shirt that had seemed so masculine on his hairy chest was now swollen provocatively, the silver pants outlining a lean but curved body. Startled, he looked back at Al, beaming proudly, in a metallic gold jacket with a big collar, a black shirt shot with gold lightning bolts, and tight black velvet pants. They were a matched set.
First, to his shame, Sam was overcome with relief to learn that he wasn't gay, but then he groaned as new misery hit home. "Oh, God, Al, I'm a woman again!"
"Tell me about it! I should be lucky enough to date a woman like you, Sam. I mean, a real woman like you, not you." Al's smile turned queasy, and he fumbled with the handlink. "I think I'd better tell Verbena to put me back on her counseling schedule."
"I'm not a Mickey, I'm a Micki." Sam turned from the reflection to his partner. "Why am I here?"
Al shrugged. "Ziggy's a great machine, but she needs at least a last name to start with. What's the name of this place, anyway? Never mind, I'll look for myself." He walked through the front wall of the store, choosing the doorway out of habit but not bothering to reach for the doorknob. When he stood outside and stuck only his head back in, Sam automatically winced. Even though he knew Al was just a hologram and couldn't be physically affected by anything here, it made his head ache worse than it had before. "It's called CURIOUS GOODS, Sam."
"Well, that seems to be an appropriate name."
"What's an appropriate name?"
Sam whirled quickly to smile at Ryan. "CURIOUS GOODS. I was, er, just thinking what a good choice the name was."
Ryan gave him a strange look. "Well, I figure we wouldn't have sold too many antiques if we called it CURSED GOODS or GHOULISH GOODS or AWFUL ANTIQUES."
"He's got a point there." The rest of Al's body joined his head inside the shop, frowning at the lights zipping along the computer link. "You're an antique. No, that can't be right, you're too young to be an antique." He whammed the side of the hand-link with his palm. "You're an antique dealer. According to this, CURIOUS GOODS is owned by a Ryan Dallion and Micki Foster--that's you, Sam. It was willed to them by a Lewis Vendredi."
Ryan touched Sam's shoulder. "Micki, are you feeling all right?"
"Sure. I'm just a little shaken up. I mean, it's not every day a guy--a girl--gets levitated and dropped on her head."
"Around here, it is almost every day." Ryan handed him a steaming cup of coffee. It was a delicate bone china cup, hand-painted, no doubt quite valuable. "Don't worry about that broom. I locked it in the vault as soon as we got in."
"Oh, good. That's...reassuring. I guess."
"What broom, Sam?"
How could he explain it to Al, with Ryan standing here unable to see or hear the holographic image of his partner? "I was pretty surprised when that woman pointed her broom at me and I started spinning in mid-air like a top, I'll have to admit."
"You did? That sounds like fun."
Ryan swallowed half his cup at one gulp, then did a little gasping dance as the too-hot beverage burned all the way down. When he got some control of his voice again, he said, "Well, Jack did warn us there was no telling how the curse would work on it. Me, I think we're lucky it didn't turn into a magical flame-thrower or something."
"The curse," Sam repeated. "Right."
"Curses don't work, not really," Al pronounced, shaking his head. "If they did, my wives would've killed me off years ago." Then he reconsidered. "On the other hand, how much more unbelievable is magic than you leaping through time, righting wrongs, with me tagging along like this?"
"You believe in curses? In magic?"
Both men answered simultaneously.
"When I was ten, I ran away from the orphanage--I was going to work my way to the Middle East and find my dad--and I ended up living for a couple weeks with this Gypsy. She didn't wanna take me in, on account of me being a gajo, but I gave her that puppy-dog look and cried about how mean the nuns were, and she read the cards for me, and finally she let me stay. She was a lot older than me, of course, but gorgeous, and she was psychic, too. I mean, she taught me how to work the scams with the fake crystal ball and stuff for the marks, but she also used to get these psychic flashes." Al stared down at his cigar, suddenly disconcerted. "Come to think of it, she told me I'd meet you some day and you'd change my life. Except she didn't know your name--she called you a chameleon, and I wasted a lot of time in pet stores after that, looking--"
It was hard to hear Al over Dallion's incredulous outburst. "How can you ask that? What's gotten into you, Micki? After traveling through time, and fighting Dracula himself, and getting resurrected by that coin, and studying witchcraft every week with that coven of yours, now you're having doubts?"
"Well, no, I'm not having doubts--"
Still reminiscing, Al absently shook the handlink. "One day, she got mad at this New York cop who put the moves on her, and she put a curse on him instead of paying up. It was a doozy, Sam. See, after that, he lost his interest in girls, and he broke out in this excruciating itch in a lot of embarrassing places, and he belched all the time, so he came back and asked us to--"
The young man gripped Sam's shoulder and gazed into his eyes. "Micki, are you just worrying about Jack? Is that what this is all about?"
"Aha! Jack!" Al triumphantly brandished the computer link. "Ziggy found a newspaper article dated one week from today that says the body of a Jack Marshak, an employee of CURIOUS GOODS, was found drained of blood, wrapped in a plastic sheet, and left on the side of the highway just north of here."
Sam said quickly, "That's it, Ryan. I'm really worried about Jack. I think he's in terrible danger."
"Well, you can forget it. Come on, Micki, you know that wily old fox knows more about magick than both of us put together. He taught us everything we know, and we're okay, right?" He picked up their empty cups. "All Jack had to do was track down some old I.V. unit, and we know he's not dumb enough to join a blood drive, so he'll be fine. Relax. There's absolutely nothing to worry about."
No matter how he writhed and pulled, Jack Marshak couldn't escape. It was mortifying, considering his stage magician appearances with the Great Jandini, but his lockpicks were in his coat pocket instead of up his sleeve, and there was no way he'd ever reach them now. Finally, exhausted, he could do nothing but lie there watching his life's blood trickle down the tubing to the cursed I.V. unit.
If he had to die, why did it have to be at the hands of a self-centered, money-grubbing, idiotic housewife? He'd risked death in so many more heroic ways, from his stint in the Merchant Marines to battling an immortal samurai. Why must he die now, in such a foolish fashion?
His mouth felt uncomfortably dry, and watching the blood flow made him feel woozy. Jack closed his eyes and remembered.
It was 1945, and he was supposed to be leading an international commando team, investigating reports that Horst Mueller was experimenting on helpless POWs, but he'd stupidly gotten himself caught. Mueller was even madder than they'd suspected, obsessed with black magick, and he didn't like being called names; that's how Jack had gotten himself introduced to Karl Rausche, "the Butcher." A mix of gloating enjoyment and icy efficiency, Rausche started the interrogation by yanking out every other one of his toenails, then driving splinters under the remaining nails. Finally he jammed both feet back into the boots, and left Jack to watch others being tortured while his feet swelled. That was when the real nightmare began.
The floor was wet with blood and vomit. Across the room, an earnest soldier, in a parody of a concerned dentist, struggled to yank out a prisoner's teeth with pliers. Others dragged out a half-nude, blood-drenched corpse, its head lolling, gaping at him in passing from gouged-out sockets instead of eyes. Jack's ears rang with screams. His fingers clawed at the arms of his chair as he tried not to join in that chorus.
Snapping his swagger stick against his gleaming boots, The Butcher returned. "Guten tag, Herr Marshak," he purred, patting Jack's cheek with the stick. At a brief nod from Rausche, a guard unlocked the chains pinning him to the chair. Very conscious of the guns all around him, Jack didn't move. The Butcher, smiling, exchanged the stick for his trademark, a polished barbed wire garrote. "The weak are easily led," he said. It had been one of Mueller's remarks last night. Or was it still night? In this charnel house, time meant nothing.
Deftly, Rausche crossed his wrists, wrapping the jagged wire around his victim's throat. The wire was very cold, but he didn't--wouldn't--shiver. That would give Rausche too much pleasure. Softly, The Butcher said, "Komm mit mir, Herr Marshak." It was a death knell. "Komm mit mir."
He knew he was about to die, and not at all pleasantly.
But Jack had forgotten the contrary nature of his squad. They had orders not to attempt a rescue, of course, but Jean was a mule-headed Frenchman, and Lefty never listened to anyone who wasn't a baseball coach. The moans and weeping and gurgles of pain around him were drowned out by gunfire and triumphant shouts as his squad rushed in on a suicidal mission so insane that it actually worked.
Startled, Rausche half-turned as the doors were kicked open, and that was all he needed. Jack lunged from his chair, wrenching the loose garrote from his neck, and spun The Butcher around, wrapping the wire around its owner's neck. Rausche clawed at it, but Jack twisted it savagely, almost slicing The Butcher's head off, as if that were the only way to be sure both the man and the nightmare were dead forever....
Overcome by a wave of dizziness, Jack opened his eyes again to stare at the ceiling.
He'd won a medal that night. There were no medals for the rest of the squad, but then, they probably deserved a court-martial for disobeying orders, and they didn't get that, either. It didn't matter to that motley bunch whether they got a medal or a court-martial: the important thing was saving their friend.
He had always been able to count on his friends, or at least he had kept telling himself that, even after betrayals by friends like Lewis, or Jerry, who tried to sacrifice him to a cursed object in exchange for a cure to a horrible fatal disease.
Micki and Ryan had saved him from decapitation by samurai sword, burning to death in a Druidic ritual, a stabbing by a cursed scalpel--all sorts of untimely ends brought on by his obsessive curiosity. Like his Army buddies, they had never failed him. Despite the age difference, they were his friends.
Where were his friends now?
Pretending to be straightening the rows of old hardbound books lining one wall, Sam Beckett thought long and hard. As nearly as he could tell, this antique store dealt in items with supernatural curses--not distributing them, thank heavens, but collecting them.
As a scientist, he was more-or-less comfortable with the idea of telepathy, clairvoyance, even precognition: they might challenge his view of the universe, but they could be measured, expressed mathematically, turned into experiments and statistics and theorems to be proved or disproved. But cursed brooms that possessed their owners and levitated people were harder to accept.
Al accepted it all immediately, his eyes growing wider and his expression more alarmed as he battered the side of the hand-link, demanding more data from Ziggy. "Oh, geez, Sam, these guys showed up at the death scene for more people than the local coroner ever did. Don't touch anything. Ziggy says the store is full of cursed items, and they'll make your hands fall off or something even grosser."
Maybe Al was right. Given his habit of time-traveling and inhabiting the bodies of other people to change their histories, scoffing at this development was like straining at a gnat after swallowing an elephant.
