A Nightmare In Babylon

by M.D. Bloemker

(previously published in Prime Time #1)

 


     Dr. Jonathan MacKensie glanced down at his watch for the fourth time in two minutes and snarled. After spending nearly an hour in traffic worried about getting to Dulles Airport on time, he'd now spent over an hour waiting for Edgar Benedek to make his appearance from the Customs area. Those were two hours he could ill-afford to spare, not to mention whatever delay Benedek would visit upon him once he finally showed up. For the past twenty minutes, he'd been entertaining doubts as to whether Benedek had really made the flight, despite the fact that he'd already twice confirmed the man's existence on the passenger manifest with the ticket agent on duty. He comforted himself by conjuring up delicious visions of his revenge should Benedek waste more of his time in any way, shape or form. For one thing, he was going to chain the man to a chair, stick a pencil in his hand and force him to grade all of the Anthropology 101 essay exams that Jonathan himself was supposed to be working on this very moment. Better yet, he would throw him into Dr. Moorhouse's office and lock the door behind them, letting Benedek explain to his department head why the grade reports weren't completed on time. If Edgar Benedek managed to survive that encounter, it would no doubt be as a chastened, apologetic soul, abjectly begging Jonathan's forgiveness. The vision actually managed to cheer him up for a few minutes, but the smile faded as he finally spotted a walking billboard display making his way through a sea of starched business suits.
     "It's about time," Jonathan muttered irritably, barely managing to stifle a wince. It seemed to him that Benedek's attire was even more offensively flamboyant than usual; the pink and yellow swirls that spun throughout the fabric of his jacket actually managed to hurt his eyes. "Are these all your bags?"
     "Hey, Jack, don't bother with those, that's what I pay sky-caps good money for. Besides, my editor sent a car around for me."
     Jonathan blinked. "A car?"
     "Yeah, you know — four wheels, horn, five speed transmission, usual stuff."
     "Then why in heaven's name did you call me from Kowloon and insist that I meet you here at the airport?" he flared.
     Benedek snapped his fingers. "Glad you asked. I found this little trinket in a pawn shop in Lhasa Apso, and it just cried out for me to get it for you."
     He was withdrawing something from his pocket as he spoke, but Jonathan ignored it to deliver a blazing glare at the man. "Lhasa Apso is a breed of dog," he said pointedly.
     "Whaddya know? Learn something new every day. That's what I like about you, Jack — who needs the Encyclopedia Brittanica with you around?" He cackled amiably, then held up a large pendant by its thick gold chain. "You don't want to know what I had to go through to get this past Customs. Better you don't know, cause it's going to be Chapter 9 in my new book. It's something, isn't it?"
     "Something, yes," MacKensie muttered, squinting at the ornament. He flinched when Benny offered it to him, but recovered quickly, accepting the gift with the painted-on smile of well-mannered politeness. "It's, uh..." He cleared his throat. "It's heavy."
     "Iron, I think. Don't get your hopes up, the chain is only electroplate."
     Struggling to maintain his polite smile, Jonathan finally managed to ask, "What is it?"
     "A genuine replica of the ancient Babylonian version of a rabbit's foot. Guaranteed to keep all sorts of ancient Babylonian spooks and goblins at a respectable distance."
     Confusion began to recede, replaced by understanding. "Oh, I see. This is a, um...what do you call it?"
     "Amulet. I call it an amulet. Wear it in good health."
     "Ha ha, very funny," Jonathan rolled his eyes.
     Benny looked at him with strange surprise as he bent to pick up his camera case. "Funny? What's funny?"
     "Oh, come off it, Benedek. You call me all the way out here, in the middle of finals week, just to give me a chunk of iron? You couldn't wait until you came to haunt me at the Institute? What's the punchline?"
     The camera case hit the floor again. "Okay, my fault. I guess I didn't explain this too well."
     "Oh, you explained it just fine. This amulet is supposed to keep the Babylonian bogey-man away. Benedek, if it hasn't come after me by now, I don't think a lump of iron on a chain is going to make that much of a difference, do you?"
     "Easy, Jack," Benny soothed, glancing furtively around to see how much attention MacKensie's rising voice was attracting. "There's no need to make a scene, okay?"
     "No need to make a scene? Do you realize what I had to reschedule to come out here and meet you?"
     "And I appreciate the effort, I really do," Benny insisted. "You know I wouldn't have asked if it wasn't important."
     Jonathan shook the pendant in Benny's face. "This is important? This?"
     Benny's hand shot out, grabbing the wrist of the hand that held the pendant. "Yes," he said in a voice that was suddenly very serious and oddly frightening. Jonathan blinked, nonplussed. He could only remember having seen that strange look on Benny's face once before, but before he could place it, it was gone, replaced by the usual insouciant grin. "Come on, pal, how often do I bring you back a souvenir? Didn't your parents ever tell you about the mouths of gift horses? Look, you're under the gun here with finals week and all, so I understand that you find it hard to be properly grateful. No problem, I'm not offended. But, uh...you know, I'd really appreciate if you could, uh...you know. Keep it with you."
     "Wait a minute. You actually expect me to wear this?"
     "Well, no, no," he said hastily. "Just, uh...well, keep it on you. Inside jacket pocket, that's a good place...."
     Jonathan's patience snapped. He shook off Benny's effort to help him put the pendant away in his coat pocket. Between clenched teeth, he said, "I'll decide when and how to ruin the material of this jacket, thank you."
     Benny's hands went up in mock surrender. "Hey, no problem. Whew, you're touchy today."
     Jonathan closed his eyes briefly, collecting himself. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I shouldn't lose control like that, no matter how much of a jerk you're being."
     "Ouch!" Benny laughed, shaking his hand as though burned.
     "I'm sorry!" Jonathan tried again, rubbing his forehead tiredly. "No, damn it, I'm not sorry. Benedek, if you ever, ever pull something like this on me again, I swear, I'm...I'm...."
     "Ah — there's the driver. Gotta run, Jon-boy, catch you later." He swung back in mid-step. "By the way — I was serious about asking you to keep that pendant with you. No fooling. It's important. You gotta trust me on that. Will you do it? For me?"
     "Yes, yes," Jonathan said wearily, oblivious to the truly serious note in Benedek's voice as he vainly tried to push the advancing pain out of his head.
     Benny beamed. "Terrif. Hey, Wolfgang, over here!" And he disappeared, waving, into the crowd.
     Jonathan was still fuming by the time he got back to his office. He tore his desk apart searching for his aspirin bottle, gulping down two tablets with the fervent wish that he could make Edgar Benedek vanish from his life as easily as he could deal with a tension headache. He revised the thought almost immediately when he remembered that this headache had been with him for over three days and showed no signs of being affected by any amount of aspirin. Only the end of finals week would spell the end of the pain pounding at his temples.
     Removing the amulet from his pocket, he sneered down at it, thinking of all the things he should have suggested Benny could do with the hideous thing. He turned it over in his hand and squinted at the scratchings on the smooth surface of the backing. Out loud, he sounded out the syllables, then laughed derisively. It annoyed him to realize that Edgar Benedek actually expected him to believe that an ancient Babylonian inscription would be written in modern alphabet.
     With a muttered curse, he tossed the pendant off to one side of his desk and promptly forgot about it. It was still there when Dr. Moorhouse breezed in with a strident complaint about his three hour absence from campus.
     She broke off in mid-tirade, staring down at the corner of his desk for a long moment before reaching over to pick up the pendant. "What in heaven's name is this?" she wanted to know, wrinkling her nose in unfeigned disgust.
     Jonathan grimaced. "Edgar Benedek's idea of a joke. A little souvenir he brought back from his hoodoo convention in Kowloon."
     Moorhouse made a sharp sound of derision in her throat as she inspected the obverse side. "Charming," she pronounced with deadly sarcasm. "At least he had the good sense to scrape 'Made in Hong Kong' off the back." Dropping it back on the desk, she made a gesture with her fingers to suggest that she felt the contact was unclean. "MacKensie, your grade reports are now one day late."
     He sighed, running his hand through his hair. "Dr. Moorhouse, with all due respect, I fail to see how you can expect me to do the work of three people in less than one-third of the time." His voice, while remaining calm, took on a pleading note. "I've been working around the clock for nearly a week now, and it's just getting worse. I need at least one teaching assistant if I'm expected to get these grades compiled in time. Please."
