Voices... faint and far away at first, then gradually drawing nearer. Doors opened and closed, and he knew the house was occupied again. Soon it would be time. Soon this terrible hunger would be appeased. Maybe this time he could complete his quest, seek his final revenge. His promise had been made long ago, in another time, another life. In this strange half-life, he did not feel the passage of time, but he knew he was almost whole.
Slowly he drifted out of his silent retreat and sent out probing tendrils of mist to explore the great house. People. And one of them would do. One of them would be his next victim. He made a fist, then raised his other arm where the bandages bound up the stump. It would be soon now, soon.
Slowly the house came alive around him. He bided his time. Once the cellar was opened he would be free to seek what he needed, to call a victim to himself. Days passed, and he could sense hammers, saws, and drills at work. Finally voices halted at the top of the stairs.
"Look, here's a door."
"I wonder where it goes."
"Get some tools, we'll open it. Hurry."
"Maybe there's buried treasure down there. Pirate treasure. There were pirates here once."
"Pirate treasure! That's stupid. It's probably just a pantry."
Then the door was pried open. He waited. He pulled the mist back into himself, hoarding his power, sending out lures to the chosen one.
He relished the screams that echoed through the musty cellar a few moments later.
"But you've got to help me with this, Jack," Edgar Benedek coaxed eagerly. "You'll never believe any of this."
"I'm sure of that," said Jonathan MacKensie as he stacked books and papers on his desk. "In case you haven't noticed, Benedek, I'm in the middle of finals. I can't go ghost hunting today."
"But this is different. This is great stuff."
Jonathan raised his eyebrows. "When isn't it? Can't it wait a week?"
"This kind of story shouldn't wait a day. If I don't go down there now, somebody's going to beat me to the story. And this one is super." He gestured in the air to envision headlines. "'GHOST MUTILATES VICTIM.'"
"Ghost does what?" asked Jonathan, startled. "What are you inventing now? I thought they were supposed to be only ectoplasm, and just rattled around in chains and misty sheets scaring people."
"That shows what you know, Jon-boy. Ghosts can do a lot more than you think."
"Probably because they're not really ghosts. How many have you talked to about it? It's a hoax, Benedek. Someone wanted to get revenge on an enemy and make it look like a vicious ghost. It's easy to fake things. You showed me how in Fartham, remember, with the computer rigged to make weird things happen in the house?"
"Then what happened to the victim's hand?"
"His hand?" Jonathan looked at Benedek in disbelief. There were times when he couldn't begin to understand his fellow shadow chaser. Benedek could get excited over the most gruesome tales, could pursue things that made Jonathan's blood run cold, and then write them up for the National Register, a tabloid that Jonathan hardly considered fit for bird cage liner. Even after a series of adventures, he still could hardly believe he had let himself become involved with the supernatural. It had not been that long ago that he had been a staid and serious professor of anthropology, enjoying his peaceful academic life. Now there were ghosts and spooks of every kind, cultists, body snatchers, witches, and other unexplained phenomena. Sometimes there seemed to be no logical explanation for the weird things that happened. Benedek loved it all; he could be as excited as a child who had been given a whole toy store for Christmas. For all he wrote exploitive stories for that disgusting tabloid, he still possessed a childlike sense of wonder that Jonathan could not quite emulate. Yet, for all their differences, they made a good team. Though he wasn't quite ready to admit it yet, Jonathan enjoyed his new life, and Benedek, too, when he wasn't outraged, shocked, offended, and just plain scared of the whole set-up.
"What do you mean, his hand?" he asked dubiously.
"That's the really wild part, Jack. He went down into the cellar of the house he'd just bought it's been boarded up since the twenties, they say. All at once, he started screaming that he was being attacked. Neither of his buddies saw anything; they said it was like he was fighting with thin air. Then he screamed and passed out, and when they reached him, his hand had been severed from his body."
"What? How did it happen?"
"That's just it, Jonny. Nobody knows. Two of his friends witnessed it, and they didn't see anything hit him."
"Lasers," Jonathan suggested doubtfully. "Or some kind of blade that moved to fast to be seen. If the friends were looking around to see what was happening, maybe they missed it."
"Maybe," said Benedek. "That could have happened. But that's not the problem. They rushed him to the hospital, but they wanted to take his hand in case the doctors could reattach it."
"I know that. There's no mystery about that."
"Yes, there is," replied Benedek with eager excitement. "The hand vanished without a trace. They tore that cellar apart and couldn't find it. They sent people back and they couldn't find it either. Whoa! It's the invasion of the body snatchers, only they're starting small. First a hand. What'll be the next part to go?"
Jonathan shook his head. "There's got to be a logical explanation."
"Oh, there is, Jon-Boy. But what kind of logic? Ghostly dismemberment? It'll really sell the papers."
"It's disgusting," said Jonathan. "I want no part of it."
"It's unexplainable, MacKensie," said a familiar voice from the doorway as Dr. Moorhouse entered. "Mr. Benedek," she continued, "you have a knack for hearing about such things in advance of everyone else."
"I've got great contacts," Benedek agreed. "Would you like to meet some of them? You'd like them, Dr. M. It's true they're a little eccentric, but that's how I love them. You need a change from the ivy covered halls."