Sam glanced down, realized he was holding a leather-bound, apparently bloodstained copy of the Necronomicon, grimaced, and hastily re-shelved it, glancing over one shoulder to see if anyone had noticed. Al was still anxiously cross-examining the computer. Ryan Dallion was standing by the massive, gold-painted cash register, apparently going over accounts. Sam edged to the wooden railing separating this upper floor from the showroom and hissed to get Al's attention.
"Psst. Al, what happens if we don't find this Jack in time?"
Al looked grave. "Ziggy says these two kids completely lose hope. They try to retrieve a cursed brooch without him, and Micki gets an eye poked out. After that, they close the shop forever, which leaves--" He squinted at the read-out. "--over 200 cursed objects floating around out there, killing people."
(Great. Just great.)
He looked around and caught Ryan staring at him with a quizzical expression that made the young man look even younger than usual. "What did you say?" Ryan asked.
"I've got a really bad feeling about Jack. Do you have any idea where he might be?"
Ryan hesitated, then picked up a battered ledger and ran one finger down a page crammed with faded ink entries. Al followed him, momentarily distracted by a floor case holding a row of scantily-clad Kewpie dolls. "Scalpel...baby buggy...clutch purse...here it is. Lewis sold a blood transfusion unit to a Dr. William Jantsch, almost two years ago."
Sam glanced back at Al, who reluctantly left the Kewpie dolls. "Is there an address or something there?"
"He lives right here, in that classy district by the river. I'm surprised Jack's not back already."
Al punched that in, then shook his head. "Jantsch's dead, Sam. Died six months ago, according to the newspapers. I'll have Gushie center me on that address, though, and see if Marshak or the I.V. thing are there. Don't go anywhere, and don't touch anything, okay? Gushie!"
The handlink squealed in earsplitting protest. Sam blinked, and his partner was gone.
"Is there...something you're not telling me?"
Dallion hesitated. "Did that broom...do something to you?"
Sam gazed back innocently. "Like what?"
Ryan seemed unable to come up with the right words. Finally he shrugged. "I dunno. Is this something witchy? I mean, from what you're studying with the coven?"
(The coven? I'm a witch? Wow.)
Sam met his eyes and said sincerely, "All I can say is that I know Jack is in serious danger, and time is running out. I think we should try to track him down."
After a moment, the young man seemed to come to a decision. "Okay. If it'll make you feel better, let's go to Rashid."
They stared at each other. When that didn't seem to help clear things up, Sam asked, "Why?"
This seemed to make Ryan even more unhappy. "What do you mean, why? I thought you told me you hadn't even started studying scrying."
"Scrying?" Sam repeated helplessly. He was getting awfully tired of repeating things.
"Scrying," Al said, materializing next to his right ear and making him twitch convulsively. "It's a form of fortune-telling by looking into a crystal ball, or a mirror, or a pool of water."
"Oh. No, I haven't studied scrying."
"So Rashid's our best bet. Let me get my jacket, and we'll go."
Ryan trotted up the stairs to the left and then along a balcony overlooking the rest of the store, stopping twice to glance down at his alluring female partner. Trying to be reassuring, Sam waved and gave him an uneasy little smile. As soon as he was out of sight, Sam turned to Al.
"No luck. There's no I.V., no Marshak, and nobody there. Looks like the owner's moving--everything's in boxes."
"So how are we supposed to find Marshak?"
Al shrugged. "Maybe this Rashid can help."
"Come on, Al, you can't really believe--"
"Who are you talking to?" Ryan asked quietly from the foot of the staircase.
Sam twitched, turned, and plastered a sickly smile on his face. "Oh, just talking to myself. Trying to convince myself that Jack's okay."
Ryan looked unconvinced, but shrugged into his worn leather bomber jacket and walked through the showroom to the sunken entrance. When Sam followed, the long-faced young man stared at him. "Aren't you going to take your purse?"
"It's on that roll-top desk up there, Sam."
He could feel himself blushing as he scooped up the absurdly tiny, silver-sequined shoulder purse and hurried back down the short flight of stairs. Dallion led them to what must be his car, an ancient Volkswagen "love bug" lovingly--but amateurishly--painted like Disney's Herbie.
Once he had safely pulled into the downtown traffic, Ryan cleared his throat. "You know, I've been thinking. Since Uncle Lewis kicked off, you've had a really rough time. I mean, granted you did get to meet me, but you gave up your career, you broke off with your fiance, and you've had to fight off creeps like Dracula, De Sade, and that nut with the death coin."
"It doesn't sound like a great life, when you put it like that," Sam conceded, wincing as the Bug almost mounted the rear of a Gypsy taxi cab.
"And I gotta admit, it really scared me when you got knocked out tonight, Micki. I don't think I could stand it to lose you to a cursed antique, the way that damn pipe killed my dad." His voice trembled. His eyes still locked on the road, he took a deep breath and deftly whipped through a yellow light and around a corner. "So I think you should go back home and put the pieces together. Jack and I can run the shop, and if there's a profit or anything, we'll send you your share, every month."
Al leaned over from the back seat. "Not a good idea, Sam. Ziggy says if either of you kids drops out, the odds are the other one will get killed."
"I'm not quitting, Ryan."
"Don't think of it as quitting. Think of it as taking an extended siesta. Or a real long vacation."
Sam asked, "Do you think that just because I'm a woman, I can't handle stress or danger as well as you?"
"Don't be like that, Micki, you know that's not what I mean!"
"Maybe I'll change my mind tomorrow, Ryan, but right now I intend to go on the way I have been. It's worked so far. Why change a winning combo?"
Ryan only sighed.
Actually, Sam felt guilty. These two kids shouldn't be in this line of work, risking their lives and their souls. Even if he and Al succeeded in rescuing their partner this time, who was to say they wouldn't end up dying another time, trying to snatch some other cursed object? But his instinct was to keep the team together. He knew in his gut that he could never survive his leaps without Al. Okay, so Al couldn't physically affect anything around him. That wasn't important. Even if the handlink to Ziggy didn't work, and Al couldn't zip in and out, or look up information, he would be vital to the success of Project Quantum Leap. It was his friendship, his caring, that got Sam Beckett through every leap. Dangerous though it might be, he couldn't risk letting Micki Foster abandon this team.
Even though he was sure that was the right decision, Sam was still fretting about it as he followed the young man into a high-rise apartment building. The elevator ride seemed endless, full of strained silence and uneasy sideways glances. It didn't help that Al kept rocking on his toes, trying to stare down Sam's--Micki's--bosom, despite angry glares from his partner. Okay, so Micki was a beautiful woman; Al could concentrate and see Sam's aura, not hers, if he made an effort. He obviously didn't want to make the effort.
Were Ryan and Micki a romantic couple? They were both heirs of Lewis Vendredi, but that didn't necessarily make them blood relatives. Sam gave Ryan a weak smile. If Ryan was as close to Micki as he was to Al, how was he ever going to convince Ryan that `Micki' was all right? Every word, every movement, would betray him...and he felt no romantic longings for the younger man, either!
When the elevator door opened, Al hung back, gazing in admiration at Sam's buttocks, but he widened his eyes innocently and hastened out when Sam turned to glower at him again.
Rashid turned out to be a small, wiry, dapper Arab who greeted them at the door of his apartment with smiles and warm hugs.
"So nice to see you both! Can I get you some tea? Coffee? Unfortunately, I must be leaving myself very shortly, but you know my home is always yours, as well."
Sam felt himself warming to their genial host, but Ryan slammed the apartment door shut behind them and yanked a foot-long silver Celtic cross from beneath his bomber jacket. "Help me, Rashid! Micki's been possessed!"
Dramatically, Dallion thrust the cross at him. "Satan, begone! I rebuke you and all your works!"
Sam bristled. "I'm going to rebuke you in just a minute, buddy, if you keep insulting me like this!"
Still brandishing the cross, Ryan cried, "Don't you have any holy water? Maybe that'll work!"
"Perhaps you had better explain what has happened," Rashid,suggested, frowning.
"See, we were collecting a broom left over from the Salem witch trials, and the owner attacked Micki with it. I thought all she was doing was levitating her, but it must've been a lot worse than that, because ever since she was knocked out, she's been acting weird. She talks to people who aren't there, she acts like she doesn't know what's going on, she even walks and talks differently." He thrust the cross forward again. "That isn't Micki Foster!"
With dignity, Sam said, "I am not possessed. Believe me, Satan has nothing to do with any of this."
"She doesn't even remember who you are!"
"That's nonsense. You're--er--Rashid, of course," Sam said quickly, watching Al frantically quiz Ziggy for details.
"Ask her what happened the time we were in Uncle Lewis's house," Ryan challenged.
"Sam, do you have any idea how many Egyptians are named Rashid? I didn't even know there were this many Egyptians in the whole entire city. And Ziggy doesn't have anything but tax records on Vendredi's house."
Stalling, Sam said, "I do, too, remember! It was awful. It was terrifying." Given what these people did for a living, that seemed like a safe bet.
Rashid steepled his hands beneath his chin, his expression bemused. "There does seem to be a...presence...of some sort here."
Al almost dropped the hand-link. "A ghost? Oh, geez, I really don't like ghosts, Sam. Magick and curses, that's one thing, but dead bodies and ghosts--"
"I told you! You've gotta help me exorcise her. I want the real Micki back."
"Don't let him exorcise you, Sam. Who knows what that might do? If this guy can really do magick--"
The older man walked to a glass-topped desk and popped a jaunty red fez onto his head, then pulled open a desk drawer. "The eyes of Horus will help us see the truth, and the rays of Aman-Ra will clear the darkness." Murmuring a rhythmic phrase in mellifluous Arabic, he lifted a gold medallion and slipped it over his head, then turned to gaze toward Sam with great interest. "If you please, sir, dispose of that cigar; I am attempting to cleanse my body of nicotine."
Ryan looked blankly at Sam, who slowly turned and stared over his shoulder. Al gaped at him in turn, his cigar drooping between two fingers.
"Now who are you talking to?" Ryan asked nervously.
Experimentally, Al walked around the room, pausing before the picture window, and Rashid's eyes tracked him, only blinking when Al absently strolled through a pale green ottoman. After a moment, Al paused and half-heartedly waved. Rashid smiled diffidently and waved back, just curling the fingers of one hand. Al swallowed. "I think he sees me, Sam."
"What exactly do you see?" Sam asked.