     She slapped an inter-office envelope on his desk. "I'm sorry, MacKensie. You know all about the budget cuts. No T.A.'s. You'll have to do the best you can. May I recommend spending less time in the company of Edgar Benedek and more time on the stick? You have until five o'clock to have those reports on my desk." And with that she strode out of the office.
     He stifled a groan when he saw the amount of paperwork stuffed into the envelope she'd left him. Ripping open the first folder, he rubbed his burning eyes, forced them to focus, and allowed himself a brief fervent wish that there were amulets to ward off angry department heads.

 


     He woke with a start, found himself staring wildly at the side of his coffee cup. For a moment he didn't know why his heart was pounding in his chest; then the phone, three inches from his ear, rang again, startling him once more. Asleep. He'd fallen asleep. "Damn," he muttered, checking his watch. He'd been dozing for over two hours. "Damn!" The phone rang again, and he snared the receiver, snarling, "Yes! Hello!"
     "Jonny!" Benny's voice, maddeningly cheerful. "Jonny, that you?"
     "Benedek, what the hell do you want now?"
     "Oh, great, it is you. Hey, you all right?"
     "No, I am not all right. I'm behind on my work and you're wasting my time again. Goodbye!"
     "Don't hang up!"
     There was something desperate enough in Benny's shout to cause Jonathan to pause. "Jon-boy, you still there? Don't hang up, talk to me!"
     "Make it short and simple," Jonathan warned darkly.
     "Short and simple, no problem. Listen up, this is real important, now. I'm on my way over. Don't go anywhere. Don't leave your office. Stay right where you are. Wait for me to get there."
     "Benedek, what are you babbling about?"
     "I'll explain everything to you when I get there. Just promise you'll stay put, okay?"
     The headache flared again; Jonathan found himself rubbing at it, and missing most of what Benny was saying. "Okay, okay," he murmured tiredly.
     "You promise?"
     "I said okay," he snapped.
     "Great. I'm over at Liberal Arts, so I'll only be a few minutes. Wait for me." And the line went dead.
     It occurred to Jonathan only after he'd hung up the phone that he'd just agreed to another interruption of his hopelessly backlogged schedule. "Damn you, Benedek, you're not going to do it to me again," he growled. Making an instant decision, he gathered up every folder and piece of paper in sight, stuck a pencil behind his ear and one between his teeth, and made for the door. The campus library struck him as a suitable haven, and if Benedek wanted to find him so badly, he could bloody well waste some of his own time tracking him down.
     As soon as he closed his office door, the hallway lights flickered. Staring quizzically at the overhead fixtures, he then became aware of a low rumbling noise that was rapidly gaining in volume.
     Earthquake? The idea struck him as absurd. An explosion somewhere on campus? A much more likely prospect, except for the fact that the shaking was becoming progressively worse. The wall near him split with a resounding crack, causing him to jump back with a yelp of surprise. Something crashed to the floor in a nearby office, and overhead, a lighting fixture tore loose from one end, missing him by inches as it swung down to dangle like a puppet on a jerking string.
     He pressed to the wall, stunned, suddenly realizing he wasn't sure he wanted to know what was causing this kind of damage. The roaring sound was fast becoming unbearable, but he still heard the wild shriek over it, a cry of sheer terror that came from the office of—
     "Dr. Moorhouse!" Still clutching his grade reports, Jonathan sprinted down the hall, tearing open the door to his department head's office.
     The folder hit the floor, contents scattering in the sudden violent gust of wind that was now sweeping through the hallway. They were, in the split second since Jonathan opened the door, completely forgotten. He stood, frozen, staring agape at a vision straight from his darkest nightmares.
     It was black and oily, the size of a powerful panther, crouched on Juliana Moorhouse's desk. At Jonathan's entrance, it had looked up, and thick lips curled back from razor-sharp teeth in a blood-curdling snarl that seemed to shake the room. Something flapped at the creature's side; large, leathery wings that flared in ominous warning.
     "Oh, my god," Jonathan gasped without voice. "Dr. Moorhouse?"
     Even as the creature pushed into a stance that would bring it within a hair's breadth of springing at him, Jonathan focused on the beast's claws. At least six inches long, three inches in diameter, and covered with dripping blood. Jonathan choked on his own gasp.
     Something grabbed him from behind by the shoulders, shoving him out of the doorway. He stumbled against the wall, dazed, barely registering a colorful blur that reached in to slam the door to Dr. Moorhouse's office. A split second later, something very heavy and very angry crashed into the door from the other side, cracking the wood right down the middle. The blur, which had since resolved itself into Edgar Benedek, now snagged Jonathan's arm in a surprisingly powerful grip and propelled him down the cross corridor.
     "Dr. Moorhouse!" Jonathan protested halfway down the stairway. "Wait! She's— "
     "Beyond our help, pal," Benedek told him grimly, resisting MacKensie's attempt to break free of his grip. "And, believe me, that makes her the least of our worries. No time to explain, we gotta make tracks. Go, go!"
     They were out on the campus quadrangle before Jonathan could gather enough of his shattered wits to protest again. "What was that thing?" he said numbly. "What...oh, my god."
     Benny, following his gaze, allowed him only a second to react before dragging him at a fast trot across campus again. "Babylonian winged demons. They're all over the place now," he told Jonathan as the man craned his neck to see carbon copies of the creature in Dr. Moorhouse's office perched by the dozens on every building in sight. Others were flying around in a sky that had become an angry blood-red color; some were dive-bombing in dogged pursuit of students and teachers unlucky enough not to have found cover. Benny yanked on Jonathan's arm in a deliberate attempt to distract him away from watching one of the monsters complete a successful stalk, and kept him going at a half-run. "Where are we going?" Jonathan finally managed to get out. "Benedek, what the hell is happening?"
     "I told you, no time to explain. We've got to get back to my hotel. We'll be safe as long as you have that amulet I gave you."
     "Amulet." Jonathan came to a full stop, and this time Benedek was unable to budge him. "I don't have it."
     "What?" For the first time, Benedek lost his composure. "You promised you'd keep that thing with you!"
     "I left it on my desk, I think," Jonathan stammered.
     "Damn!" Benedek looked back at the Sciences building, running an agitated hand through his hair, fighting panic. "Why didn't you say something?"
     "You didn't ask!" he flared back. "How am I supposed to know something is important unless you tell me first?"
     Benedek sighed, shaking his head. "Damn. We gotta try and get it. It's our only...."
     His sentence ended in a shout; out of the sky that boiled with crimson clouds came a brilliant bolt of green lightning. It struck the building they had just left dead center, and the resulting explosion threw them to the grassy ground.
     Jonathan tried to get up and failed. Shock after shock had taken its toll; he had no more strength left to fight, not even enough to push himself off the ground. Closing his eyes and drifting off into oblivion with his face crushed into the grass seemed to be a very feasible option at this moment. He groaned his protest when Benny hauled him up by hooking his arms under his shoulders. "Come on, Jon-boy, we've got miles to go before we sleep."
     He began to get his feet under him, but stopped upon seeing the wild conflagration that had only moments before been the Sciences building. Benny allowed him a moment before planting a knee in the small of his back to remind him that his arms were beginning to give out.
     He was dimly aware that Benny had thrown him into the passenger seat of the first car they found; the owner had apparently fled in the first stages of the demonic invasion, leaving the motor running. Benny hit the gas, peeling out; what Jonathan first took to be the squeal of tires turned out to be the angry bellow of one of the flying monsters, which crashed to earth in the same spot the car had been only a moment before. With a glance into the rear-view mirror, Benny started to laugh, but it died quickly, his expression settling into a grim, hard line. It was clear why. The streets of Washington, D.C. had become someone's twisted vision of hell, and Jonathan finally had to look away, covering his eyes and being perversely thankful that Benny was doing the driving. The creatures clearly numbered in the hundreds, perhaps the thousands, and the air was filled with the shrill sounds of their feeding frenzy.
     Benny looked over at him only once during their wild career through the streets. "Hey," he said quietly. "You going to be all right, pal?"
     He managed a moan through the fingers covering his face. "I'm going to be sick," he mumbled into the palms of his hands.
     "Good. Healthy sign. We'll be all right, I promise you. Just hang in there. Ol' Benny's gonna take care of things."
     It sounded to him as though Benny was talking more to assure himself than Jonathan, and it made him feel even worse.
     Thanks to Benny's New York City-honed driving skills, they made it to the hotel with only a few close calls with kamikaze demons. Still reeling from shock and feeling violently ill, Jonathan put up no protest when Benedek manhandled him out of the car he'd driven up onto the sidewalk, propelling him into the building, up the elevators to his hotel room.