"No, thank you, Mr. Benedek. I'm not sure how I tolerate you."
"It's because there's a wild and crazy side of you struggling to get out. Look at Jack here. He's finally starting to loosen up a little. Think what some time in my company would do for you."
Dr. Moorhouse shuddered elaborately. "I think not. But MacKensie should look into this latest bizarre occurrence. If, as I believe, someone is using the supernatural to cover violence --"
"Then we'll find out," Benny finished eagerly. "This kind of thing could give honest ghosts a bad name. What do you say, J.J.? You need a break from all this." He waved his hand at the cluttered desk. "I bet Dr. M. would be glad to help you out so you could accompany me on my fight for truth, justice, and the American way."
"If by the American way, you mean making a fast buck at the Institute's expense with that wretched paper of yours --" Jonathan began. He resented being manipulated by either of them.
"Now, naughty, naughty. My paper never did you any harm and it pays the bills between books."
"And you love it."
Benedek grinned. "Right. But right now we've got a ghost to stop."
"Stop? That's a job for a medium or an exorcist."
"If we need one, we'll get one. I know a lot of both. Maybe you're right this time and it's a human hiding behind the shadow of the supernatural, lurking in the darkness for his own nefarious purposes. I don't know how he severs hands without being seen, though. Any ideas, Jack?"
Jonathan thought furiously, but his mind was too conventional to come up with a ready solution. "Maybe he was a ninja," he said lamely. "They know how to be invisible and they have swords."
"A phantom ninja," Benedek mused eagerly. "I love it." He shook his head regretfully. "I don't think so, but that's pretty imaginative, coming from you, Jon-boy."
"The hand couldn't have just disappeared," insisted Jonathan.
"Then prove it," said Dr. Moorhouse.
"I take it I don't have a choice?"
"Whoa," said Benedek enthusiastically when he saw the 'haunted house'. It was set along a remote stretch of North Carolina coast with no other houses anywhere in sight. It was a mid-Victorian monstrosity with a square tower rising up over the front entrance, but one wing was older, more drab, with peeling paint and boarded-up windows.
"They added the main wing in 1865," Benedek said, reading from a battered book he had picked up in Port Jacques, better known to the locals as Port Jack. "The Marlowe family owned the place since before the Revolutionary War. In 1920, the last of the Marlowes died in mysterious circumstances, I might add," he explained gleefully. "It was called a prank that went wrong, but David Marlowe went into the cellar and had his eye gouged out. He wasn't found right way, so he died of his injuries. I was right! It's the body snatchers."
"Oh, be realistic, Benedek. He probably fell against a piece of furniture."
"Wrong, Jack. The coroner said his was eye was deliberately removed." He leafed through a few more pages. "Listen to this. 'It was feared that the Marlowe curse had struck a final time. When David Marlowe met his foul end, his widow sold the house; and it passed from owner to owner to owner. It is hoped that the departure of the Marlowe family has put paid to the string of tragedies that have plagued the Marlowes and Port Jacques since the early 1700's. This reporter will not repeat the more lurid tales involving the Marlowe house, but let the reader be warned not to venture alone into its cellars."
"Unadulterated rubbish," Jonathan said.
"It's disgusting," exclaimed Benedek.
"You think so, too?" Jonathan was surprised and gratified.
"No, I think it's disgusting he wouldn't repeat the lurid legends."
"So you could use them in that repulsive tabloid of yours?"
"Lurid legends are right up my alley," said Benedek proudly, refusing to take offense. "But I won't be thwarted. Let's go in. Maybe we can find something."
"If I were that real estate woman, I wouldn't have trusted you with the key."
"She did it for you," admitted Benedek shamelessly. "I told her you were a famous ghost hunter, and she was taken with you."
"How could she have been taken with me?" asked Jonathan, not sure whether to be flattered or annoyed. "She never even saw me."
"I pointed you out through the window. Besides, with the place on the market again so soon, she'd jump at the chance to sell it."
"Benedek, if you even think of buying another house and charging it to the institute, I'll see that parts of your anatomy are removed forcibly starting with your head."
"Whoa. Easy on the threats, Jack. You might be giving somebody ideas. Or something," he added ominously. "Let's go in."
"Let's not," Jonathan replied, looking at the abandoned house and the darkening sky without enthusiasm. "I think it's going to storm. Why don't we come back when the sun is shining?"
"No. But there won't be electricity and the roof probably leaks."
"All the way to the cellar? Miss Dalgleish said the Mortons did a lot of repairs. We'll be safe."
"Morton thought he was safe, too." Jonathan checked the sky again. "If the storm is bad enough, the road might be washed out."
"It's a hurricane," Benedek said. "It isn't due to hit yet."
"It's the wrong time of year for a hurricane."
"Tell the hurricane, not me. We've got lots of time."
"It doesn't look like we've got lots of time," Jonathan objected, but he allowed himself to be led up to the front door. The porch was made of wood, and someone had replaced a few of the boards, but the old ones creaked beneath his feet. "If the door seals up behind us, Benedek, I'm going to kill you," he threatened.
But the key turned smoothly in the new lock, and the lights came on when Benny flipped a switch. "See," he said, "it's not so bad." He sounded disappointed to find the entry hall tidy instead of festooned with cobwebs.