"A somewhat hazy form of a man in very garish clothing." Rashid frowned. "He does not appear to be a ghost or afrit, yet he is clearly...most unusual."
"How can he see me?" Al demanded, affronted by the very idea. "Only little kids--really little kids--and crazies can see me. And you, of course."
Rashid modestly adjusted his business suit. "It is my theory that young children, in their innocence, often remain open to magickal experiences. As they get older, the world tells them what they see cannot exist; that if they persist in seeing ghosts and demons, they must be insane." Warming to his lecture, he straightened, his soft voice gaining strength. "I understand that our eyes see everything upside-down, which is how we view the world when we are born, but the brain--for self-preservation--soon learns to flip the images around, and thereafter we `see' things right-side-up. Similarly, with magick--"
Ryan's cross drooped ever lower than Al's cigar. "I don't believe this. What the hell is going on around here?"
"You better tell him, Sam."
"This is kind of a long story. Maybe we'd better sit down." Suiting actions to words, Sam sat down on the ottoman. Only when Al coughed pointedly did he switch from resting one ankle on the other knee to crossing his legs the feminine way, with one knee resting on the other. Then he took a deep breath. "My name is Sam Beckett, and this is Al Calavicci."
"The astronaut?" Ryan's voice squeaked.
"Well, yes, he was, briefly. Now he's an Admiral. I'm a scientist from...well, not too far in your future. We built what I was sure would be a method of time-travel, utilizing quantum physics, based on the life of the cell of the individual traveler and the string theory I developed with Professor LoNigro. Maybe you've heard of it?"
Ryan looked blank. Al shrugged. "He's a space groupie, not a quantum cutie, Sam."
"Well, never mind. The thing is, time travel hasn't worked out quite the way I thought it would. What happens is that I leap into a time in my own past, and I occupy the body of someone who's about to die or to make some tragic mistake. My task seems to be to save them, and only then do I get to leap out again." One corner of his mouth lifted. "We haven't figure out how to break the chain and get me back home."
"But we're working on it, Sam. Gushie and Ziggy have this new theory they wanna try, as soon as we get some mechanical bugs worked out. You'll see."
Ryan leaned forward. "What happened to Micki?"
"Oh, she's fine," Al assured Rashid, since Ryan couldn't hear him. "I saw her back in the Waiting Room, just before I joined Sam. She's a lot more calm, cool, and collected than the average person--you wouldn't believe how many grown men curl up in a corner and drool when this happens to them--but she won't tell us her name or anything. We figured from the way she moved and talked that she might be a woman, but that's all we knew, until I tracked down Sam."
Fascinated, Rashid stared at him with bird-bright black eyes. "How is it that you accompany this man?"
"I'm a man, too. The real me is locked inside the Imaging Chamber with this computer link; what you're seeing is a hologram of me, linked with Sam's mesons and neurons and stuff like that. To me, I'm here with you, but to the rest of the guys at the Project, I'm walking around the I.C. talking to myself. I've seen videotapes of it--it's pretty funny, actually."
Unable to hear any of this and utterly frustrated, Ryan stood up. "WHAT HAPPENED TO MICKI?"
Rashid blinked, then repeated what Al had told him. It didn't seem to calm Dallion. He turned to Sam accusingly.
"You said you jump into somebody about to die. What's supposed to happen to Micki?"
"Nothing. Ziggy--the parallel hybrid computer back at the Project--thinks we're here to rescue Jack Marshak. If we do that, you and Micki Foster should be fine."
"Rescue Jack from what?"
"Apparently from the cursed I.V. unit he was looking for. The newspapers say he was drained of blood and dumped beside the highway next week."
"Monday, in fact," Al said, glancing at the hand-link.
Ryan grimaced and ran one hand along his forehead and up over his scalp, as if trying to push out a headache. Rashid seemed entranced, like a child listening to a fairy tale.
"So it is indeed possible to change one's past without destroying the future!"
Sam hesitated. "Sort of, for us, but then, we seem to be getting a lot of help from...Up There." He rolled his eyes toward the heavens.
Al wanted to get down to business. "The problem is, neither the I.V. nor Marshak is at the Casey place, and we don't know where else to look. Nobody's home to answer the phone, and I can't look through drawers or anything, because I'm just a laser-image."
"Ah." Rashid rose, briskly rubbing his hands together. "There, perhaps I can help. Jack and I are old friends, and linked in our use of magick. Let us see if he is anywhere where a mirror is present."
"Quite." He busied himself drawing the curtains, turning out lights, and rummaging through his desk. Ryan, please, would you light candles for us? We must make a circle around the desk, and hold hands."
Al cleared his throat. "That presents a problem."
"Perhaps you should not join the circle." Rashid cocked his head, considering this. "I'm not certain what the correct ritual is for a hologram. It would make a very interesting study."
Sam looked dubiously at the large oval mirror on the desk, as Ryan set blue candles around it. "How exactly does this work?"
"A mirror that has certain qualities--for example, one that was in a room where magick was worked, as this one was--becomes a channel for the occult. It works best if you link it to another mirror that has similar qualities."
Al pointed out, "If Marshak's anywhere near the I.V. unit, magick musta been worked there."
"So we must hope there is also a mirror present."
Ryan seemed reluctant to reach for Sam's hand as Rashid began to murmur something in Arabic, and Sam could feel the tension in his clenched muscles as he alternately gripped, then tensed as if to pull away. It was understandable. Even Al, after half-a-dozen experiences and double the counseling sessions with his lady psychologist, had trouble dealing with Sam as a man in a woman's body.
How could he help with this unscientific experiment, knowing nothing about the proper procedure? Rashid seemed to follow precise rules and routine, like a scientist, but this was magick. He didn't even know what Marshak looked like. How could he concentrate on seeing a stranger in that mirror?
Although it went against every scientific bone in his body, Sam stared down, seeing the reflections of Micki, Ryan, and Rashid waver in the candlelight. Then a ripple seemed to pass through the images, and they were gone. In their place appeared a dimly-lit bedroom. Breath sucked through Ryan's teeth, and he nearly squeezed Sam's hand flat.
Reflected in the heart of the mirror was a heavyset, balding, middle-aged man with a mustache and ginger-and-cream goatee. His eyes were closed, his face unnaturally pale. Both arms were stretched out and shackled to the bedposts, and a red tube ran from his right arm to a metal contraption. No--the tubing was clear. The red was blood.
"Don't look at him," Sam told Ryan. His hand ached in Dallion's convulsive grip. "Look for some sort of clue--a landmark of some kind. There, to the left, past his head. Is that a window?"
Al leaned over his shoulder, squinting. "You can hardly see out, with the blind pulled down most of the way."
"Is that a water tower? All I can see are the long spindly legs, like the Martians in that old movie."
"Yeah, I remember that," Al agreed, forgetting Ryan couldn't hear him. He tried to get a closer look, but recoiled when he realized he had passed entirely through Sam and was standing inside Rashid's desk.
Sam met Rashid's eyes. "You're a magician. Can't you do something?"
"If I had something close to Jack, imbued with his essence--like that ring on his left hand--I could do many things to affect Jack, but nothing that would move those chains." One slim shoulder gently rose and fell. "You're a scientist, used to dealing with the laws of gravity, motion, physics. Magick has laws, too. If you had some training in the Art, perhaps I could transport you through the mirror, as I once did for Jack, but--"
The scream of a telephone ringing made all of them jump, and the mirror darkened. Once again it reflected only their faces and the ceiling.
Sighing, Rashid silenced the phone shrilling from a small cherrywood stand by lifting the receiver. Ryan glumly blew out each candle, then walked to the picture window and stood staring at the city stretched beneath them. It was a magnificent view, the night sparkling with a Crayola box of colors that almost seemed to form a pattern, but the pattern never quite took hold, as some lights were turned on and others off.
"It's beautiful," Sam said quietly, joining him.
Ryan edged away from him, his back stiff. "It's too dark out there. I don't like the dark much, these days."
"There are plenty of lights out there, too."
"Never enough." Almost savagely, he said, "Micki's one of those lights. She and Jack fight the Darkness. They have powers. I mean, I try, I really do, but half the time I feel like a jerk. I make dumb mistakes, and people die. Just like now. Jack's dying, and Micki's gone--what happens if you blow it? Do you just take over Micki's body forever?"
"I don't know."
"And then Micki'd be stuck in your body, sometime in our future. Is that the way it works?" The angry words were a challenge.
"Ryan, all I can say is that it hasn't happened yet. Al and I have managed to save a lot of people, and fix a lot of mistakes. There's no reason to think we won't do it this time. And now we've got you and Rashid to help out--that's more than we've ever had before."
The breath hissed out of Dallion in what was partly a laugh, partly a sob, and he shook his head.
Looking grave, Rashid hung up the phone and wiped sweat from his forehead. Al said, "Sam, I think you better get over here. This doesn't look good."
"What is it? Was it bad news?"
"I waited too long. A man has died."
"What?" Sam turned to Al, who shrugged, just as lost as he was.
Rashid put the mirror back into the top desk drawer and neatened the desk top. His voice was strained. "Jack asked me to retrieve a special object, a medallion. It's not an antique--just a curiosity, an early holographic design--but it passed through Lewis Vendredi's hands, with the usual vile results. It was made as an award, voted to the best horror illustrator in comic book art--the Blood-Beast of Thulec. When you came here, you see, I was on my way to the convention, in the Hyatt Regency."
"You mean Cthulhu? Lovecraft stuff?"
"Thulec, according to Jack."
Ryan wandered away from the window. "Oh, yeah. From the real Golden Age stuff. I read my dad's copy of that issue when I was--what? maybe ten years old?--and it scared me so bad I wet my pants every night for a week."
"With good reason, apparently. That was a lady from Fangoria magazine; she says a man has been killed at the banquet by a `monster.'"
Rashid pulled a red scarf from the brass coat-rack by the door and wrapped it around his throat, adding an incongruous note of frivolity to his staid business suit. Ryan watched incredulously.
"Wait a minute. Where are you going?"
"To get the chain, as Jack asked."
"You're not going to let Jack die!"
"Of course not! Admiral Calavicci and Dr. Beckett say we have six more days in which to save him. At the convention, people are dying right now. Ryan, I must go, you know that."
"He's right, Ryan. Al and I will keep working here, trying to figure out how to find Jack. If we need Rashid, Al can just have Gushie center in on him and be there in an instant."
Al murmured, "That's me, the Human Beeper."