     Once the door had been barricaded to Benny's satisfaction, he turned, hands raised as though ready to conduct his first symphony. "Okay, think, Benedek. Where did you put it?" Snapping his fingers, he dived for his open suitcase, completely ignoring Jonathan as he started flinging the contents into the air.
     "What are you looking for?" Jonathan demanded, reflexively picking up papers as Benny scattered them to the ground.
     "My little black address book — yay big, yay wide, leather cover...ah, wait, wait. Yeah. Got it." He pulled a small book from the corner of his suitcase, flipping its pages with one finger. "Fassbinder, Fassbinder...."
     "Benedek, so help me, if you're looking up a hot date...."
     "You got that right, pal. She's one of the hottest around. Here we go." He gave the open book a resounding kiss. "C'mon, Peggy, you gotta come through for us."
     "Benedek!"
     "Keep it down, willya? I gotta concentrate." Ignoring Jonathan's purpling face, Benny paused, stared intently at the open page, wet his lips, then intoned a series of nonsensical syllables.
     "Bened— "
     The room exploded. With a shout, Jonathan dropped to the floor, arms cradling his head, sure that one of the flying demons had found them. Moments passed; the silence was broken at last by Benny's familiar cackle. Jonathan ventured a glance up and choked.
     In the midst of a clearing haze stood the most perfectly gorgeous and wildly exotic woman he had ever seen in his life. Her thick black hair was intricately plaited and bound with gold & silver ribbons; a diadem of tiny flowers fashioned from beaten gold crowned her forehead. A golden band was around her waist, from which streams of blue lapis beads were hung; this and the crown proved to be the only things she wore. Her entire body glistened as though carefully oiled, and an intricate snake design was painted across her entire upper torso.
     As Jonathan continued to stare agape, he became aware of the non-surprise in Benny's voice as the man said, "Edgar Benedek's little black book of all-purpose spells and invocations does it again. Long time no see, eh, Peg?"
     The woman, who, in the few seconds since her appearance had been regarding Jonathan without interest, now turned her head toward Benny. Her benign expression twisted into mild disgust. "Benedek. You monumental screw-up, what have you done now?"

     "Easy, easy, sweetheart," Benny soothed, unperturbed. "This is all just a big misunderstanding, I swear."
     Jonathan had staggered to his feet by now and was making weak choking sounds as he struggled to speak. The woman glanced at him and blinked. To Benny she said, "Who's your apoplectic friend?"
     "You'll have to forgive him, he gets like this sometimes. Jon-boy, come on, snap out of it. There's nothing to get excited about." He paused, glanced at the woman, and rephrased. "There's nothing to get upset about. Look, I'll introduce you, we'll all be friends, okay? This is the 3,767th incarnation of the ancient Babylonian fertility goddess Urkat; otherwise known on her days off as Peggy Fassbinder, hot-shot stewardess from Columbus, Ohio. Peg, this is Jonathan MacKensie. Say hello, Jonny." With an apologetic smile to Urkat, he slapped Jonathan's face in a vain attempt to elicit signs of intelligence. "He's had a rough day. You're probably not doing his hormones any favors, either. Maybe if you, uh...you know."
     Urkat nodded. "Get some clothes on. Right." With a sigh, she brought her hands together in a graceful arc; when she brought them back to her side, white cloth billowed out, settling itself into a sheath that covered her from neck to knee. The effect was stunning, so much so that Jonathan flinched with a gasp, staggering back to grope for a chair to sink into. Benny held his arm tightly, making sure that he settled without embarrassing incident. "Sorry, pal. I keep forgetting little things like this can be a shock to the old system, eh?"
     Jonathan gestured helplessly. "Wha— what...what the hell is happening around here? I've cracked up, haven't I? Hallucinations — that's it, isn't it? I've been working too hard, I haven't been getting enough sleep. I need a rest."
     Urkat was shifting restlessly. "Benedek...."
     "Not now. Can't you see the poor guy is hyperventilating? Take it easy, Jack, I'll get you some water."
     Urkat stopped him before he could move a step, shoving a full glass into his hand. "Here's his damned water. Let him drink, and let's you and me talk — okay?"
     She spoke with an unmistakable warning in her voice; Benedek nodded submissively. "Fine. We'll talk, we'll talk," he said as he guided the glass to Jonathan's mouth. "What do you want to talk about?"
     "Cut the act. This mess is all your fault, isn't it?"
     He smiled weakly at her. "Oh. You know. Good. We don't have to waste time on long explanations."
     "Benedek, did I or did I not....?"
     "You did, you did," Benny agreed, genuinely abject. "What can I say? I was snockered, I wasn't thinking straight. Come on, Peg, no recriminations, okay? We got real trouble here."
     She sighed, moved across the room to make herself comfortable on the sofa, her ankles crossed on the coffee table. "Let's get one thing straight right now," she told him levelly. "I can't pull this one out of the fire for you."
     Benny's face fell; he forgot to hold the glass steady, and water splashed down Jonathan's shirtfront. "Sorry, pal. Aw, c'mon, Peg, tell us anything but that. I was counting on you."
     "I won't bother you with the lurid details of what we went through to restrain Arkatbat and his hoary horde in the first place. Suffice to say that it was a long, hard and extremely unpleasant task, and it took more than a few of us to pull it off. Even if I could pull the old gang together, which would take a lot longer than you've got, the fact remains that you're the one who screwed up the invocation, Benedek."
     He made a horizontal zipping motion with his cupped hand. "Extra! Read all about it! Edgar Benedek admits That He's Been a Bad Boy!" Extending both hands pleadingly towards Urkat, he said, "If I promise to let you spank me later, will you help us, please?"
     Jonathan pulled on Benedek's jacket sleeve. "What is she talking about?" he demanded weakly. "Benedek, what is she talking about?"
     Urkat was leaning her head against a supporting finger, giving Benedek an arch look. "Go on," she urged him, an outright dare. "Tell him. Tell me. Let's hear your side of the story."
     He shrugged, outwardly casual, but with enough exaggeration to make it obvious that he was very uncomfortable. "Not much to tell. I finally cornered Professor Leonard Chang at the "Metaphysics & The Media" seminar and talked him giving me an interview. You know Len, don't you, Peg?"
     She gave him scornful look. "I was the one who gave you his name in the first place — remember?"
     "Leonard Chang?" Jonathan registered recognition. "Professor of Archeology at the University of Hong Kong?"
     "Hey, you know him, too? Small universe, ain't it?"
     "I know of him. He's the world's foremost authority on Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian cultures. Why on earth were you doing an interview with him?"
     "Because he's also the world's foremost authority on ancient mythology and demonology. Peggy here put me on to him."
     He gave her a startled look, suddenly remembering who and what she was supposed to be. "And would you mind telling me how you happen to have an invocation for an ancient Babylonian fertility goddess written in your address book?"
     His voice rose to a shrill pitch; Benny recognized the beginnings of a promising anxiety attack, and modulated his voice accordingly. "Easy, easy, Jack. It's all very simple, really. I've been researching for a couple of months, and I met someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew Peggy, and I wangled an introduction at a party in Aspen."
     Jonathan stared incredulously at Benny and Urkat in turn. "And you gave him your invocation, just like that?"
     Benny gestured, palm up. "And I still can't convince her to give me her phone number. Can you beat that?"
     "It's no big deal," Urkat assured Jonathan, managing to ignore Benedek. "He sold me on the idea of his book, and promised he'd keep my real name out of it."
     "But you gave him your invocation," Jonathan repeated, still having difficulty with that concept. "You gave Edgar Benedek your invocation. Isn't that rather like asking a cat to guard the canary?"
     "Hardly," she smiled. "He wouldn't dare use it except in case of dire emergency."
     "You know it," Benedek agreed whole-heartedly. "Do you realize what a ticked-off fertility goddess could do to my social life?"
     The words 'dire emergency' had touched off another flash of panic. "Wait a minute. Are we safe here? I mean, look what happened to the Sciences building and, and...Dr. Moorhouse....."
     He lost color again, and Benny quickly pushed the half-full glass of water back into his hand. Urkat reached over, covering Jonathan's free hand with hers reassuringly. The contact was mildly electric; he could feel physical warmth, a kind of blanket of calm come over him at her touch. "Ah," she said after a moment, and he realized she had gleaned something from him as a result of their contact. "You read the inscription on the back of the amulet. Out loud?"
     He struggled to think. "Yes. Yes, I think so."