Jonathan closed the door quickly and tried to open it again, satisfied when it moved easily. Benedek produced the floor plan that Miss Dalgleish had given him. "Down this hall and through the kitchen," he said. "The cellar is under the old part of the house."
"It would be," muttered Jonathan under his breath. It probably flooded every time there was a hurricane, too.
The kitchen had not received the same care as the front hall. In one corner, a huge black coal-burning stove was coated with grease and cobwebs, and dust lay thick on a rickety table. A door in the far corner was half-hidden behind an old icebox, its door braced open with a two by four. Someone had pounded spikes around the edges of the cellar door to seal it. Benedek regarded the spikes with great satisfaction.
Jonathan regarded them gloomily. He knew he would soon be shoving furniture about and prying out nails.
It took the better part of an hour to move the icebox, which was heavier than it looked, and to remove the nails. It had been a hasty sealing job, but the fact that it had been done at all excited Benny. "Trying to seal up a ghost," he said. "Maybe it works. Nothing ever happened when the place has been fastened up."
"You mean it can't drift through walls and doors?" Jonathan asked scathingly, nursing scraped knuckles and a bleeding thumb.
"Maybe he's bound to the cellar, and the reason nothing happened when it was boarded up was that no one could get down there to be haunted."
Jonathan looked down the dark stairway. "And you're prepared to take us down there? What about the Marlowes and the curse and the lurid legends? If you believe in that rubbish, aren't you scared?"
"No way, Jose. I love it."
"You may love it. I hate it. I'm quite willing to concede that the cellar is dangerous, but not because of ghosts. Any derelict place is full of hidden dangers. The Mortons didn't get that much repaired."
Below them came a scurrying sound like the pattering of tiny feet, and Jonathan retreated an involuntary step. "Rats," he announced in disgust. "Now we know what happened to the hand. They dragged it off."
"Oh, come on, Jack, we've got flashlights. They won't hang around when we get down there. Besides, it's probably just mice."
"How do you know?" But he allowed Benedek to lead the way down the stairs, switching on the huge flashlight he carried. Rats (or 'giant mice,' he thought bitterly), fled before them.
"Hey, Ben," said Benedek to the vanishing rats. "Not so fast. I wish you could talk. What we need is an eyewitness account."
"No one but you could consider interviewing a rat." Jonathan suppressed a nervous laugh. The whole thing was ridiculous, but the atmosphere of the cellar matched that of every scary movie he had seen as a child. Mysterious boxes cast eerie shadows, and cobwebs hung in sheets. The floor was damp earth, and the air smelled of mold and seawater, years of filth, and rats. For this he had left the joys of his academic life? He must be out of his mind.
Benedek shouted, "Bingo!" and Jonathan jumped.
"What?" he asked, coming up behind his cohort.
"Blood," Benedek pointed out with his flashlight. "The scene of the crime."
Jonathan's stomach turned, and he averted his eyes from the dark stain on the floor. The dust around it was churned up with rat footprints. His speculation about the fate of Morton's hand must have been right. He turned away, shining his torch in corners, looking for anything that might have severed the hand. He stood in the middle of the cellar, and none of the stored crates, chests, or old furniture were anywhere near him.
"See anything?" Benedek's question jerked him back to the present.
"No." He wasn't sure how anything, even something razor sharp, could have severed a hand without force behind it. Morton's friends had said he was struggling with nothing but air.
"The windows are boarded up," Benny said. "We can clean them off, and get more light in here tomorrow."
"That's an excellent idea, Benedek. Let's got back to the hotel now, and return in the morning."
"No, I'm not done looking." Benedek pointed his flashlight into the furthest corner and set off in that direction, hot on the trail.
"Benedek, you're insane," Jonathan retorted, and headed for the stairs. The rats scurried around just out of range of the lights.
"There's a door back here," Benedek announced triumphantly. "I'm going to move this trunk and see if I can get it open. Give me hand, will you?"
"No. We'll do it tomorrow."
But Benedek grabbed the trunk and tried to manhandle it away from the door. Rats and big black water bugs scuttled away, and Benny jumped back, bumping into a wooden pillar. It creaked ominously, and the ceiling groaned and settled. The house vibrated.
"Benedek, get out of there!" Jonathan shouted urgently. "The ceiling's going." He lunged forward to shove his friend to safety, but with a roar and a crash, the ceiling gave way, and something hit him hard across the back of his head. He felt something strike his shoulder, too, and dust rose in great waves. He pitched forward to the floor as the darkness took him.
At Jonathan's shout, Benny jumped back against the wall and flung his arms over his head. When the echoes started to die, he uncovered himself and looked around. Between himself and the stairs, a lot of the ceiling had come down. There was a pile of rubble in the middle of the floor. To his horror, the light from Jonathan's torch filtered up through it. "JONATHAN!"
There was no reply. Cautiously Benny approached, shouting Jonathan's name, but nothing moved. He began to dig, tossing stuff here and there, suddenly very frightened. Jonathan had not wanted to come here, and the only reason he had stayed was because it was dangerous and he didn't want to leave his friend alone in the house. "Damn it, Jonathan, answer me!" Benny yelled. If anything had happened to Jonathan, it would be his fault.