Rashid opened the door, but paused. "I've never seen the comic book this Blood-Beast is from," he confessed. "I meant to read it tonight, at the banquet." He lifted his head, meeting Ryan's angry gaze. "If you would help me, Ryan, I might have a better chance."
For a long moment, Sam thought he would refuse, but then, muttering something under his breath, still furious, Ryan zipped up his leather jacket and snatched up the silver cross.
Jack stirred restlessly, opening his eyes. It was difficult to see anything in the night-darkened room, even though a tacky little Mickey Mouse night-light had flickered on in the corner. Was there someone there? A moment ago, he'd had the strangest feeling that Rashid was here in the room, looking down at him.
No one was here, of course. No one had the faintest idea where he was. How could they?
Funny. In so many ways, he'd led a rich, exciting life...always on the move, always learning new things, stretching his imagination to the fullest. Yet it had been a failure, for he'd lost everything.
He lost Lewis, his boyhood pal: at first to simple greed, and then to Satan's lures. Maybe if he'd been there when Lewis was tempted, he could've saved him from his dark desires, but Jack had to leave, because he was fighting a desire of his own. Grace was a wonderful woman, lovely as a sunrise, but she was married to his best friend, and he signed on with the Merchant Marines--like his father before him--to escape the temptation. Now Lewis and his lovely wife were both dead. What good had his noble sacrifice done?
He lost his father, early on. Jack had tried to be intelligent, well-read, as interesting as his father, so that his father would stay home, would notice him for once...but it hadn't been enough. Colly Marshak went to sea, became a long-distance father who sent postcards from exotic ports, until finally he simply disappeared. He'd been dead and buried at sea for three years before his son even knew he'd passed on.
He lost his war-time buddies. Every member of the squad was garroted by the resurrected Karl Rausche, one by one, as Mueller used The Butcher to get revenge and to take back a magical talisman. If they hadn't rescued Jack Marshak, his friends Simpson, Carruthers, LaRue, Ivanovich, Lefty, and Jean would still be alive today.
He lost Vi Rhodes, his fiancee, twice: once when he couldn't be bothered settling down in Kenya while she worked on her career, and again twenty years later, when their love rekindled. She died a particularly gruesome death because of one of Lewis's damned objects.
He'd found most of those relics for Lewis in the first place, selling them to him to help out with his antique business. Unknowingly, he'd helped kill Vi, and his professional skeptic friend Jerry, and so many, many others.
His son Peter was dead, too, because he tried to impress his wandering father with his talent for magic, just as Jack had tried to impress Colly. He hadn't even learned from his own failure there.
Now he was dying, alone.
What would Micki and Ryan do, when he was gone?
They were both so young, so innocent in the ways of Darkness, as impetuous and lovable as a pair of clumsy puppies. They wouldn't give up. They were too romantic, too sure they could risk all for Goodness and win, just because their cause was right. Without his experience, his training, they would flounder. There would be two more deaths laid to his account, caused by his failure....
"Oh, my. You've filled the bag up already, haven't you?"
He licked dry lips, squinting at the shadowy figure in the doorway. "Mrs. Liese--"
She wagged a reproving finger at him. "Now, I told you to call me Mary Jo, didn't I?"
"Mary Jo. You can't do this. It's wrong."
Humming cheerfully to herself, she hung an empty plastic bag on the other arm of the I.V. unit, then began carefully unhooking the filled bag. Jack tried to catch her eye.
"I haven't done anything to hurt you, Mary Jo. I haven't done anything to deserve this."
"Oh, I'm not doing this to you." She sounded shocked at the very idea. "I'm just looking out for myself. It's a dog-eat-dog world, you know. And with inflation and all, prices keep going up. How else could a girl like me get by, hmmm?" Clutching the bag to her heart as if it were a bouquet of sweetheart roses, she smiled benevolently at him. "Now, don't you go away. I'll just pop this in the refrigerator, and get a little surprise from the kitchen. I'll be back in a jiffy."
How could he possibly penetrate that incredible self-absorption? The woman had already quite cheerfully murdered her sick husband: she wouldn't mind his death in the least, unless he inconveniently passed away before she'd accumulated enough blood for her `bank.' Jack yanked at his chains again, furious.
When she returned, Mary Jo was bearing a tall glass of something chocolate on an orange plastic tray that had probably been taken from a fast food restaurant somewhere.
"I hope you like this flavor. I thought about making you the strawberry one, but you never know, some people are allergic to strawberries, and I thought, well, goodness, everyone loves chocolate, right?"
Jack twisted his head away when she bent to hold the glass to his lips. "What is it?"
"Oh, it's one of those diet nutritional supplement drinks. You know. It builds up your strength." She jammed the straw into his mouth. "Now, drink up. It's good for you."
If he didn't cooperate, she'd no doubt pinch his nostrils shut and force it down him. Reluctantly, he sipped; the cool drink was so soothing to his dry mouth that he'd finished the glass before he'd had time to consider it. His captor cooed with satisfaction.
"That's a good boy. Frank got so he just didn't have an appetite at all, and I hated to punish him all the time, but there you go." She heaved a sigh, the long-suffering martyr. Setting the tray down, she pulled the bedcovers up under his chin, tucking him in, then frowned at the transfusion unit, tapping one forefinger against her lips. "You know, I think I'll turn it down, just for tonight. No point in killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, is there?" With that taken care of, she beamed down at him. "I have to go; this is my favorite night for T.V. shows, and I have some last minute shopping to do. I wasn't expecting company, you know! Now, don't worry about the bed; I still have some Depends from when Frank was still with me. Sleep tight, and don't let the bedbugs bite!"
Even though he knew he couldn't possibly see Ryan and the dapper magician drive into the night so far below in the little Volkswagen, Sam stood at the picture window for a long time. Finally, quietly, he said, "I feel guilty."
"They're going to try to stop a monster that's already killed once. Maybe I could help. Maybe--"
"Don't be silly, Sam. What do we know about the supernatural? Movie cameras that create werewolves, T.V. sets that suck you inside, Victorian playhouses that swallow up children--yuch!" Al shuddered, holding the hand-link away as if the very words on the screen were dangerous. "No. We're amateurs. We'd just be in the way, maybe get eaten up ourselves."
Al was firm. "In the Navy, you learn to follow orders, even when you don't like them--at least until you get the rank to cut the orders for everybody else--and to focus on the job at hand. They can't find Marshak; we can. So that's what we have to do, and we have to let them handle the part they're good at. Messing with ghosts and zombies and crud like that." With that settled, at least to his satisfaction, he scrutinized the latest data from Ziggy. "I've got the location of every water tower in this town. From the looks of it, Marshak's in an ordinary home, not a warehouse or factory."
"Have Ziggy narrow it down to the water tower closest to the interstate where Marshak's body is going to be found."
"Good idea. Now what?"
"Now we go to that water tower, and start looking."
"I'll go one way and knock on doors, pretend I'm a census taker or health inspector or something, and you just walk through houses the other way and look for him." Sam bounded enthusiastically toward Rashid's desk, ready for action.
"That's going to take a long time," Al said dubiously.
"Do you, or Gushie, or Ziggy, have any better ideas?"
He looked abashed. "Well, actually, no."
"Then I'll call a taxi. Let's get started."
"Sam, do you have any money to pay for a taxi?"
Sam set the phone receiver back on the hook. "Good question." He slid the little purse from his shoulder, but made a face. "It feels like trespassing or something. Guys aren't supposed to look into girls' purses."
"You'd be surprised what you might find in there. Girls' purses are like Felix the Cat's black bag, lots bigger inside than they look like outside, so they hold all sorts of stuff."
"How would you know?"
Al made a face. "One time I dated a girl who actually carried a horseshoe in her purse for good luck." He rubbed his stomach. "She hit me with it."
Sam opened his mouth, then closed it again. He really didn't want to know.
"Anyway, you're in Micki Foster's body, so this is your purse, and you have a right to look inside it."
"Yeah. Right." Glumly, Sam unzipped the purse. Maybe Al was right. For such a tiny purse, it seemed to hold a lot of objects. Loose under the lipstick tube, cologne, and make-up jars, he found a small wad of bills folded and held together by a gold moneyclip in the shape of a cat with emerald eyes the same shade as Micki's. "I've got money. Let's go."
An hour later, shivering in the cool night breeze, Sam began to question just how good his plan had been. Not many people believed a health or fire inspector would be checking their homes at nine o'clock at night. In fact, a lot of them seemed quick to form other ideas about what a lovely red-haired woman in silver might be interested in doing at night, and some were darned eager to cooperate. His right palm was still red and stinging from the slap he'd landed on that pot-bellied lecher's unshaven face. What kind of girl did that guy think he was, anyway?
"Hi, Sam!" The familiar doorway glistened before him, and Al stepped out, bouncing on his heels, his dark eyes glowing. "How's it going?"
"Horrible. How about you? Any luck?"
"Well, I've only covered four blocks so far. Is this all you've done? Three houses?" Al frowned. "You'll have to speed it up, kid. You've got a lot of territory to cover."
"In case you haven't noticed, Al, I can't just walk through the walls and take a peek, unlike some people."
"Yeah. It's great, Sam! I see people watching T.V., feeding the dog, giving the kids a bath--there's a great party one block over, with plenty of classic rock and a couple of kegs. Wish I could join 'em. And in one house, there's this couple--look like newlyweds--the way they're going at it, it kinda reminds me of my fourth wife, Sharon. She wore this pink nightie on our honeymoon, and--"
Sam interrupted his reminiscence. "Al, what does Ziggy say will happen to Ryan and Rashid at the convention?"
Al avoided his eyes, poking and slapping the edge of his computer link. "If we find Marshak, everything should be fine. We'd better get back to work."
"And if we don't find him?"
"Let's not be pessimistic, Sam. Look on the bright side. You're the one who always wanted to play that song when the funding looked like it wasn't going to come through. Remember?" Totally off-key, he crooned, "To dream the impossible dream--"
"It won't work, Al. What's going to happen to them?"
He sighed, his eyebrows working. "Rashid gets killed by this holographic thingymajig."
"I have to go--"
"--and if you show up, Ziggy says the odds are Ryan'll get himself killed trying to protect Micki. You. Micki's body. Whatever. Just keep looking, Sam. It's all we can do."
He punched in coordinates and vanished again.
Wearily, Sam trudged up the next drive. What was the point? There didn't seem to be anything useful he could do, and since he'd leaped into Micki Foster's body, things had actually gotten worse, not better. Now both Jack and Rashid were going to die. What next? Would his continuing failure lead to a plague and wipe out half the city? Or maybe he'd be responsible for a nuclear power plant accident, and really go out with a bang.