     She nodded, relieved. "That should give you a fair measure of protection, and now that I'm here, I can run a little interference for both of you. Her eyes flicked up to Benny. "You?"
     With narrowed eyes, he perused the ceiling, muttering inaudibly under his breath. "I remember looking at the inscription in Chang's hotel room after he gave the amulet to me." He shrugged. "No use — everything about that night is a blur. Chang keeps some pretty heavy rice sake in his traveling case."
     "You were drinking sake?" Urkat said in an ominous voice.
     "I told you, we were blasted. That's what started this whole mess. He pulled out a book to show me something, and — what can I say? He had the wrong book and I read the wrong page."
     Urkat groaned, rubbing her forehead tiredly. "Terrific. Just marvelous. You read Arkatbat's invocation and bungled it because you can't hold your liquor. You've got more than your social life to worry about now, pal. Chang gave you the amulet, then? I don't understand why he thought that would take care of the situation."
     "Well, he wasn't sure. He wasn't sober, for Pete's sake. Neither of us knew where our feet were, much less what was going on. He had a pretty good idea I'd managed to make a major faux pas, so he dug out the amulet, scratched that stuff on the back, and hoped for the best."
     "But why did you insist on giving me the amulet?" Jonathan demanded.
     Urkat's expression changed, becoming accusing. "Oh, Benedek," she said, with an exasperated sigh. "You didn't. You didn't use his name in the invocation?"
     He gave her a weak smile, and that was answer enough.
     Jonathan watched Urkat's disgusted reaction with growing dismay. "Wait a minute," he stammered. "What does that mean? To me, that is?"
     She wasn't listening to him, tapping sharpened nails on the polished wood of the sofa arm. "We can be thankful for one thing," she decided after long moment of thought. "If you had managed to complete the invocation correctly, we wouldn't be sitting here having this discussion. Arkatbat isn't completely freed, so we might actually be in a more favorable position to send him back."
     Benny clapped his hands together. "That's the stuff I wanted to hear. Okay, coach, what's the game plan?"
     "I said 'might'. This is going to get tricky."
     "Tricky, eh? No problem, we're ready to rise and fall at the wave of your hand."
     "Can it, Benedek," she muttered, clearly unwilling to put up with his fatuousness when she was in the middle of deep thought. "Since Arkatbat is literally caught between two dimensions, that should theoretically give us the advantage. There is an incantation that will banish him back to the dimension in which we had originally imprisoned him."
     Benny blinked. "As simple as that?"
     "No, not as simple as that. For one thing, since you used your friend's name in the original bungled invocation, he should, ideally, be the one to send Arkatbat back."
     Benny shrugged, chucking a thumb in Jonathan's direction. "No sweat. I realize you're not seeing him on one of his better days, but trust me — he actually can put more than two words together without tripping over his tongue."
     "Will you let me finish, please? The incantation is very simple and 99% guaranteed to work. The problem is that Jonathan is going to have to incant in Arkatbat's presence."
     Benny's eyes went wide as he emitted a long, low whistle. "Rad," he murmured, genuinely impressed. "I wonder if I remembered to put film in my camera."
     Jonathan roused himself out of his shock-induced haze long enough to deliver a black glare in the man's direction. "Benedek, so help me — "
     "This is great stuff, really great!" the man continued to enthuse, ignoring the threat in Jonathan's voice. "I should have been taking notes. Where's my tape recorder? This is world-class, the major leagues, Jack." He was rummaging through the contents of his suitcase as he spoke, throwing out pieces of clothing as he went.
     Jonathan leaned forward towards Urkat, clasping his hands together tightly to keep them from betraying the trembling that shook his entire body. "You said 99% certain," he ventured carefully. "What about the 1% uncertainty?"
     She gave him an apologetic shrug. "The element of sheer unpredictability. Relax. The incantation is as foolproof as it needs to be. I realize that Arkatbat wields power that seems inconceivable to you as a mortal, but with that power comes limits."
     "Limits? What kind of limits?"
     "The amulet, for example. It was fashioned from meteoric iron, which is anathema to a demon like Arkatbat. The inscription contained certain powerful words that will keep him from harming you through direct force."
     "You mean that mere words can stop something like Arkatbat in his tracks?"
     "Certain mere words," she demurred. "Even demons have to abide by the rules."
     Her warm smile actually helped him feel a little better. They were interrupted by Benny, who was fumbling with a tape, checking the lengths on either reel by holding it up to the light. "Great stuff," he was repeating with a cackle of satisfaction, snapping the cassette into the machine in his other hand. "This book is practically writing itself. I hear that Pulitzer Prize calling to me, pal. It's saying— "
     He had set the machine down on the table, hitting the record button with a dramatic flourish. The result was an explosion from the recorder that Benny barely managed to duck. Green fire spewed out in all directions and Jonathan jumped up with a shout, picking up the small table to toss it as far away as he could. The recorder bounced against the wall, the sparks flying up to catch on the drapes. "Whoa!" Benny cried, still wincing from momentary light blindness. "Fireman, save my child! Quick, grab a blanket, we're going to be smoke signals in a couple of minutes!"
     "No!" Urkat grabbed Jonathan's arm, restraining him from rushing forward. "Benny, don't move!"
     He peered at her through the spots in his vision. "Huh? What — ?"
     What he saw was all the color rush from Jonathan's face, and he followed the man's stricken gaze to the source. His mouth formed a silent 'o'.
     Jonathan forced himself to breathe. "Arkatbat?" he said shakily in a voice only for Urkat's ears.
     She nodded briefly. "Arkatbat."

     The green fire had not burned the draperies; it had instead given birth to a hulking black shape that was still growing even as they looked on in horrified fascination. It metamorphosed into a man-shaped creature, black, glistening, with powerful arms ending in gnarled, clawed hands; a thick, powerful torso rippled with muscles, and its face was a hideous cross between a demonic cat and an English bulldog, with slitted eyes from which blood-red light eerily glowed.
     As they watched, the dreadful apparition slowly began to raise its arm to point at them.
     Benny broke the stunned tableau, jumping in front of Urkat and Jonathan with his hands held up, forming a 'T' shape. "Hold it, big guy. You got anything to say to us, you talk to our lawyer first." He reached back, grabbing Urkat's arm to prod her forward, pausing to whisper aside, "He can't zap you, can he?"
     "Not without one hell of a fight, he can't," she whispered back.
     "Great." He finished pushing her forward, taking cover behind her. "Talk."
     Ten full seconds of silence followed, during which Urkat, arms folded, met the demon's malevolent gaze unwaveringly. Benny finally ventured a peek. "So why isn't he talking?"
     Urkat made an urgent shushing motion. "Don't interrupt," she hissed.
     "Interrupt? Interrupt what?"
     "Shh! You can't hear him because he's still dimensionally trapped, okay? Now be quiet, please?"
     Benny looked back at Jonathan, shrugging expansively. After a few more moments, Urkat finally blinked, turning back to them with a sigh.
     "Well?" Benny urged. "What's the deal?"
     "He wants you to recite the invocation correctly," Urkat told Jonathan, low-voiced. "He wants you to free him completely."
     Benny snorted. "Fat chance. Look, why don't we just have Jonny here do that spell you were talking about, the one to send Arkatbat back to comfy limbo-land where he belongs?" He ignored Urkat's panicked gesture, continuing, "I mean, come on, what's the big deal? What's he going to do, slap our wrists?"
     "Benedek!" Urkat's voice was controlled fury, but the warning was too late. The towering apparition had raised its clawed hand; something like green lightning flashed from its gnarled fingers, striking Benedek full in the chest. The man staggered back, a look of surprise on his face; he gave Jonathan and Urkat a glance in turn, blinked, and collapsed.
     Jonathan managed to leap forward in time to keep Benedek from landing on his face, catching his arm and lending him just enough support to make it into a sitting position against the wall. With relief he noted that Benedek was still conscious, if a little dazed; with apprehension, he noted the grim look on Urkat's face as she joined them by kneeling on the floor by Benny's side. "Benedek!" Jonathan gasped. "Benedek, are you okay?"
     Benny was nodding, a laugh starting in his throat; a chuckle that died as he looked up in the direction of the demonic visitation. "Oops. Don't think so, Jack," he said quietly. "Looks like Arkatbat just got himself a trump card."
     Urkat was livid. "And it's your own damned fault, you idiot. If you hadn't opened your big mouth...."
     Jonathan, following Benny's intense gaze, saw the purplish object that Arkatbat was now holding in its hand. It took him a moment to identify it, and when he did, horror banished confusion. "My God," he choked. "That's...that's...."