He exposed the hand holding the flashlight first, and he felt quickly for a pulse. At first he could find nothing, and a cold sickness settled in his stomach. Then there was the faintest butterfly flutter under his fingertips, and he leaned forward eagerly. "That's right, Jonny," he said encouragingly. "Hang in there. I'll have you out right away."
The pulsebeat seemed to falter, and Benny dug through the rubble like a wild man. Later, he wondered how he had moved some of it on his own, but finally he had Jonathan free. He bent over him, openly worried, with no thought of concealment. No games now. This was too important. "Yo, Jack?" he said softly.
MacKensie had flung his arm over his face, and it had given him an air pocket; but he breathed raggedly, as if he had forgotten how. When Benny lifted an eyelid, his pupil was dilated. He must have a concussion, if nothing worse. Maybe he was in shock. Benny had taken first aid courses you never knew when something like that would come in handy but everything he had learned fled as he checked his friend for broken bones. There were no obvious ones, but he might have a dislocated shoulder. There could be broken ribs, internal injuries, spinal damage...
The rule was not to move an injured person, but there was no way he could leave Jonathan here in this rat-infested cellar while he went for help. The nearest telephone was five miles away, and by the time he drove there and came back, anything could have happened. Thinking of Morton's experience, he knew he could not leave Jonathan alone.
"You've got to wake up, Jack," he pleaded, lightly slapping his friend's cheek. "I can't leave you to go for help. I can't move you, either, not alone. Come on, wake up." He felt Jonathan's pulse again. No change. Lying here would not make him better. He took Jonathan's arm, and tried to raise him to a sitting position. Jonathan made a small sound like a child disturbed from sleep. "... Leave me 'lone," he muttered weakly.
"Jonathan, you've got to wake up. Come on, Jon-boy. You can do it. I can't leave you down here. You've got to help me." The urgency in his voice must have gotten through to Jonathan, because he stirred again, making a pain-filled protest, and opened his eyes.
"Benedek?" His voice was worried. "Are you hurt? Did it fall on you? Benedek? Answer me!"
Guilty at Jonathan's obvious concern for him when he was the one hurt, Benedek replied eagerly, "Right here, Jack. I'm not hurt. It missed me. You're the one who got it. Do you think you can move? We have to get out of here."
The wild look faded from Jonathan's eyes, replaced by something like rage. "You jerk! You dragged me down here and look what happened!" He made a futile attempt to grab Benny by the throat, but his left arm would not obey him. Benny, who had made no move to defend himself, looked at him in dismay.
"You can kill me later, Jonathan," he said. Right now we've got to get out of here. The ghost can wait."
But Jonathan had relapsed into semi-consciousness. "Leave me 'lone," he muttered.
"On your feet, Jack," prodded Benedek. Half dragging and half carrying him, he urged Jonathan toward the stairs, and slowly they made their way up. MacKensie sagged against him, muttering threats and pleas to stop, but Benny could not. If he could only reach the car, they could go straight to the hospital.
Once he was sure his friend would be okay, Benny would come back. He had to investigate that mysterious door. He would bet anything that that was where the ghost was waiting for him.
It was nearly dark when they finally reached the front porch. Benny helped Jonathan sit on the steps, then went for the car, pulling it as close as he could. "Just another step, Jonny," he said cajolingly. "Come on. I could use a little cooperation here."
"...'m tired..." Jonathan muttered. "... hurts, Benedek." He sagged and would have fallen, but Benny got an arm around his waist and steered him into the passenger seat. He fastened his friend's seatbelt. "Now for the hospital," he said. "Stay with me, buds. Don't die on me."
But Jonathan's head had sagged to one side, and he did not answer.
"How is he?" Benedek demanded anxiously an hour later. "He's gonna be all right, isn't he? When can I see him?"
"Not for a few hours," the doctor replied. "But it would be better if you came back in the morning."
"No, I'm not leaving," Benedek insisted. "I have to be here when he wakes up."
"He might sleep through until morning." But there must have been more showing in Benny's face than he realized, because the doctor sighed and said, "All right."
"How bad is it, Doc?" He was afraid to hear the answer, but he had to know.
"Well, he'll be stiff and sore for a while, but there is nothing really serious. He's got a dislocated shoulder, a very slight concussion, and two cracked ribs. Otherwise, it's only assorted cuts and bruises. He's in no danger." At the relief on Benny's face, he clapped him comfortingly on the shoulder. "You don't have to worry about him. He'll be fine. What on earth happened to him? It wasn't a car accident?"
"No, the ceiling fell on him. We were looking for ghosts, and that's what we got instead."
"Ghosts?" The doctor's eyes narrowed. "You don't have anything to do with the Morton crisis, do you?"
Benedek's eyes gleamed. "We're paranormal investigators from the Georgetown Institute sent here to discover what happened," he explained, producing a card he had had printed up. Jonathan had thought he had confiscated them all, but Benny had kept a few handy for times like this when it would add authority to his investigations. "I'm Edgar Benedek. Maybe you've seen me on Merv."
"Edgar Benedek? I've heard of you. My wife reads all your books."