The Crim household turned out to be an innocuous black family more interested in the prayer meeting they were holding in the living room than in tormenting people with cursed objects. Marshak wasn't being held in the next house, or the next, in which an indignant housewife--over her husband's bemused protests--threatened to call the police and turn Sam in for soliciting.
All he could do was pray that Al, who was clearly having the time of his life, would have better luck.
As a child, stuck in the orphanage after his mother ran off with the encyclopedia salesman and his father went out drilling for oil, Al had been insatiably curious about `real' families. In fact, the first few times he ran away from the orphanage, when he was really little, it was just to hang around people's houses and stare inside, watching them eat dinner together or play board games or just sit and talk. What would it be like, to live with his little sister Trudy and their parents? He'd look through windows as if they were movie screens, picturing himself as the son or brother inside, hungering for the Beaver Cleaver lifestyle everyone else seemed to have.
He'd never really outgrown that curiosity. His five marriages had never given him a `real' family life, and he was still full of questions. But now, thanks to the Project, he could stroll right into the heart of other families, and observe them first-hand, as if he were one of them, without bothering anyone--except maybe Sam. Sam had a certain prim morality. You can take the boy out of Indiana, but you can't take Indiana out of the boy.
The next house had a collection of pickaninny dolls on shelves running the length of the living room, and a plump orange cat that blinked and mewed inquisitively as he passed.
"Just passing through, kitty. Seen any cursed I.V. units around here?"
The cat thudded onto the floor from the couch and tried to strop itself on his legs, which would've left hairs all over his snazzy black velvet trousers, but since Al wasn't there, the cat tumbled right through him. Looking embarrassed, it laid its ears back, picked itself up, and stalked away, flipping him The Finger with its tail.
"Sorry!" Al called, but the cat ignored him.
No Marshak here. Moving on, he passed through a smoke-filled kitchen, stopped to glance at a bearded man's poker hand, and frowned. "Oh, no. Don't try to bluff this one," he warned. Oblivious, the man raised the pot a dollar. Al shook his head. "I don't even have to see the other hands to know that's a dumb move. Don't say I didn't warn you."
He walked through the outer wall as another player called the bluff, and into a Cape Cod style house. This gave him a more intimate view of the local lifestyle than he bargained for, since he found himself in the bathroom, and the toilet was occupied. He hadn't realized he could still blush. Maybe some of Sam was rubbing off on him.
Next door to that place was a vacant lot that needed mowing, fenced in with a tacky little house. Inside, the house was a kind of re-creation of the bland early Fifties houses Al used to spy on, with lots of Formica and plastic slipcovers on all the lampshades and furniture. That pink-and-red sofa had to go. For one thing, the roses clashed with the lavender walls.
The place was awfully quiet. Must be out. Maybe they were at that party a block or two over--that's where he'd be, if he had a choice.
Al strode briskly through the side of the house facing the water tower, wincing as he passed through a bathroom, until he hit a dark bedroom, dimly lit by a Mickey Mouse night-light. Was there a large form slumbering in the bed, or just a pile of blankets and clothes? Al moved closer, bending over.
Marshak's eyes opened, dazed but aware. "Who's there?"
In the act of punching a green cube on the hand-link, Al froze. "You don't see me," he told Marshak, trying to sound certain. "Do you?"
Chains clinked as the man stirred, trying to lift his head. "Is someone here?"
"Not exactly," Al muttered, then raised his voice. "Gushie, center me on Sam, okay?"
From his point of view, the room around him was wiped out from bottom to top, like a wall map rolling up tight, and was replaced with a street corner. Sam was just crossing the street, his/her shoulders hunched, looking utterly dejected. Al pursed his lips in a silent wolf whistle. Boy, Sam was a gorgeous woman.
(No! No, strike that! I am NOT attracted to my partner!)
"Hey, Sam! I found him!"
The slim shoulders snapped back, and the delicate chin lifted. Micki Foster had a smile that could break a heart. "That's great! Where is he? Is he all right?"
"He's still hanging in there. The address is--ah--1332 Derleth Drive. It belongs to a Mr. and Mrs. Frank Liese, but nobody's home right now. Come on, I'll show you."
Having to stick to a run, when Gushie could just zap him there in an eyeblink, was frustrating, but Sam was only human. Come to think of it, that was another advantage to being a hologram. Think how many afternoon quickies a businessman could have if he could eliminate the travel time to and from her apartment: the whole lunch hour would be pure gravy time.
"That's the house, Sam. Wait a minute, you can't just charge in there!"
"Couldn't you just call the police?"
It was no use; Sam was already climbing the fence and heading for the side window. Since the first two windows he tried were locked, Sam groped around the dark yard until he found a statue of a plump goose wearing a sundress, then used it to shatter the glass.
"Sam, you're gonna cut yourself. Can't we wait for Ryan and Rashid? I'll zip there and tell them where we are, and that'll save them from the Bloody Beast thingy by getting them out of--"
No use. His partner had already wriggled his pert little ass through the window and into the house. Al sighed. "Center me on Sam, Gushie."
At least Sam had enough sense not to turn on the bedroom light. That would be the same as announcing there was someone in the house. Instead, he crouched and studied the ornate metal contraption by the light glowing from Mickey's round face, then gently traced the tubing to Marshak's pinioned wrist.
"It's going to sting a little when I pull this out," he warned, and yanked the cannula free, then grabbed the wrist and squeezed hard to cut off the blood. Al sucked in his breath and winced.
Marshak squinted up at them. "Micki? How did you find me?"
"We...went to Rashid for help. How are you feeling?"
"Weak. Where's Ryan?"
"He's with Rashid at the comic book convention. The medallion is acting up already." Sam released his wrist and stood up to tug on the chains, then raised his voice a hair. "We need keys."
"I didn't see anything laying out, and I can't pull drawers open to look. Sorry."
Jack muttered, "My lock-picks...in my coat." The conversation seemed to have exhausted him. His eyes closed.
"Sam?" Al turned to stare into the dark hallway. "Do you hear something?"
Sam was fumbling with Marshak's coat pockets. Worried, Al drifted back into the living room, just as the front door opened. Oh, boy!
"Sam, somebody's coming! Look out!"
"I've got the lock-picks--uh, how do they work again?"
He darted back to the bedroom. The kids at the orphanage hadn't called him "Al the Pick" for nothing. "It takes at least two, one to press down, and the other to turn the tumblers. Sam, you haven't go time for this. Hide! Maybe she won't see you."
Obediently, Sam dropped to the floor on the far side of the bed. The bedroom door creaked open, and someone glanced in, but Jack wasn't moving, and the woman walked away. They could hear her high heels tap down the hall, then the T.V. set switched on and loud, tinny canned laughter filled the air.
"Good. It'll drown out any noise," Al decided, as Sam grimly bent over the locks again. "I'll go check on her. You can handle this, you've done it once before. Just kept wriggling them until it clicks."
Scouting the enemy was a good idea, but about half a minute too late. As he reached the doorway, the bedroom lights flicked on, and the woman walked right through him. Brrr! Even though he never felt anything, and had to keep up a macho attitude for Sam, it still gave him the creeps when that happened.
Sam had his arm up, shielding his eyes from the sudden light.
Instead of screaming, the woman said chattily, "When I felt that breeze, I went looking, because I just knew I hadn't left any windows open, not at this time of night, and I found some awful person had smashed my dining room window. Isn't that disgusting? At first, I was going to call the police and tell them there was a burglar in my house, but I thought better of it, of course."
"Damn! Sam, look, she's got a gun. Now what are we gonna do?"
"I think calling the police is a good idea," Sam said. "After all, I'm a criminal. I think you should call them right now. I might be dangerous."
"Oh, no. I changed my mind."
"Why? Because you'd have to explain to the police why you're holding this man a prisoner?"
Her mascara-cemented eyes widened, and she put her free hand on her heart, but the gun didn't waver. "Me? Don't be silly. Why, everyone knows my Frank is dying, and I've been nursing him here at home for the longest time, and he's a terrible patient."
"That's not Frank."
"No, but he'll do in a pinch." She raised the gun a half-inch. "I wanted to know who was sneaking in Frank's room, and why." She glared over Sam's shoulder at the bed. "You should be ashamed of yourself, Mr. Marshak, lying to a poor widow that way, telling me your friends were busy somewheres else."
Sam pleaded, "Listen, that I.V. is evil. It's--it's cursed. I came to take Jack home and put that I.V. where it won't hurt anyone ever again."
"Now, that's just nonsense. My granny always said, evil is as evil does, and that machine is a real blessing. Why, it's done wonders for me! I'm not stupid enough to give up a miracle like that!"
He licked his lips. "I'm not alone. My friends will be on their way here any minute. If you run for it now, you have time to get away."
She paused, blinking, evidently considering it. "I do have the blood in my fridge. I could just take that....But you'd up and call the police or your friends, and there'd go my head-start. You look like exactly the sort that would cheat that way."
"All I want to do is save Jack. Can't we work something out?"
"I'll tell you what. Here's the key. You take one of those bracelet things from Mr. Marshak's legs and fasten your hands to the headboard beside him. You're such a skinny thing, they'll both fit in one." She clucked disapprovingly. "My Frank just adored my love handles. A man wants an armful to hug, not a stick like you, don't you realize that?"
"Don't do it, Sam. Jump her! You can get the gun away from her, easy. Do that karate stuff you do."
"I don't want to risk getting this body hurt," Sam said quietly.
The woman gave him an icy smile. "You know, if I have to, I'll shoot, and I won't miss. Frank showed me how to handle a gun so I wouldn't worry about being alone when he went on business trips."
Slowly, Sam put the key into the manacle around Marshak's left ankle.
"No! Sam, don't you see, once you're chained up, she can do anything she wants!" It was maddening. Even though he knew it was futile, Al took a wild swing at the hag's chin. His arm passed through her, uselessly. "You'll lose all your options if you're not still loose!"
"Hold still, now." She planted the muzzle of her gun against Sam's temple, and fastened his raised wrists together with the manacle. It was a tight fit, but the leg chain held Micki Foster securely against the headboard. The woman smiled, backed away, lifted the pistol, and said, "Bang!"
Instead of a bullet, a little puff of flame silently emerged from the gun's muzzle. Sam groaned.