     "Mine," Benny said, managing to look only mildly impressed.
     "No," Jonathan decided after a moment, laughing nervously. "It's a trick, it has to be. He can't really have your heart, for pity's sake. That's just not possible!"
     "This is no time to go stupid on me, Jack." Benny let go his ingenuous facade for a moment; his voice held the hard edge of verging panic. "This guy doesn't need mirrors and trapdoors. What he's got in his grubby little hand is real, all right. You got a problem with that, you can check it out yourself. There's nothing in the old chest cavity, pal. No pulse. No circulation. Nothing." A smile quirked back on his face. "You might say he's got my heart in his hands."
     "But that's not fair!" Jonathan protested. He looked at Urkat pleadingly. "You said there were rules even Babylonian demons had to abide by."
     "Rules, sure," Benny interjected. "He can't make you do something against your will, but there's no rule against holding a gun to your head."
     Urkat nodded at Jonathan's questioning look. "He's right. Sorry."
     "But...." He shook his head numbly, defeated. "Why? Why take his heart, for pity's sake? What's the point?"
     "It's not that hard to figure out, is it?" Urkat told him pointedly. "If you try to send Arkatbat back now, he'll take Benny's heart with him when he goes. If you try to stall, he'll start closing his hand."
     Full realization dawned, and with it the horror of helplessness. "That doesn't leave me very many alternatives, does it?" he said weakly.
     "Oh, man, you are cooking tonight," Benny told him. "You figure that one out all by yourself or did you use crib notes?"
     "Put a sock in it, Benedek," Jonathan snapped. For a moment, he felt obliged to apologize for his flash of temper; after all, Benedek was starting to show the effects of his loss and perhaps couldn't be held responsible for the asinine things he was saying. His skin had gone a dull gray color, bringing harsh shadows to his drawn face; Jonathan could tell that the wall was the only thing holding Benny upright, and even his speech was strained and breathless in places. But that only served to remind him that it was perhaps best to forgo social amenities such as apologies in favor of the more immediate problem at hand. To Urkat he extended a pleading hand. "You've got to help me figure this one out. How can I even hope to win against a...a supernatural being like that? One that can casually snatch hearts, for pity's sake?"
     "I won't lie to you," she told him. "I'm not entirely sure you can win." She had been dividing her nervous attention between them and the motionless, silent apparition and Jonathan found himself suspecting that she was still carrying on a running dialog with Arkatbat. Shushing him before he could protest, she continued, "If there's a way, I promise you, I'll find it. But...." She paused, chewing her lip while delivering another darting look at Arkatbat. "I may not have time to explain everything to you once I figure out the game plan. I'll need you to trust me. Will you?"
     He was too shaken to come to an instant decision, especially not in the face of his newly awakened doubts. Seeing Jonathan's distress, Benny jumped in. "Peggy's a good egg. I'd go for it."
     "All right," Jonathan managed to stammer. "I suppose so."
     "No maybes," she told him. "Yes or no. Will you trust me?"
     "Yes," he forced himself to nod. "Yes, I will."
     "Okay," she sighed in relief. "What I have to do here is stall for time, give myself a little space to think about this. I'll talk to Arkatbat, maybe negotiate a little. You two stay here, keep a low profile, and most important — Benny — keep your mouths shut." With a raised finger for added emphasis, she rose to her feet, turning to approach the waiting demon with hands held out in some form of ritualistic greeting.
     "Tell the big guy to go easy on what he's holding there," Benny called after her. "I may need it back someday."
     Jonathan's frown deepened as he watched the two begin their silent commune. "Do you really trust her?" he wanted to know in a low whisper.
     Benny's manner and voice took on characteristics Jonathan knew well; he had taken on his 'talk show expert' persona, complete with dramatic pauses for effect. "That's hard to say. On the one hand, she's one of the crew that put Arkatbat away in the first place. But on the other hand, these old Babylonian deities are hard to pigeon-hole. They don't usually represent all good or all evil, so there's a lot of shades of gray involved. Now, you take your minor deity, like Urkat? Good or evil is a matter of choice for her, not destiny."
     "Nail it down, Benedek. Do you trust her or not?"
     "I trust her," he insisted. "I'm just saying that it's as possible for her to decide to throw her lot in with the big bad wolf as with us."
     "Then how do we know she isn't over there right now cutting her own deal?"
     Benny smiled like an indulgent father dealing with a confused child. "Hey, chill out, Jack. Don't be so heartless." And he cackled at his own joke.
     For Jonathan, however, it was the straw that broke his frayed patience. "Better he should have taken your brain," he snarled. "You haven't needed that in years."
     "Whoa! Touchι, Jack!" Benny crowed. "You're getting better at this, you know?"
     "Do you mind if I ask you a question?" Jonathan said in a hard-edged voice that meant he was going to ask whether Benedek minded or not.
     "Sure thing, Jack. I'll see about fitting it into my busy schedule."
     "Do you really enjoy acting like a jerk?"
     Benny exaggerated a wince. "Ow. That's a tough one," he complained good-naturedly. "Can I have my agent get back to you?"
     The attempt at soothing humor was lost on Jonathan, who was only just warming to the subject. "And why did you feel this crying need to use my name in your drunken revels?"
     "Hey, ease up, willya? Prof. Chang just happened to be waxing philosophical on ancient Babylonian good-luck spells, and I remembered you complaining about the budget cuts and your job crunch, and figured you could maybe use all the luck someone, even me, could throw your way. and what's the matter with you now? You look like I just ran over your grandmother."
     Jonathan shook his head slightly to remove the surprised look. "It's just...I mean, when I was talking about all those problems, I didn't realize you were actually listening."
     Benny shrugged. "What can I say? I surprise myself sometimes." He was resting his head against the wall, staring up at the ceiling as he did his best to conserve his energy; his ashen face now took on a reflective cast. Suddenly he gave Jonathan a sharp look. "You wanna know why I act like a jerk? It's part of the whole pitch, pal. Know what I mean? I give the people what they want, I give them what sells. You know what they give me in return? They keep my books on the New York Times bestseller list. They get my shots on Carson and Letterman a thirty share in Poughkeepsie. If that makes me a jerk, then that suits me just fine. Hell, I'm having the time of my life! Face it, Jack — you're three times smarter than me, but you're only so much tapioca pudding. You can't dazzle them with what you know — you gotta give them a show."
     "I'll make sure they inscribe that on your tombstone," Jonathan told him, stubbornly unimpressed.
     Benny sighed, shaking his head with a rueful smile. "You do that, pal," he said, resettling his head back against the wall. "Now — it's your turn to visit the confessional, my son. Why do you put up with a jerk?"
     Jonathan ducked his head, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to start calling names."
     "No sale, Jack. I know you, you always call them like you see them. Did you know that your earlobes turn pink when you lie?" He chuckled as Jonathan self-consciously pulled at his ears, giving Benedek a guilty sideways glance. "Come on, I'm not going to bite your head off, tell me. I want to know. Why do you put up with me?"
     Jonathan considered trying to duck the question, but something in Benny's steady look encouraged him to take a stab at an answer. after a long moment of thought, he shrugged. "I'm not really sure. You're arrogant, bombastic, irritating, loud, vulgar and incredibly abrasive, and yet...." again he shook his head. "And yet I envy you. I really do."
     "Envy?" Benny's smile grew as he savored the concept. "I guess I can deal with that. It's the clothes, right? Tell you what we're going to do. Once we get out of this with our skins, we're going to make an appointment for you at Crazy Moe's Sartorial Emporium, get your measurements on file, fix up your wardrobe — I promise you, in less than two weeks, you won't recognize yourself."
     "It's not the wardrobe, Benedek," Jonathan told him pointedly. "Trust me, it is definitely not the wardrobe."
     "Well, what is it, then? The money, the world travel, the women, what?"
     "The chutzpah," Jonathan said quietly.
     Benny paused just long enough to assure himself that Jonathan was serious before emitting a short, harsh laugh. "Nice try, but I'm not laughing. That was a joke, wasn't it, ha ha?"
     "I was serious," Jonathan insisted, irked by Benny's mocking tone.
     Benny gave him a disparaging look. "What do you think chutzpah is, anyway? The courage to talk to people you made a fool out of yourself in front of the night before? Pal, you envy me that, you got real trouble."
     Jonathan darted a nervous look over his shoulder, just a glance to reassure himself that the silent tableau formed by Urkat and Arkatbat remained undisturbed, before returning to his protest. "That wasn't what I meant."