"Smart lady," said Benny with a grin. Knowing Jonathan was going to be all right had put him back in his stride. "Dr. MacKensie and I are investigating the claim that there was an attack by a ghostly figure in the cellar of the Marlowe house."
"That's utter nonsense," said the doctor sternly. "I should have thought Georgetown Institute had more important things to do than chase after practical jokers and old legends."
"Practical jokers?" Benny asked. "What do you mean, practical jokers?"
"That's privileged information, Mr. Benedek."
"Something about Morton made you think it was a practical joke," Benny speculated, intrigued. "Something about his condition, or it wouldn't be privileged." He wondered if the local papers had found out any of it. In the morning he would check it out, but he would stay here now. Jonathan had been right; the house was too dangerous to investigate without full daylight. The hidden door exerted a powerful pull, one he could hardly resist; but tonight, nothing could keep him from holding vigil with Jonathan.
MacKensie's head pounded, and his shoulder ached. When he tried to suck in a steadying breath of air, his ribs protested violently, and he bit off a cry of pain. Carefully he opened his eyes, and found himself in a hospital room. Edgar Benedek was sitting anxiously beside the bed watching him, but when he saw Jonathan's eyes open, he masked his concern, grinned brightly, and said, "Welcome back, Jack."
"Welcome back!" Jonathan's voice rose alarmingly. "Welcome back! You maniac, you almost got me killed in that wreck of a house."
"You'll be fine, Jon-boy," said Benedek quickly. "It's only minor injuries. You don't really have a concussion, and your shoulder wasn't broken, only dislocated. And your ribs are only cracked."
"Thanks a lot," Jonathan said coldly. "I knew you'd minimize it. Look at me. I'm half dead, and you're sitting there making excuses. I knew something like this would happen. Well, I've had it! I'm through. I quit. No more ghosts for me. Ghosts who dismember people! Falling ceilings are more likely. Why aren't you back there digging through the rubble? After the way you dragged me there without the slightest regard for my safety, I'm surprised you're even here. Well, you've stayed long enough. Go on, leave. I never want to see you again."
Benedek's face closed up, all the humor, spirit, and careless good cheer gone as if it had never existed. Jonathan had never seen his eyes so empty. "I'll go," he said. "I just wanted to make sure you were all right."
"So you could drag me into some new danger?" Jonathan's anger was already fading, and he held onto it determinedly.
"Before I got out of your life," Benedek said. "You're right. It was my fault. I'm sorry." He turned for the door, looking like a dog whose master has unexpectedly kicked him.
Benny's fingers were adorned with bandages, Jonathan noticed abruptly, as he realized just who had rescued him from the cellar. He said quickly, "Wait."
Benedek halted, shoulders slumped. "What for, so you can kick me again?"
"No," said Jonathan. "I know you didn't mean for me to get hurt. I was just raving. What did you do to your hands?"
Benny shoved them into his pockets. "Nothing. Why?" He grinned in a passable imitation of his old smile. "You fight tough, Jack."
Jonathan felt guilty now. He had never thought of Benedek as vulnerable. He remembered how Benny had told him about his fiancιe dying in a plane crash, only to cover his vulnerability with a smart remark. Even now, Jonathan did not quite know if the story had been true, although he was fairly sure it was. But the look on Benny's face just now had revealed more than Jonathan had expected to see. He remembered, though a little vaguely, how worried Benedek had sounded in the ruined cellar. Benny had apparently rescued him by brute force, and evidently sat with him ever since, already blaming himself for the accident. Jonathan had no need to blame him too.
"Benedek," he said quickly. "Benny, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have jumped all over you."
"No, you shouldn't have, Jack," Benny said flippantly, getting back into his stride or trying to cover up his lapse. "You could screw up the partnership."
"If you think I'm going down in that disgusting cellar again, partnership or no -"
"No, you can stay here and take it easy. See if you can pump Dr. Sullivan. He knows something about the deal, and won't talk to me. You could even find Morton and see if you can get something out of him. He's still here. I checked."
Jonathan shook his head as Benedek drew up a chair. "Here's what you've got to do," the reporter said. "I've had plenty of time to work it out while you've been having your beauty sleep."
"Beauty sleep," muttered Jonathan, shaking his head again. Benedek was incorrigible, but there was more to him than met the eye. Jonathan had not really wanted to drive Benedek away, but he had been furious, and the way his head was pounding had been no help.
"Listen, Benedek," he said, "if you had a shred of decency, you'd go away and come back in the morning."
Benedek took the words in the proper spirit, and reluctantly prepared to leave. "All right, Jon-boy. But you're wasting valuable time here."
"I seem to remember when we were in Hooperville that you said if I'd been the one in the hospital and it was your fault, you'd roll yourself in honey and sit on an anthill or something."
"Oh, low blow, Jack," Benny winced. "But you're right. I'm gone." He headed for the doorway. "But you keep your eyes open."
"I plan to keep them closed until tomorrow. Go away, Benedek."
"I'm going already. But you've got to get into the spirit of things, Jonathan."
Had Jonathan felt better, he would have thrown his pillow at his irrepressible partner. He made a show of reaching for it with his good arm, and Benedek pretended to duck. Then he smiled faintly. "Just get well, pal," he said softly in a completely serious voice, and went away.