"Isn't it a cutie? I got it on sale at a flea market. I never dreamed it would come in handy for something else besides lighting cigarettes, but it was sure worth every penny I paid for it. Her smile was positively gloating. "Frank was always griping about my expensive smoking habit, but see? It finally paid off!"
"I told you to jump her," Al moaned. He could only watch helplessly as she picked up the dangling I.V. cannula and tried to jam it into Sam's inner elbow. Sam promptly kicked her in the stomach, knocking her to the floor. Well, better late than never. With any luck, the fall'd bash her head in. "Good for you, Sam! Do it again!"
She was crying when she got enough breath to get up again. She stood there, glaring, her lower lip thrust out, then slowly raised the lighter in trembling hands. "I burned my arm on the stove once. Even after I put ice and burn cream on it, it just hurt and hurt and hurt. And poor Mr. Marshak won't even have any ice or ointment, will he?"
This time Sam didn't move when she inserted the needle, though he winced when she viciously shoved it in and twisted. Satisfied, she backed away and mopped tears and mascara from her cheeks, still pouting.
"If you hadn't kicked me like the shameless hussy you are, I might've kept you, you know. When I was in high school, I did this marvelous science fair project, where I raised generations and generations of these sweet little mice, with all sorts of charts and graphs and things. You'd be company for Mr. Marshak, and I wouldn't have to worry about ever running out of blood. But you don't deserve to be taken care of and looked after like that." Savagely, she twisted a knob on the transfusion unit, speeding up the flow of Sam's--well, technically, Micki's--blood. "While I was picking up the T.V. Guide and some groceries, I bought a lottery ticket. Now I'll just take all your blood, and pour it on the ticket, and then I'll have a guaranteed instant winner. So there, smartypants! Who's sorry now?"
Tossing her head, she flounced out of the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.
"I'll get Ryan and Rashid, and we'll have you out of this in an hour, tops. Just hold on, Sam," Al said urgently, then bellowed, "GUSHIE! CENTER ME ON RASHID, NOW!"
Al materialized in what appeared to be the set of the latest gory horror movie.
Normally, he didn't object to gory horror movies, since they invariably made his dates squeal and cuddle against him for comfort. This time, it really pissed him off, because it was obviously gonna slow him down. What were all these people doing here, anyway? Normally, the dealers' room would be closed at this time of night. Must have been some kind of Midnight Madness sale, which was kinda appropriate, actually.
All around him, the convention hall was jammed with pushing, shoving, noisy crowds, which wasn't at all unusual, but they weren't just arguing over the latest Frank Miller masterpiece. They were mostly stampeding in sheer hysteria, knocking over racks of plastic-covered comics, scattering purses and papers in a flurry of debris. Some were cowering under tables and behind life-sized cardboard cutouts of Batman and Spider-Man. One or two misfits were stopping to pose for hasty snapshots, standing just beyond arm's length of a costumed creature.
Come to think of it, if this was a costume, it was Academy Award-winning stuff, at the very least. The monster was about the size of Andre the Giant, and as muscular as the wrestler, with loathsome white skin studded with hairy warts and oozing a smelly greenish-brown pus. The humped back ended in a short neck topped with a small, square head and two fat, bulbous antennae. In short, it was one gross mother of a monster.
"Take my advice, don't bother entering the Mr. Universe content," Al told it. "Rashid! Where are you? This is an emergency!"
A pair of hands appeared at the edge of a billboard proclaiming KITAY'S COMICS--TOP QUALITY ONLY, followed by the top of a familiar red fez. "Look out! It's the Blood Beast of Thulec!"
Squinty, bloodshot green eyes focused on the fez, and the thing lumbered toward the billboard, extending both three-fingered hands. Each finger ended in a gleaming brown, two-inch claw. Rashid, understandably, immediately dropped out of sight again.
"Listen, we found Marshak, but now Sam's been caught, and--"
Blood-Beast, apparently irked at being upstaged, took a swipe at Al's left arm, and connected, the impact staggering him sideways. The two-inch claws sunk deep into his arm, and when the monster tried to yank them out, his arm jerked. The computer link flew out of his hand as if jet-propelled.
For what felt like an eternity, he just stood there and gaped in complete disbelief. Blood welled up from three deep puncture wounds. It was real blood, and with it came real pain.
"Run!" Rashid ordered, and scampered from behind the billboard to a table laden with comic book boxes. Ryan followed him, only faster. The Blood-Beast turned to follow them.
"This is impossible," Al said numbly. He clutched his throbbing arm with his right hand, and watched the blood ooze through his fingers. The skin around the gouges was beginning to burn. "This can't happen."
The sound of his voice seemed to attract the Blood-Beast's attention. It turned back toward Al, the two vertical slits in the middle of its square face twitching.
"You can't hurt me," he told it, but he backed up two steps. "You can't even see me. I'm a hologram. This is stupid! I'm not even here!"
"It's a hologram, too," Rashid's voice offered from across the aisle. "And the power of Evil lets it do many things."
"Who are you talking to?" Ryan sounded thoroughly frustrated. "Is that invisible guy here, or what?"
Where was his computer link? If he had that, he could have Gushie zap him out of here. Al took another step away from the Thulec thing and craned his head around, scanning the roomful of fallen flyers and trampled comics. Over there--was that it? Yeah. It was lying on the floor, sticking halfway out of a box of Good Girl art.
When he moved toward it, the Blood-Beast stepped into his path. Al swallowed. "Go away. Go bother someone else."
It raised both massive arms. This time, Al ducked.
"Did it touch him? Hey, Al, don't let it touch you--that slimy stuff is acid."
"Now he tells me," Al muttered. He dodged behind a display of Golden Age horror comic books, but Blood-Beast phased right through the cover of a Dracula comic and joined him, making a sort of rumbling noise in what was presumably its chest. "What does this creep want?"
"He wants to know what it wants," Rashid panted, and cautiously fumbled around the floor, feeling for the handlink. It was no use. Once it left the Admiral's fingers, it vanished from sight. His fingers passed right through it without feeling a thing.
Ryan's head popped up. "They way I remember it, it tears its victims apart and vacuums out their blood with its tongue. Oh, yeah, and don't let the antennas touch your head. They can suck out your brain waves and leave you like a kind of zombie."
"What kind of sicko wrote a story like that? That's disgusting!" Jeez, he'd thought that mummy he and Sam ran into one leap was terrifying, but Ptah-Hotep was the girl next door, compared to this nozzle!
It swung at him again, trying to clasp him in both arms, but Al feinted left, then ran down the right aisle, trying to do an end-run back to the computer link. The Blood Beast of Thulec waded effortlessly through the tables and cut him off.
Ryan, who could only guess at what was happening from Rashid's winces and groans, was yelling, "What is it? What's going on? Did it get him?"
"Tell me how to stop this thing!"
"Ryan, he wants to know how to stop it!"
Dallion half-rose and yelled, "In the comic book, the hero electrocuted it!" He was facing the wrong direction, but it was the thought that counted.
"That's not gonna work. It'll just phase through the electrical cords, right?" Al panted.
The Blood-Beast paused between a display of monster heads and booth peddling animation cells, distracted by Ryan's bellow. It looked first toward Al, poised on his toes and ready to run, then toward the youth. Maybe the kid looked more appetizing, because its beady eyes locked on Dallion, and it trudged toward him, snorting.
Ryan hesitated, then whirled and bolted, plowing through cringing bodies like an ocean liner at a yacht regatta. You couldn't blame the guy; nobody in his right mind would stick around here once the Thulec thing decided he was a good appetizer.
Frustrated, it stopped, turned around, and decided to settle for second choice: Al. The way the slits in the middle of that square head flared, it liked the way he smelled, even though he forgot the aftershave this morning. For a microsecond, Al froze.
(Oh, boy. Now I know why Ryan wet his pants.)
Desperately, he lunged toward his fallen hand-link.
No matter how he twisted or pulled, Sam couldn't get his wrists free. He tried to kick over the transfusion unit--that should pull the cannula free--but it was just out of reach.
"I'm sorry...I got you into this, Micki," Marshak murmured.
"It's not your fault. She's the one who's crazy."
"Hmph!" The deadly hausfrau bustled back into the bedroom, shooting Sam a look with the force of an Uzi. "That's the sort of remark I'd expect from a floozy like you." With short, jerky movements, she yanked the filled bag of blood from one arm of the unit, and replaced it with a much bigger plastic bag. "You certainly have your nerve, breaking my window, invading my home, and then calling me names." She bent over, thrust the bag into the bedside refrigerator, and slammed the door shut again. "You snippy little tarts think you're such hot stuff. Well, now at least your life will do some good!"
"What possible good can there be in money bought with a human life?"
She put her hands on her hips and studied him, her lips a thin crimson line of too much lipstick. "Tell me, missy, do you do drugs? You don't have one of those nasty sex diseases, do you? Because I've been thinking. If your blood is bad, I'll bet I only get counterfeit money, and I don't want any trouble."
He wasn't sure what to say. If he claimed his blood was tainted, she might decide to drain Marshak in his place. But if he didn't plant a doubt in what passed for her mind, she would kill him--
"Oh, well." She shrugged it off as unimportant. It was only a human life, after all. "You can't know until you try."
Jack croaked, "Mary Jo, please--"
Her expression melted as she gazed down at him, and she became coy. "You know what? The first thing tomorrow morning--as soon as this hussy is gone--I'm gonna fix you a big, juicy, rare steak. Won't that be nice? We'll have your blood built up again in no time!"
Marshak's hands curled into white-knuckled fists, but he didn't speak. Mary Jo switched off the overhead light. "I'll check on you two after Johnny Carson, just before I go to bed. I never miss Johnny. Don't you think that Ed McMahon is adorable? But first I have to go board up my window." She sighed. "This is one of those times I miss Frank. He was so handy with things like that."
In a way, it was a relief to be left in darkness. At least this way he couldn't watch his blood being sucked out of his system. It was terrifying how quickly the bag swelled.
Where was Al?
If Al went to the convention and found Rashid dead, he wouldn't be able to get help. Ryan couldn't see or hear him. Animals, insane people, and children under five could see him, but that wouldn't exactly be a help in dealing with an insanely self-centered killer.
If Rashid were dead, Al would've come back to tell him. So where was he?
When Sam first met the eccentric, cocky, cigar-chomping admiral with the flippant manner and a penchant for replacing his uniform with truly bizarre, flamboyant clothing, he'd been positive he was in for major trouble. It didn't help that the first time they met, Calavicci was drunk and trying to dismantle a vending machine that had eaten his money. If he had to count on that sexist numbskull to handle things, Sam knew the Star Bright Project would flop, and he would never get the backing for his planned time travel project.