     Benny planted a finger in Jonathan's shoulder. "I'll tell you something that you've got that I'd trade my chutzpah for any day of the week. Respect."
     Jonathan stared at him, nonplussed. "You're joking. Benedek, you're one of the most respected people I know!"
     "Pal, you're confusing respect with entertainment value. Take away the sunglasses, the snappy clothes, the stunning good looks, and the dazzling patter, and what's left? I've had four bestsellers in the past three years, but I couldn't even get busted at a literary convention. I'm all flash and powder, and I know it."
     "And what about Jordy? Benedek, your editor risked arrest and imprisonment to help me dig up your coffin back when you faked your own death. I think that indicates he holds you in some esteem, don't you think?"
     "Which will last only as long as I have something he wants, and not a minute longer. I'm talking about the respect of one's peers, Jack. I've got friends, sure. Good friends, some of the best. But do I have their respect? Not on your life."
     "That's not true," Jonathan stubbornly insisted.
     "Oh, spare me," Benny grumbled, shaking his head. "I didn't say I was complaining, did I? I'll survive."
     "No, I'm serious. I don't believe it's true. At least, not entirely. I respect you. I really do."
     After a very long silence, Jonathan finally asked nervously. "What are you staring at me like that for?"
     "I'm waiting for your earlobes to turn pink."
     "Oh, for pity's sake, why is that so hard for you to believe?"
     "You'd better figure that one out for yourself, Einstein; this has been a real interesting heart-to-heartless talk here, but it's time to close the pages on this latest edition of 'True Confessions.'"
     He nodded as he spoke; Urkat had returned, and the grim expression on her face did not bode well. She went down into a crouch next to them to speak in confidential tones. "Surprise, surprise. He's being totally inflexible," she told them with a sigh. "So, Jonathan, you have a choice to make. Let me clarify it for you so there's no misunderstanding. I can give you the incantation to send Arkatbat back. It will banish him again, it will remove his malevolent influence from this time stream, it will return the world and the reality you know to normal."
     "What do you mean by normal?" Jonathan asked nervously.
     "I mean that the destruction he's wrought will have never happened. It's difficult to explain, but...basically, he got into your minds and pulled out a sort of template. He used that to create a kind of alternate reality that we're now all operating in. In other words, he has control, but not total control. If he's banished now, this reality will disintegrate, and the normal time line will continue as it did before Benny screwed things up."
     "Then...you mean that by banishing him, nothing will have happened to the Institute? Dr. Moorhouse will be...I mean, she...."
     "Everything will be as it was," she assured him. "Everything — except...." She directed a meaningful glance at Benny, who gave her a sickly smile in return.
     Jonathan paled. "Isn't there an alternative?"
     "Yes," she sighed. "But you won't like it."
     "Tell us anyway," Benny urged, ready to grasp any straw. "I'm not all that crazy about the first choice."
     "The only other option is to do as Arkatbat demands. Recite the invocation, free him completely."
     "And what would happen then?"
     "He'll have total control. He'll be free to wreak his peculiar brand of mayhem and destruction on your reality. He will be unstoppable. You've got a pretty good hint already of what will happen, and that's with one hand tied behind his back."
     He closed his eyes, in pain. "Oh, god," he groaned. "I can't let that happen. I have no choice. I can't set him free."
     He'd opened his eyes and found Benny regarding him steadily, his face unreadable. Before Jonathan could make an attempt to speak, Benedek held up a hand. "I hear what you're saying, Jack," he said quietly. "It's him or me and I lost the toss."
     Jonathan's voice broke. "Benedek, I...."
     "No, no." The wave of his hand ended with a comradely clap on Jonathan's shoulder. "I understand. You do what you gotta do."
     The quiet sincerity in Benedek's voice broke Jonathan's nerve; he turned to Urkat beseechingly. "I can't," he begged. "I can't do it, I just can't."
     "Steady, Jack." Benny's grip tightened on his shoulder. "Chutzpah, remember?" When his best smile failed to dispel the deep distress on his friend's face, his hand sought out Jonathan's, enveloping it in an iron grip. "Look, you called it, right? Face it, it's me or the rest of the world. You don't see me crying in my beer, do you? Hell, this is all my fault to begin with. I'm just...." He sighed, shaking his head. "I'm just sorry you won't be able to collect on that one I owe you. We'll call it even — okay?"
     Jonathan's head was bowed, unmoving. after a few long moments, Benny playfully rapped the side of his friend's head. "Heads up, Jonny. You're something else, you know that? What that something is, god only knows, but...hey, it was an experience knowing you. Now. Get out there and blow this guy out of the ballpark." He clapped Jonathan's arm soundly. "Be sure to give Moorhouse a big kiss for me," he finished with a conspiratorial wink.
     He finally succeeded in bringing a wan smile to Jonathan's face, which lasted only a few moments before wavering and fading away. Urkat reached out, putting her hand on his shoulder. The choking tightness in his throat eased at her touch, his churning stomach calmed a little. He gave her a grateful nod.
     "For what it's worth, I think you've made the right decision," she told him gently. "The only decision."
     He straightened, putting on a show of determination that was unfortunately undermined by the trembling that shook his body. "Yes. Well, I suppose I should...get this over with." There passed another moment of agonized hesitation before he allowed Urkat to help him to his feet. The muscles of his face were working, betraying an inner struggle to find something else to say. He failed with a long sigh of defeat. Head bowed, he turned to face the silent demon.
     "What now?" he murmured aside to Urkat.
     She rested her hand on the back of his neck, pressing her fingers lightly against the base of his skull. at the same moment, a strange thought filled his mind, a string of odd syllables reminiscent of the words Benny had used to invoke Urkat only a short time ago. "Do you have it?" she asked. When he nodded, she released him, backing up to stand next to Benedek. Bereft of her comforting presence, Jonathan glanced back imploringly, in time to see her casually rest a hand on Benny's shoulder. Benedek started violently, snapping his head up stare at her wide-eyed.
     "Benedek?" Jonathan managed in a quavering voice.
     The man blinked, giving Jonathan a quick, startled glance that he in turn switched rapidly between him and Urkat before settling back on Jonathan. "Yeah?" he said, curiously out of breath, as though he'd been distracted. "What?"
     Jonathan paused, realizing too late that he didn't have the slightest idea how to say goodbye. "Are you sure?" he said quietly.
     Benedek's mouth opened, but nothing came out; he had fastened another narrow-eyed stare on Urkat, who continued to ignore his odd distress, save for a sharp rap she gave his shoulder. The cuff seemed to snap him out of whatever confusion had taken hold of him. "Uh — yeah!" he said with incongruous cheerfulness. "Yeah. I'm sure." Again he stared at Urkat, as though looking for some kind of confirmation. Then, after a false start, he said, "Look, could you start the clock so we can finish this play? This instant slo-mo action is getting boring, know what I mean, Jack?"
     Jonathan turned back, missing the last, sharp look of sheer fury that Benedek directed at an unheeding Urkat.
     The sight of the demon's visage caused his stomach to churn; he had to swallow hard against the dizziness that swelled in his head. Forcing himself to calm, he closed his eyes, focusing on the strange syllables in his head. Slowly, carefully, he gave them voice.
     Nothing seemed to happen at first, but then a thin white mist began to swirl around the demon's form, moving faster and faster. The cloudy substance began to emit light, which suddenly flashed and faded, leaving the corner empty once more.
     Benny cracked open one eye, his eyebrows arching. He looked up, opening his mouth to hiss something at Urkat, but she stopped him with a no-nonsense rap against the side of his head. Mouthing a yelp of pain, he gave her a quick warning glare before saying, puzzled, "I don't get it. I'm still breathing. Hey, Jack, are you sure you got all that mumbo jumbo right?"
     The man, who had remained still since the demon had vanished from the room, stirred now, turning around. His face was twisted into a sneer of evil triumph; worse, his eyes were suffused with an eerie red glow.
     Benny started, his head smacking against the wall behind him. "Whoa! When's the last time you saw an ophthalmologist, Jack?" Blank astonishment gave way in an instant to choking fury. "You knew that was going to happen!" he cried, grabbing Urkat's arm, digging whitened fingers into her wrist. "You sold us out!"
     Jonathan chuckled, a deep rumbling laugh that did not belong to him. When he spoke, it was in a voice that was a grotesque parody of his normal cheerful tone. "That's right, she sold you out. Why, Mr. Benedek — you seem so surprised. And you, a man of such worldly sensibilities."
     "He trusted you, dammit!" Benny growled, fixing Urkat with a blazing glared. "He trusted you."