The sense of being watched woke Jonathan early the next morning. It was not the same feeling that had awakened him several times during the night when a nurse had come to take his blood pressure and temperature, but something different, something eerie. My God, I've been around Benedek too long, he thought. Cautiously, afraid to find himself trapped in a bad dream, he opened his eyes to see a strange man standing in the doorway. The man was a patient; he was wearing a robe and slippers, and he had one arm in a sling. That arm was shorter than it should have been, and it ended in bandages. For a moment, Jonathan averted his eyes, then it dawned on him who this must be, and he said tentatively, "Mr. Morton?"
"Who else?" the man said bitterly with a gesture at his missing hand. "I have to talk to you, Dr. MacKensie."
"You know who I am?"
"Port Jack is a small town. Everyone knows that there's a Dr. MacKensie here from the Georgetown Institute. You're not the Nobel Prize winner, are you?"
Jonathan should have been used to that question by now. "No, that was my father."
"That's too bad. I thought if I had a Nobel Prize winner on my side, people would have to believe me. Everybody knows you went out to the house and got attacked. Tell me," he demanded feverishly, "did you see him? Did you see Bad Dan?"
Although the name was ridiculous, Jonathan felt no desire to laugh. "I didn't see anyone. The ceiling fell on me."
"You know how it fell? He did it. You're a lucky man, Dr. MacKensie. Lucky to be alive. Lucky to have both your legs."
"My legs?" Jonathan echoed in surprise. "What are you talking about?"
"He's almost whole now, Dr. MacKensie. All he needs is the leg. When I heard you'd been brought in, I thought he'd done it; but he didn't, so some other poor fool is doomed like me."
"I don't know what you're talking about," insisted Jonathan, propping himself up against his pillows as he pushed the button to raise the head of his bed. "Who is Bad Dan?"
"You didn't see him?" Morton demanded in disappointment. "I thought finally someone would believe me. They think I'm crazy. They think I was high and imagined the whole thing. All but this." He held up his stump. "This is real," he said with sudden acid bitterness. "This is damn real. You've got to stop him, Dr. MacKensie. You've got to stop Bad Dan."
"But who is Bad Dan?"
A nurse appeared in the doorway. "Here you are, Mr. Morton. You're not supposed to be here. Come on, I'll take you back to bed."
"I don't want to go back to bed," Morton said petulantly. "Leave me alone."
"You wouldn't want me to have to call an orderly, would you?"
Morton glared at her, then acquiesced. "Oh, all right." He turned back to Jonathan. "Remember, Dr. MacKensie. You've got to stop him."
Feeling the need to say something, Jonathan promised, "I'll do what I can." Although what he was supposed to do from a hospital bed he wasn't sure. On the other hand, better that he had talked to Morton. He doubted the poor fellow was up to Edgar Benedek.
Benny arrived an hour later, peeking around the corner of the door before entering with flowers and several bags and packages. "I brought you presents," he said. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to find anything suitable in Port Jack? They think I'm crazy here."
"I can't imagine why," muttered Jonathan.
Benedek began opening the presents. "Look," he said. "Some reading material for you." It proved to be Erlanger's latest anthropology book. Jonathan had a copy at home, and had disagreed strongly with Erlanger's interpretations, but he decided not to say so to Benedek, who was trying to be thoughtful. Whether he was attempting to make amends for yesterday or just being nice was hard to say, but Jonathan made an effort to appear suitably grateful.
Next, Benedek produced a fancy breakfast, still hot and excellently prepared. "I've eaten more than my share of hospital guck," he explained, setting it on Jonathan's tray table. "So I knew what you'd be in for without something special. I hope you're hungry, Jack. I had this flown in specially for you."
"Flown in. There's no airport here."
"I've got a friend with a helicopter. I told him to keep it available today in case we need him." He began to arrange the breakfast and take the covers off.
Since the hospital breakfast had tasted almost as good as cardboard, Jonathan eyed the treat with pleasure that would have been more enthusiastic if he had not feared the Institute would be billed for the helicopter.
He said nothing about Bad Dan until he finished eating. Then when Benny began pulling out notes, he said, "I had a visit from Morton this morning."
He relished Benny's reaction. The reporter spun around, nearly dropping his notebook, his eyes lighting up eagerly. "Whoa! Good work, Jon-boy. How did you manage that? Did you lure him here with a mysterious message?"
"No. He found me. He wanted to be sure I was intact. It seems your ghost wants a leg next."
"A leg?" Benedek considered that, his eyes gleaming. "I've got it! Someone's building a monster. The return of Dr. Frankenstein. I love it! This is a great story. A part here, a part there."
"Over several hundred years? Don't be ridiculous."
"Maybe it's someone who lives forever and replaces parts as they wear out."
"He said people thought he had been on something and imagined the whole thing. That's probably what happened. It was a freak accident, and he dreamed up Bad Dan to explain it."
"Bad Dan?" Benedek pounced gleefully. "Who's Bad Dan?"
"I don't know. That's when the nurse arrived and shooed him out. Leave him alone, Benedek. I don't think he's ready for a visit from you."
"Bad Dan," Benny repeated thoughtfully. "I can check it out. I want to go back to the house this afternoon anyway."