But the admiral turned out to be full of surprises. Yes, he invariably came in late, and could be counted on to waste at least an hour or two a day ogling female scientists and technicians, but oddly enough, the women didn't seem to mind. Some of them seemed to thrive on it. In fact, his aides and secretaries were so loyal to him that the Senate committee overseeing Star Bright kept replacing them, to no avail. Even when they sent him male secretaries, Al Calavicci--war hero and ex-astronaut--charmed them into joining his unofficial fleet.
What was more, though the man treated Sam with a somewhat standoffish courtesy, as if he were a young Boy Scout being treated to a fun excursion by an experienced uncle, sometimes something more glimmered beneath the facade. There was pain lurking beneath the sparkling surface of those eyes, and genuine intelligence cloaking itself behind that hail-fellow-well-met act.
Often the admiral sat with his feet up on his desk top--which was always empty and militarily neat, as if his office were a hotel room he expected to vacate soon--spinning endless entertaining but thoroughly unbelievable yarns. He always had an audience. Sam was usually part of it.
As time went on, Sam began to notice that despite the older man's behavior, Operation Star Bright was the smoothest running project he had ever worked on. Somehow, he didn't seem to be plagued with paperwork or nitpicking memos, and emissaries from the government always got mysteriously waylaid before they ever reached Sam's office. How did he do that?
Intrigued, Sam began paying attention to what his co-worker was doing. The admiral didn't try to run the project like a ship, bellowing orders, but after a few weeks and dozens of offhand but penetrating questions, he began making suggestions to Sam about the scientific end, and many of them were helpful. In fact, lunch hours stretched on into late afternoon, no longer filled with tall tales, but occupied by fascinating discussions of quantum physics, and he found himself returning to his office with great new ideas, because Calavicci put a new twist on things. Most important of all, once he decided to trust Sam's friendship, he actually accepted the possibility that Sam Beckett wasn't just a young mad scientist determined to waste a hefty government contract.
In fact, once he accepted Sam's premise, Al turned out to be the biggest plus Project Quantum Leap had going for it. As a highly respected and decorated Vietnam vet and former P.O.W., he had considerable support in military circles, and his astronaut background gave him pull in the scientific community. Without his support, and his media connections, the project would probably have been doomed. It didn't matter how brilliant Sam was, or how thoroughly he laid out the mathematical equations; what they'd needed was political skill, and Al had that in abundance. Any time some politician came nosing around, demanding to cut their budget, Al would invite him to dinner. Sam wouldn't see the man again for a week, and by then, as likely as not, he would be hounding the White House to double their budget, not cut it.
Whenever Sam made a bad decision along the way--like this time, coming to Mary Jo's house without back-up--Al was always there. Even if he couldn't physically help, he always provided moral support. It was like having a one-man cheerleading squad follow you everywhere, urging you to overcome the odds.
Al would be here soon.
He could always count on Al....
The whole thing felt unreal to Ryan. Okay, sure, the Blood Beast of Thulec was one of his worst nightmares come to life, but from his point of view, once it stopped stalking Rashid, it seemed to think it had turned into a street mime. It kept staring into thin air, turning this way and that for no apparent reason, sometimes reaching out to touch nothing at all. It would've been funny, except for Rashid's gasps and winces as the creature apparently cornered or injured Calavicci.
When the Blood-Beast hesitated in the F-X aisle, then turned its greedy little eyes on him, he knew he'd had enough. What was the point in sitting here, unable to see most of the action, waiting to be sucked up like a human milkshake? Instead, Ryan turned and ran, hurtling over prone quivering bodies like an Olympic competitor.
Doing something decisive for a change felt good. He had been miserable watching Micki be levitated and then dashed to the floor like an unwanted doll. He had been helpless to save Jack, knowing he was probably dying somewhere, if the mad scientist from the future was telling the truth. Since then, stewing over what was happening to Micki in the future and what would happen if she never returned was giving him an ulcer. Now he was damned if he'd sit and watch the Blood Beast wipe out everybody within its slimy reach!
A quick glance over his shoulder as he skidded around a corner told him the creature had gone back to attacking the air, which meant the invisible astronaut was probably taking a beating. Panting, he leaned against a booth crammed with comic book boxes and began rummaging through the papers on the dealer's table.
"Hey, man, whatcha think you're doing?"
The hoarse whisper came from a fat, bearded, middle-aged dealer who had taken refuge under a spread-out Batman cape. Ryan barely spared him a glance. "Where's your winner's list?"
"For the Blood Beast Award! Where's your winner's list?"
"Oh, yeah. Under the cash box, I think. Is that thing still out there?"
The bushy head vanished under the cape, like a tortoise withdrawing into its shell.
Ryan snatched up the blue flyer and scanned it. The winner--a seventy-year-old man with Parkinson's disease--hadn't been able to escape when it became obvious that the Blood Beast of Thulec advancing on him wasn't some imaginative costumer's special effects. His crumpled, lifeless body was still slumped at the head table in the banquet hall. Ryan and Rashid arrived just as the runner-up, Alan Moore, ran screaming from the banquet to the dealer's room with the monster close on his heels.
Even though it wasn't wearing a membership badge, the security guards hadn't been able to stop the Blood Beast of Thulec. One of them was still slouched in the doorway with a blank half-smile on his face, completely brain-dead. Ryan suspected he'd have nightmares about this tomorrow, if he lived that long.
The last time Ryan saw him, Moore was crawling rapidly toward an emergency exit. But the third runner-up was rumored to be a real also-ran, not in the first two's league. Right, there was the name--Len Arcuri, creator of Social Worker From Hell.
Ryan nudged the Batman cloak with his boot. "Hey. What's Len Arcuri look like?"
"Short, fat, blond, goin' bald. No beard or 'stache," the muffled voice offered.
He glanced back uneasily, but the monster wasn't in sight, so Ryan finished studying the flyer. It described Arcuri as a long-time fan and collector of horror memorabilia. If Ryan's theory was right, Len was the motivator behind the Blood Beast's murders. He was killing off his rivals.
The problem now was finding him.
The Blood Beast of Thulec must be pretty hungry, because it seemed to pick up speed as it plodded closer to Al. Ignoring it, he snatched up the hand-link, rolled, and yelled, "Gushie--", then stopped.
If he zapped back to the Imaging Chamber, where his body was right now, Gushie and the others would rush him straight to the med center, the way he was bleeding. Even over the screams here in the dealer's room, he could hear them yelling at him back in the lab, asking him what was wrong. As long as he was in the past, they couldn't yank him out, thanks to the failsafe he'd installed last month, but if he went back to the I.C., they'd snatch him for sure. By the time he got back, Sam--who was really bleeding--would almost certainly be dead.
"Oh, boy," Al said grimly, as he realized he was stuck with this obscenity.
The Blood Beast bent, extending its pus-coated arms. Al rolled again, passing right through a poster for Creature From the Black Lagoon. It started to step through after him, but Rashid stood up and began hurling plastic models of comic book heroes at it. Superman, Thor, and the Green Lantern soared through the Thulec thing's image and plopped futilely against the next booth, but the gesture seemed to irritate the monster, which ponderously wheeled around and began stalking Rashid again.
This was his last chance. If he hung around this convention hall any longer, the Blood Beast of Thulec was going to tear him limb from limb and suck his blood, before or after eating his brain waves.
Al looked down at the colored lights urgently flashing on the handlink. That blood thingy was a hologram, like him. What if it could be carried back to the lab with him? Now, that would be a mess.
He couldn't zap back to the I.C. now anyway. Not and leave Sam.
"Rashid, listen, Sam's at--"
No use. The magician was on his knees, with both hands gripping a massive three-fingered paw, trying to keep it from his neck. His jaunty red scarf had been shredded.
"Hold it, slimeball!" Al yelled, and launched himself at the monster.
Disconcertingly, but logically, he was as solid to it as it was to him. He wrapped both legs around its immense trunk and rapped its head with his closed fists, trying to hammer it into the floor. Blood from his left arm dripped down its warty scalp like strawberry syrup in a slasher movie. Blinking, it released Rashid and reached to claw at Al. Al swung to one side, escaping the counterattack, but his hands were beginning to burn. Dallion had been right; the slimy coating on it was acid. His fingers couldn't hold on. When the creature bucked and twisted like an undersized ship in an ocean storm, he fell off.
Unfortunately, crashing against the floor knocked the breath out of him, and he could neither speak nor move. Somewhere behind the approaching monster, Rashid was coughing harshly. Flat on his back, utterly terrified, Al stared up into that square, inhuman face. It bent over him, the bulbous antennae twitching and straining toward his forehead. They were just brushing his temples when he managed to grab them in both hands and yank them away.
"Rashid, get outta here! Sam's at 13--"
The antennae struggled in his hands, surprisingly muscular, like sea-snakes eager to strike. Blood Beast clawed at his arms, and he knew those gigantic paws could snap his wrists like cheap cigars, but it released them and reached instead for his throat. Though he grunted and shoved, he couldn't push it away.
"--1332 Derleth Dri--"
When the paws closed around his throat, they didn't dig in with those murderous claws. Instead, the hands squeezed, cutting off his air. Then the monster straightened, lifting Al right off the floor, and pulled him close in what was almost an amorous embrace. He landed a solid kick right where the genitalia should be, but apparently the Blood Beast of Thulec didn't have much of a sex life.
Their faces were only inches apart, but instead of puckering up for a kiss, it stuck out its tongue. Al got a close-up look at the long, thin, pink tube studded with minute red-brown fangs that hadn't been brushed since it murdered the first comic book writer. Like something alive, the tongue probed for his face, but he twisted his head away, disgusted.
His chest ached. Everything was starting to turn black from lack of oxygen. His throat felt like the Arizona when the bombs hit at Pearl.
(At least Rashid knows where Sam and Marshak are. They're not gonna die,) Al thought, and then, despairingly, (Beth--)
The claws scraping against his neck eased up. Under his increasingly limp fingers, the antennae stiffened, then pulled back, away from his head.
With a surprised telepathic keening that made Al's head ache, the Blood Beast of Thulec faded to greenish-white dust beams, and was gone.
For a long time, he just lay on the floor, concentrating on breathing. In, out; in, out--air had never tasted so sweet. It felt great to be alive. The seared skin--the wounded arm--the pain was all wonderful, because he was here to feel it.