     "He trusted you." With a grimace of utter contempt, she ripped her arm from his grasp. "If you had any brains at all, you would have figured out a long time ago that there was no way to win. And don't get sanctimonious with me, you scum. I haven't forgotten whose stupid fault this was in the first place."
     "I should have listened to him," Benny muttered weakly, still glaring at her defiantly. "You did cut a deal."
     She sniffed disdainfully. "So? What's wrong with picking the winning side? If you want to keep breathing, pal, you'd better think about cutting your own deal."
     The evil laugh that rang out caused Benny to wince; he'd never considered that such a foul sound could have been made by Jonathan MacKensie's vocal cords. "She will make a truly fine consort, fast by my side as I begin my reign as the true master of this pathetic world of yours."
     Benny's attention was focused on the object that Jonathan/Arkatbat was holding out to him. It was Benny's heart, still pulsing with life. "I shall enjoy watching you die, slowly, in agony," the demon told him, his eyes flashing red.
     Benny mustered up a shadow of his best manipulative smile. "Wait, wait! We can discuss this like civilized hu— like civilized beings, can't we? I mean, okay, so maybe I was a little out of line with some of my cracks. I'm a reasonable kind of guy; I go with the flow, ride with the tide, hey — " He laughed nervously, spreading his hands. "We can work this out, right?"
     The red eyes studied him with mild interest. "You? Puny thing?" he scoffed.
     "Hey, come on!" He was hard pressed to keep desperation out of his voice. "You gotta look at the big picture, pal. Face it, you've been out of circulation for nearly 5,000 years. I mean, murder and mayhem, sure, that's good for a few laughs, but you're in the space age now. There's more out there than just a few farmers and peasants to play Master-Blaster with, like in the good old days of yore."
     Jonathan/Arkatbat's eyes flickered slightly, which Benny decided to take as an encouraging sign. He warmed to the subject, plunging right into the hard-sell. "I can be your advisor. No, seriously, think about this. Sure, you're in the cat-bird seat now; sure, you can blast everything to dust in a blink of an eye, but then where would you get your yocks for the rest of eternity? Think about it! Now, if you take my advice, you'll start out with a low profile, you know — a few major natural disasters, a few senseless wars, that sort of thing. Work from the inside out, corrupt things, make them fall apart at the seams. You work things right, and all you'll have to do with sit back with your popcorn and enjoy the show."
     "And for this you have the unmitigated gall to suggest I need your help?"
     "I'm your man," Benny insisted sincerely. "I've had the inside track on the ugly underbelly of human vice for years. Picture this, big guy — together we could make World War II look like a 'Dynasty' rerun."
     "World War Two?" The demon looked both puzzled and intrigued.
     "You see? You missed some great stuff while you've been away. I can fill you in on all of the highlights, no problem. Whaddya say, huh? You can't do better than me, that's my solemn guarantee. All services gratis; it'll be a real pleasure doing business with you."
     There was a long silence during which Jonathan/Arkatbat regarded Benny through half-closed eyes. Then, suddenly, he laughed heartily. "You amuse me," he chuckled. "Yes. You have much promise. Perhaps I will enjoy keeping you."
     "Terrific," Benny said, relieved. "We'll make a great team. I can see it now: Arkatbat the Unholy and Edgar Benedek...."
     "His trained wonder dog," Urkat muttered derisively. "You're pathetic, Benedek."
     "That's high praise coming from you, sweetheart," he snapped back.
     Their exchange produced another peal of thundering laughter from Jonathan/Arkatbat. Encouraged by his apparent good spirits, Benny decided to take the plunge. "I guess that means I can get my heart back now, eh? I mean, after all, I'm not exactly going to be up to snuff without it, right?"
     The smile faded; the expression on Jonathan's face became hard and unreadable. For a moment, Benny forgot how to breathe, panicking that he might have played his hand too soon. The demon was now studying the object in his hand with clinical detachment. Then, with an abrupt flourish, he flipped his hand over, pointing a finger straight at Benedek.
     Benny flinched, half expecting his heart to hit the ground to be deliberately trod upon by the malevolent presence possessing his friend. Instead, he felt himself slammed backwards against the wall by the same kind of green lightning that had stolen his heart in the first place. He blinked, waiting; a moment later he was rewarded by the soft swish of blood rushing through the veins near his ears. Relief broke wide over his features; he pushed himself up to his feet as soon as he had regained enough strength to move, saying, "Hey, thanks, big guy. No hard feelings, okay? Oh, and by the way — "
     Urkat chose that moment to casually put her hand on Benny's shoulder, as though to help him stand on his wobbly legs. With a disarming grin, Benny rattled off the Babylonian banishment incantation as easily as if he were reciting his phone number.
     Green lightning burst where his head had been only a split second before. A truly demonic shriek of rage erupted from Jonathan's throat as the room seemed to explode around them.
     Benedek waited for five full seconds of complete silence before daring to uncover his head and look up. The room was filled with a heavy oily mist; he couldn't see any farther than Urkat, who had apparently been thrown or had dived for cover as he had. She was looking up now, and their eyes met.
     "Did it work?" he ventured in a whisper.
     She paused, head inclined as though listening. "Yes," she said at last with a quiet laugh of pure relief. "He's gone. It worked!"
     With a laugh halfway between a crow and a cackle, Benny pushed up, slapping his hands against his chest. "We did it! We actually did it! Ah, Peggy, you were great, just great!"
     "You didn't do so badly yourself," she reminded him as she rose, rearranging whatever had become disheveled.
     "Yeah, I know," he said without a trace of false modesty. "The stage lost a great talent when Edgar Benedek took his degree in journalism. Hey, listen, you lost me somewhere — why did that incantation work for me? Didn't I hear you say that Jonathan should have been the one to send old Spook-Face home?"
     "I lied," she said with a shrug. "Sue me."
     He chuckled, shaking his head. "Hey — did you like the part where I told him....?"
     He trailed off, following Urkat's gaze, and realized that there was one detail he'd forgotten. "Hey! Jack! Rise and shine!" On his hands and knees, he made his way to over to Jonathan, crumpled on the floor in the same spot he'd stood only moments ago as Arkatbat. "The fireworks are over. Arkatbat took his toys and went home, you can get up now. Jonny? Hey...." Carefully pushing Jonathan's shoulder, he turned the man over on his back. "Jonathan?" He lightly tapped the side of his friend's face. "Wakey, wakey. Come on, this is no time to take a snooze. MacKensie!"
     His expression changed abruptly; he pressed his fingers against the side of Jonathan's neck. "Whoa," he breathed, eyes going wide. "Hey, Peg, check this out. I don't think he's breathing."
     She settled on the opposite side, taking Jonathan's face in either hand and regarding him intently for a long moment. "You're right," she told him grimly. "No pulse, no respiration."
     Ice water flooded through his veins as he stared down at the pale, lifeless face of his friend. This wasn't supposed to happen. This wasn't the way it was supposed to end. This was his fault. His fault. The accusation rang mercilessly in his ears, numbing him. "No." The whisper, broken at first, gained in strength goaded on by despair. "No, come on, Jack, you can't check out on me now. Peg, sweetheart — do something. Anything. Please?"
     She responded to his desperate plea with a quiet nod of reassurance, rubbing her hands together in a slow, circular motion. "I might be able to give his heart a jump start, providing I've got anything left after all this. Still, if this doesn't work, I do have my Red Cross CPR training to fall back on."
     She had placed her hands, palms down, on Jonathan's chest, and as Benny looked on in growing fascination, a bluish glow suffused the area of contact. A moment of concentration, and the faint light seemed to snap like a faulty electrical connection. At the same moment, Jonathan's entire body jerked; his eyes flew open and he gasped violently for air.
     "Hey!" Benny laughed, delighted, the grin dispelling the gray cast of his features. "It's like I've been telling you all along, Peggy, you are a true wonder. Can we discuss this phone number business over a drink?"
     "Put a sock in it, Benedek," she told him, not unkindly. But Jonathan chose that moment to panic in his disorientation, and it took Urkat a couple of anxious moments to restrain him. "What — where —?" He blinked rapidly, wincing with the pain his violent effort cost him. Then, with a sigh, his strength deserted him; he sagged back against the support of Urkat's arms around his shoulders, drained. "What happened?" he rasped. "Where did he go?"
     "Gonzo, Jack," Benedek gestured expansively. "Arkatbat went bye-bye, sayonara, took the long hike."
     Urkat shot Benny a warning look. "What's the last thing you remember?" she asked Jonathan quietly.