"Not alone," insisted Jonathan. "Benedek, it's too dangerous. You saw how bad it is. If anything else collapses, there's nobody to get you out."
"I'll be careful, Jack. I've got to find Bad Dan."
"It's a ludicrous name. Maybe it's just a hoax." He knew as he spoke that it could not be entirely a hoax. Morton's hand was really gone, and he had worn the look of a man who had gazed into hell. Annoyed at that flight of fancy, Jonathan said impatiently, "If you have to go out there, take someone with you. We didn't find anything before. I don't think there's anything there to find."
"There's the mysterious door waiting for me."
"Morton wasn't near the door when Bad Dan got him," Jonathan pointed out.
"No, but it's part of the puzzle. I won't ignore it. I don't want to wait. That storm's getting closer. If I wait too long, I might miss my chance and lose the story."
"Benedek, you can't go out there alone. Wait until I'm discharged. As soon as the storm has passed, I'll go back with you."
Benedek's eyes wore a glazed look. "I've got to go out there," he insisted. "But first, I've got to find out about Bad Dan. I'm going back to the library. I'll stop by at lunch time and tell you what I've found."
Without knowing why, Jonathan felt uneasy. He had heard the storm warnings and knew it could be a bad one; but the risk would be far greater in a dilapidated old house right on the shore. No one would be out there boarding up windows in preparation for the storm. If Benedek went out there, he would be in real danger. Jonathan frowned. "Promise," he insisted. "Promise you'll come and tell me before you do anything."
"Relaxovision, Jack! What's wrong?"
"Humor an injured man," said Jonathan, attempting lightness and failing miserably. He could not understand why he was suddenly so worried, but he was. He had no wish to explain; his premonition was the kind of thing Benny thrived on. Better to wait and let the weather furnish the restrictions. If only he could be sure Benny would come back before returning to that house. "Promise me, Benny. I want your word you'll come back here first."
"Well, if you put it like that," Benedek replied, looking at Jonathan suspiciously. "But keep talking like that, and I'll start wondering about you."
"It must be the head injury," Jonathan said. His headache was almost gone this morning, but he was not about to tell Benedek that. "You got me into this. Just humor me. You owe it to me."
"All right already. I'll come back for lunch, such as it is, but if I don't get out of here, lunch will be late." He grinned jauntily and left with a cheerful wave.
"Be careful, Benedek," Jonathan said under his breath. As soon as Benedek was gone, he realized he should have tried to keep his friend here, but he had no idea why. He just felt he should have.
The doctor came in about eleven to examine Jonathan. "You're doing a lot better today," he said. "Any dizziness?"
"No, just a bit of a headache, and my shoulder's sore."
Dr. Sullivan eyed the remains of the gourmet breakfast. "You didn't get that from the hospital kitchen."
"No, my friend brought it in. Edgar Benedek."
"I spoke to him last night. I'm glad you weren't seriously hurt. He was terribly worried about you. He blamed himself for your accident. I urged him to go home, but he insisted on sitting with you. You've got a loyal friend there, Dr. MacKensie."
Jonathan again felt like a heel for treating Benedek so badly. He should have guessed, but he had simply not been feeling well enough last night to notice much of anything. The peace offerings this morning should have clued him further. He said quietly, "I know."
"He said you were investigating the Marlowe house when you were hurt. I'd advise you to stay away from there. A ramshackle place like that is dangerous. Paranormal research isn't worth risking your life for."
"I know it's not. I won't go back without adequate safety precautions, even if Benedek tries to drag me." He frowned. "Dr. Sullivan, who was Bad Dan?"
"So you've heard that old legend, have you? It's a pack of nonsense from beginning to end."
"You're probably right. But Benedek loves ghost stories. Can you tell me anything about it?"
Sullivan glanced at his watch before sitting down. "I've got a few minutes. But you must realize the whole thing is ridiculous another tourist legend. Bad Dan was a pirate who was one of Blackbeard's henchmen. They operated around here in the early 1700's. I don't know how much you know about Blackbeard, but he wasn't likely to win any good fellowship awards. The legend says Bad Dan crossed him, so Blackbeard went for him with a sword, cutting him up pretty badly. He chopped off a leg, an arm, and a hand, and put out his eye. Bad Dan died, naturally. We'd be hard pressed to cope with such massive trauma even today without immediate treatment. But Bad Dan lingered long enough to make a pact with the devil to get his missing parts back so he could get revenge. He died before the devil could fulfill his part of the bargain, so Bad Dan's been haunting ever since. He got the arm in the early 1800's, and they say he got the eye in 1920."
"What a lot of unmitigated rubbish."
"That's what I think," agreed Sullivan. "But now Morton's going around claiming he's got the hand."
"He came in here this morning and said only the leg was left," replied Jonathan. "Did Morton have enemies weird enough to do that and make it look like Bad Dan was doing his thing?"
"God knows. They were all drunk when they came in. Who knows what they were up to."
"Drugs?" Jonathan persisted, remembering Morton's comments.
"That's got nothing to do with this."
"But he could have hallucinated and imagined the entire thing?"
"If he saw pirates running around waving cutlasses, he must have been hallucinating."
"How was his hand severed?"
He did not expect and answer, and he did not get one. Sullivan shook his head. "I can't discuss Morton's injuries, Dr. MacKensie. You know that."