"How did you do that? What happened to it?" Rashid demanded, turning to the breathless Dallion.
Ryan grinned and help up a long gold chain. At the end dangled an oval holographic image of a familiar hump-backed form. "With this. I found the creep who was powering it, and when he wouldn't listen to reason, I knocked him out, grabbed this, and told the Blood Beast to disintegrate. Apparently it worked. Is Al okay? Did it get him?"
"We must get him to a doctor." Rashid knelt beside Al, looking worried. His anxious frown deepened. "But how will a doctor treat you if he cannot see you? Al, you must go back to your own time. Ryan and I will go to--"
"--1332 Derleth Drive. Nope. I gotta go check on Sam." Grimacing, he forced himself to sit up. The magician tried to help him, but clicked his tongue when his hand shot right through Al's shoulder. Al carefully shrugged out of his gold lame jacket, then moaned when he saw the scorch marks, gouges, and bloodstains that had shredded it. "Look what it did! Do you know how much this thing cost me? Oh, man, it was my favorite jacket, too." Steaming mad, he folded it, jammed it against his arm, and tied it on, pulling the torn sleeves tight with his teeth. "That'll do it. Gushie, center me on Sam. And don't you dare try to haul me back to the lab--I'm not done yet." He squinted at the words flashing across the tiny screen, and rolled his eyes. "Ziggy, don't you start on me, too. Yes, I know what I look like--just do it! I'll explain what happened later."
Getting to his feet to walk into that crazy broad's bedroom when the dealers' room faded out around him wasn't as easy as he expected, but Al was in no mood for protests from his body. It never gave him any trouble when it came to bedroom acrobatics, so he wasn't about to baby it now, just because of a little rough-housing.
The weak light cast by Mickey Mouse showed him the bag on the cursed I.V. was about half full. Both Sam and Marshak seemed to be asleep.
"Hang in there, Sam. Help is on the way. Honest."
Sam's all-too-feminine body stirred sleepily, but Al didn't wait. He had to check on Mary Jo's whereabouts, so he could warn the guys when the finally got here. But he stopped in the hallway, overcome by a sudden wave of dizziness. The floor seemed to be pitching, like a boat rocked by waves.
(Oh, great, Al, punk out now, just when everybody's counting on you.)
Getting knocked around on a leap was weird--unsettling. Always before, he'd had to watch other men, women, and children endangered--and too often those men, women, and children were his best friend, Sam--but he'd been immune to physical danger himself. What he was used to was a lot of fear and worry and feeling powerless to save anyone. Dealing with the physical damage himself wasn't much improvement over agonizing about it happening to someone else.
After a minute or two of deep breathing, he got his sea legs back. Mary Jo was curled up on the sofa, watching a Carson anniversary show and munching contentedly on chocolate creams from Fanny Farmer's, giggling whenever Ed McMahon boomed his fake laugh. She didn't look the least bit dangerous.
"You know something? I really, really hate you."
She didn't seem bothered by that, either. Al sat down and tried to watch Carson, but he couldn't concentrate on it. How long would it take the guys to drive here? This time of night, there shouldn't be much traffic. He tried quizzing Ziggy, even though he was all fumble-fingers and kept making dumb mistakes with the buttons, and was gratified to learn that the computer believed the odds favored a successful rescue. Always assuming they didn't develop a flat tire or get a speeding ticket, they should get here in plenty of time to save Sam's life.
Al shivered. When the Blood Beast clawed at his arms, he'd ripped this shirt to pieces. Must be giving him a chill.
Boy, what he wouldn't give for an aspirin right now.
In the middle of segment with Burt Reynolds and Johnny exchanging wisecracks, he got up and walked outside, ready to flag down the Volkswagen once it finally got here. It seemed to take forever.
"This way, guys! They're in here! What took you so long?"
"We broke every speed limit we saw," Rashid assured him earnestly, shutting the car door as quietly as possible. His fez was missing, but he wrapped the tattered remains of the red scarf around his reddened neck with a certain panache. "You are the military man. What do you recommend, Al?"
"One of you sneak in the bedroom window, and the other one distract her out front. She's watching T.V." He poked his head through the faded red bricks. "No, strike that, she's headed for the kitchen."
"Ryan, Al suggests a frontal assault by you, a distraction. I will go directly to the bedroom."
"Okay, so follow me. Wait, tell Ryan if she pulls a gun, don't worry--it's just a cigarette lighter."
Al glanced restlessly at the handlink as Rashid repeated everything. Should he try asking Ziggy for data? The thing was, in the middle--the climax--of a leap, there were so many possible timelines mixing together, the predictions he got from Ziggy would be all screwed up. Besides, he really didn't want to hear that this time there were two bloodless bodies found by the side of the road, not one.
The gate latch creaked rustily when Rashid opened it, but McMahon's braying would probably cover that up. Unfortunately, the bedroom window they needed was locked.
"We better wait for the kid to distract her," Al suggested, fidgeting. They both froze as a car engine roared to life. "Oh, no. You don't think he'd--?"
There was a resounding crash from the front of the house. Rashid said, "Apparently, he would."
"I hope he didn't hurt that car too much. It kind of grows on you."
Next to the clamor of the Bug smashing in the front door of the house, the sound of the window tinkling into pieces was almost musical. Protecting his hands with the ruined scarf, Rashid crawled inside; Al simply walked through the wall.
"That's it! Get that needle out of his arm!" He winced as blood sprayed through his face. "Who'd think he'd have that much left? Rashid, can we, like, reverse the flow?"
"I wouldn't recommend it."
"Then break it up, quick, so she can't use it again."
He shook his head regretfully. "Cursed objects can't be destroyed. Jack keeps them in a consecrated, protected vault." Satisfied that Micki Foster's arm had stopped bleeding, he walked around the bed to Marshak's side. "Jack?"
"Rashid? You found us?" Marshak grinned dizzily at him. "My lock picks...in my coat pocket...."
"You get them loose. I'm gonna go check on Mary Jo."
Al stuck an unlit cigar in his mouth for comfort, then walked into the hallway, trying very hard not to stagger. In his opinion, the front end of the Love Bug sticking through the front wall did a lot to improve the tone of the living room, giving it a classy Salvador Dali touch. Mary Jo was nowhere in sight, but David Letterman was grinning goofily from the T.V., and Ryan Dallion was cautiously picking his way through the rubble, coughing a little as the dust settled.
"No, Ryan, they're over here." Impatiently, he waved his good arm. Well, the less scratched up one. "This way. Are you deaf or something?" Ryan moved toward the kitchen. Al had no choice but to follow him. "Geez Louise, where's a good psychic when you need one? Or even a little kid."
The kitchen seemed to be empty, lit only by the bulb in the open refrigerator. Al squinted. Did she keep blood bags in there, too, or did she drink a lot of tomato juice?
"Get outta here, kid. Can't you see this isn't the bedroom? I don't like this." He raised his voice. "Rashid, come out here, quick!"
Wide-eyed, snarling, she lunged from behind the open refrigerator door. Terrified, Al and Ryan screamed simultaneously as Mary Jo rammed a long barbecue fork right into Dallion's heart. The cigar fell from his lips as Al covered his eyes, unable to look...then spread his fingers apart, unable to avoid peeking.
Ryan's body, supine in the hallway, slowly sat up, still impaled. This time it was Mary Jo who shrieked in terror.
Slowly, the kid pulled the still-quivering fork from his heart, then reached inside his bomber jacket and hauled out the cursed medallion. He looked numb.
"Oh. Lucky for you those things can't be broken," Al told him, dropping his hands. He was impressed, just the same.
Still howling, Mary Jo snatched butcher knives from the wooden block on the kitchen counter and began hurling them at Ryan. He slid rapidly backwards on the linoleum floor and took refuge behind the rose-covered sofa. None of the knives hit Ryan, but one passed right through Al's groin. He backed up, too, appalled.
Brandishing the last, longest knife, Mary Jo darted down the hallway toward the bedroom.
"Look out! Here she comes!"
Rashid threw himself on the bed, trying vainly to cover both bodies with his own, but Mary Jo paid no attention to them. Making low growling noises deep in her throat, she grabbed the antique blood transfuser, just as Al ran through the wall.
"Hey! Put that down!"
"Mine! You can't have it! It's mine!" She punctuated each sentence by jabbing the air with the butcher knife. "Get away from me, you--you gigolo, you!"
"You can see me?"
She backed toward the broken window.
"We can't let her get away with that!" Al cried, scandalized. "Ryan! Get in here! Call him, Rashid!"
It was amazing, the way she managed to wriggle both her own bulk and the I.V. unit through the window, but the base of the unit was too broad and got caught on the window-sill. Mary Jo shrieked one last time, like a walrus being harpooned.
Bursting into the room, Dallion grabbed her by the ankles. Strangely, she didn't kick him. He dragged her back into the bedroom, then gagged and looked away.
Al leaned over for a closer look. She was dead, all right. The dangling I.V. needle had been driven through her heart like a stake. "Serves the bloodsucker right."
"Jack? Are you all right?"
Marshak, rubbing his freed wrists, made no effort to get up. "Thirsty. Anemic. Alive."
"I knew you'd come, Al," Sam murmured.
He shrugged, embarrassed, and met Rashid's gaze. "Hey. Thanks."
Sam was frowning. "Al? How did you get so bloody?" His eyes were beginning to look less dazed. "How come your neck is all burned? Did something happen at the lab?"
"Nah. But I bet Gooshie's about to wet his pants, trying to figure out what hap--"
Al's tatterdemalion figure was washed out in a psychedelic rainbow as Sam Beckett leaped again. He blinked. The weakness of blood loss had been left with Micki Foster's body--which didn't seem fair to her, but which he greatly appreciated--yet he still felt totally confused.
This time he seemed to be in a laboratory, and for a moment he was rocked with joy...until he realized it wasn't home. He was in some sort of operating room, surrounded by masked and gowned men and women in blue surgical gear. The shortest figure in the circle glared up at him.
"Ehrlich! Victor Ehrlich, you nincompoop, what do you think you're doing--taking a nap? I will not have it said that Mark Craig, the finest cardiac surgeon in Boston, wastes his time teaching daydreaming incompetents!"
Slowly, he looked down. There was a bloody scalpel in his gloved hands, and under the scalpel was an open chest, and a beating heart.
I want to Leap to the main page to talk to the author or to check out the guestbook and links--maybe even buy QUANTUM LEAP books at a discount.