     He was struggling against a violent urge to drift off to sleep, and the soft cushion Urkat's supportive embrace provided made thinking that much more difficult. "The invocation. I remember. You tricked me. You made me say the wrong thing."
     She could feel him tensing up beneath her hands and hastened to reassure him by saying, "I had to do it. It was the only way."
     "You told me...told me...." The flash of anger took its toll, making him weaker than ever. "Lied. You lied to me. Both of you."
     "Listen to her," Benny urged earnestly. "She's right, it was the only way."
     "I had to get Arkatbat to release his threat over Benny somehow," Urkat insisted. "I'm sorry that it meant deceiving you, but there wasn't time to explain, I'd already warned you about that."
     Jonathan was shaking his head, becoming agitated again, and Benny reached over to grab the man's shoulder. "Hey," he said sharply. "Chill out, Jack. She got us out of a bad fix without having to take either of us permanently out of the game. I'm not too crazy about the method, either, but at least I'm alive to complain about the bruises. She saved our lives. Am I getting through to you? Comprende, kemo-sabe?"
     He stared at Benny a long moment, glassy-eyed. Then, in a fading voice, "Did it at least work?"
     Benny grinned. "Like a charm, pal. Arkatbat is gone and he took his Cabbage-Patch minions with him. All's right with the world."
     "Good," Jonathan murmured. He was finally losing the battle against exhaustion; he said something else, barely audible as his head came to a final rest against Urkat's chest.
     From the amused smile on Urkat's face, Benny assumed that she had heard whatever the man had said. "I didn't catch that last part," he ventured, suspecting that it was personal enough for Urkat to evade the answer. He was right; the look she gave him was coy, and she shook her head slightly. "Oh, nothing. Nothing," she murmured, still smiling.
      "Swell." Sympathy for his friend's ordeal was fast becoming envy to see Urkat smiling indulgently down at the top of Jonathan's head, which was in a position Benny would have given his eye teeth for. He grimaced when she reached up to lightly brush the hair out of Jonathan's eyes. "Give me a break," he grumbled. "Come on, he's not a cocker spaniel, for pete's sake."
     She shushed him, enjoying his blatant attack of jealousy. "You'll wake him up."
     "So I'll help you get him over to the bed."
     "No, no," she waved him off. "Let him be. I don't mind."
     It was clear from her expression that she really didn't mind at all, and Benny rolled his eyes heavenward. Then, with a sigh, he decided to overcome his childish attack of wild envy in favor of a more immediate emotion. "Hey, Peggy, I gotta tell you. You really saved our bacon out there. You came through for us, and I just want you to know that if there is anything, anything I can do for you, all you have to do is whistle. I mean that. Just name it, it's yours."
     "Actually," she said, her tone thoughtful. "There is something you could do for me right now."
     He gestured expansively. "Anything."
     Smiling fondly down at the sleeping man's peaceful face, she then gave Benny a twinkling glance aside. "Give me his phone number."
 


     "Hey, Jack! Welcome back to the land of the living. Look, if you wanted to take a rest-cure, you could have asked for a vacation like a normal person. Bermuda, sun, sand, string bikinis? Oh, wait, I get it now. This is the Jonathan MacKensie Vacation Special, right? Take a nose-dive in your office and end up in an all expense paid suite at the exclusive G.W. Hospital Hilton — three meals a day, no tipping, with gorgeous nurses at your beck and call? I gotta hand it to you, Jonny, a stroke of genius."
     The voice was strident, cutting through the fog that seemed to be shrouding his brain. He finally decided that he was lying down, perhaps in bed. But everything was a misty white, so it wasn't night, and this wasn't his bedroom. The owner of the obnoxiously cheerful voice was a flesh-colored blur off to the left, apparently seated on the side of whatever bed this was that he found himself in. He forced himself to concentrate on the voice, picking out key words to ponder. 'Hospital' and 'nurses' were the two that finally registered. That out of the way, he turned his efforts to identifying the owner of the cheerful voice.
     "Benedek?" he managed to croak. "What on earth are you babbling about?"
     "Oh, sorry. The sedative is still wearing off, I guess. How many fingers am I holding up?"
     "Sedative? Where am I? And what am I doing here?"
     "Room 346 and being treated for exhaustion, in that order. Next question."
     "Why don't I remember any of that?"
     "Read my lips. Exhaustion. You burned out, pal. Went belly-up, crash-landed, zombied-out. This is the first time you've even had your eyes open in three days. You have been Out To Lunch. Don't you have timed coffee breaks written into your contract, for pete's sake?"
     A thousand broken fragments of memory were floating around in the fog, and none of them seemed to fit what Benedek was saying. "No," he said, frowning as he struggled to piece things together. "That isn't right."
     "That's what I've been telling you. Maybe you should think about going union."
     "I met you at the airport. You gave me an amulet."
     Benny nodded, feigning embarrassment. "Yeah, I know. Tacky, right? Next time, I'll get you a bamboo back scratcher, how's that?"
     "I lost the amulet and then...then there was an explosion and Dr. Moorhouse, she...she...."
     He was getting upset, and Benny made a calming motion with his hand as he said, "Hey, take it easy. The only explosion I know of is when Moorhouse found out she had to dig up two teaching assistants to pick up your slack. But don't worry, she's over that now. In fact, you just missed her. Those flowers are from her. Nice, huh?"
     Jonathan stared, mouth agape, at the thick bouquet of artfully arranged flowers sitting on the table next to his bed. "I don't understand," he murmured, genuinely confused. "Dr. Moorhouse — she's all right then?"
     "Well, she will be once she cuts down on her salt intake and starts exercising at least three times a week. I'm really worried about her blood pressure, you know?"
     "And...." He paused, eyeing Benny's totally ingenuous expression for some sign of insincerity. "The demon, the...." Sighing, he shook his head in frustration at his inability to crystallize the memory fragments. "Arkatbat."
     "Arkat-who?"
     "That name means nothing to you?"
     "Should it?" he shrugged.
     "And Urkat? That name means nothing to you, either?"
     Benny pursed his lips, thinking. "The fifth race at Hialeah, four to one? No, wait, I'm thinking of Our Dad's Cat. Now there's a horse that can run. Won't ever lose your money betting her to show or better."
     Realization dawned. "Ah. Wait a minute. You're trying to tell me that none of that actually happened."
     Benny gave him a strange, appraising look. "I think your fine tuning needs just a little more adjustment," he decided with a nod. "You're coming in fuzzy on this channel, but that's okay, I understand. They'll take care of you here. That's what they're here for."
     "Damn it, Benedek, don't talk to me like I suddenly went stupid. I know what you're trying to do. You're trying to tell me that this was all some sort of demented dream, and I'm not buying it."
     There was an amused sparkle in Benny's eye, but beyond it lurked a serious shadow as he said, "You know me for an honest, uncomplicated man, Jack. So you know you can believe me when I tell you that, whatever it is you're talking about, it was only a dream."
     From any other person, Jonathan would have been persuaded by the simple sincerity of his tone of voice, and taken the statement for God's own truth. Coming from Benny, devoid of any trace of his usual manipulative charm, Jonathan knew the statement for what it was — a bald-faced lie.
     Before he could decide whether he had the energy to pursue the matter any further, Benedek pushed off the bed. "I'd better let you catch up on your beauty sleep. Dr. Moorhouse may have sent you flowers, but she still wants you in her office first thing Monday morning. Good luck — believe me, you'll need it." With a wink, he was at the door in three springing steps. He paused, snapping his fingers. "Oh, yeah. Almost forgot. You and me, we got a hot date week from Saturday, so rest up."
     "Date? What date?"
     Benny grinned knowingly. "Got a call from a very special friend of mine, and she's got a twenty-four hour layover in D.C.; asked me to fix up her friend, and I talked you up. We're going to double- date the night away!"
     "A blind date? Aw, Benedek...."
     "Don't get your britches in an uproar, Jack. Lorie is not the kind of gal to fix a friend of mine up with a bow-wow, okay? Besides, I know the girl, and believe me, you'll never do better on your own."
     "And what do you know about my love life?" Jonathan grumbled, irritated by the blatant aspersion.
     "I'm telling you, you and Margaret are going to hit it off fine. After the pitch I gave, she just can't wait to meet you."
     "Margaret?"
     "Yeah." He paused in the open doorway, leaning in to give Jonathan a wink. "But her friends call her Peggy. You're going to love her, Jon-boy. She's a real goddess."

     - the end -

 


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