"Yes, and I'm sorry I asked. I just wanted to be able to prove to Benedek that a ghostly pirate didn't slice the hand off with a cutlass."
Sullivan's eyes were clouded with thought. "I wish I knew what it really was," he mused. "A cutlass is as good an answer as anything." He collected himself. "If your friend should find a weapon out there, I'd be grateful if you would let me know." He rose. "You're doing well. We'll keep an eye on you for the rest of today, and if you continue to progress, we'll discharge you in the morning. If you experience any dizziness or blurred vision, tell the nurse immediately. And don't use that arm."
Since Jonathan's arm was strapped to his side down to the elbow, he had figured that out on his own. "For how long?"
"Maybe a few weeks. We'll send you home in a sling." He added, "Get up if you feel like it, but go back to bed if you feel dizzy. You might want to hide the feast before they come with lunch. You'll hurt their feelings." He grinned and left.
Jonathan got up and clumsily cleaned away the traces of breakfast one-handed. Although he felt a little weak, he was not lightheaded. His stomach was still slightly queasy, but as long as he made no hasty moves, it didn't bother him too much.
Lunchtime came and went, and there was no trace of Edgar Benedek.
At first, Benny had little luck in his quest for information on Bad Dan. He went to the library and found a sympathetic librarian who had read all his books, but the mention of Bad Dan brought a pinched look to her face as if she had smelled something rotten, and she clammed up. "I don't have time for such silliness," she said primly.
"I like silliness," Benny said promptly. "Come on, Mrs. J. I won't tell anybody you told me. I promise."
"No, I don't know anything but the name. Really." No amount of cajoling could convince her to change her mind.
The other librarian would not talk to him about Bad Dan at all.
Frustrated, Benny made the round of Port Jack, talking to everyone he met. It was almost as if the people had something to hide. Could Jonathan be right? Was there some kind of plot afoot, something that had backfired on Morton? Maybe his friends had done it accidentally, then tried to frame the local ghost. But that would not explain everything. It did not explain the mysterious door that drew him like a lodestone. Something lurked behind that door, something dark and evil; something that would make a wonderful story. All he had to do was open the door. Now would be best, while it was still light. The day was bright, but the storm brooded offshore, waiting. If he held off much longer, he would miss his chance. He would talk to a one or two more people, then go see Jonathan. After that, nothing would stop him from returning to the Marlowe house.
He went to the gas station first, and as had become his habit, he asked the old man who came out to fill his tank Port Jack did not seem to know about self-service gas stations "What can you tell me about Bad Dan?"
"Terrible things, my boy," the old man said ominously. "Terrible things."
That was more like it. "Tell me," Benedek urged eagerly. "I guarantee your name will be featured prominently in the National Register."
"Is that so? My wife reads that. Buys it at the market. That'll show her. Thinks she's so important, she does, just because her grandfather was a Marlowe. Well, I can be important, too. She sees my name in that rag, I'll never let her live it down. What do you want to know?"
Benny's eyes gleamed. He took out his tape recorder and turned it on. "Give me your name, and then tell me all about Bad Dan," he instructed.
The old man began to talk quickly and defiantly.
Benny heard the same story Jonathan had; but where his friend had been skeptical, Benny was intrigued. He had to get back there, the sooner the better. The storm was coming; the longer he waited, the less chance he would have to confront Bad Dan. If he did not go now, he might miss his chance entirely. Jonathan never understood about deadlines and stories. Besides, Benny had missed lunch already. He had already broken his promise, although he had not meant to. Better to go now. He hung back, trying to analyze the pull that drew him to the house. Was it merely the desire to confront the unknown and scoop the world? Or had Bad Dan made contact already? The idea was a little scary. Because it was frightening, he decided to go anyway and overlook his fear. If he let fright defeat him, he would be no use as an investigator. Squaring his shoulders, the intrepid ghost hunter got into his car and drove to the Marlowe house. If Jonathan had been with him, he would have seen an unnatural blankness in Benny's eyes. Not possessed but compelled, Benedek drove unhesitatingly into danger.
By two o'clock, Jonathan had convinced himself that Benedek was in serious trouble, but there was nothing he could do about it. Although not dizzy when he walked around the hospital, he was still weak; even if he had managed to dress one-handed, he had no way of reaching the house, supposing he could figure out a way to sneak out of the hospital. Port Jack had no taxi service, and Benedek had the car. This place was too small for a Hertz office, and he doubted he could drive in his condition anyway.
As he waited, the sky darkened, and the clouds came rolling in from the sea. Jonathan chewed his fingernails in worried frustration. He considered sending the police after Benedek, but he was not sure they would go. He fretted while someone came and put X's of tape across his windows. This was not good.
Just when he reached the conclusion that he would have to hitch a ride out there, salvation arrived in the unlikely guise of Dr. Juliana Moorhouse. Spending time with Benedek had taught him to be crafty, so Jonathan did not instantly try to recruit her assistance.
"Dr. Moorhouse. How nice. What are you doing here?"
"I came to visit you, MacKensie," she said, her eyes narrowing in suspicion at his tone. "That lunatic Benedek telephoned last night and talked about all sorts of unlikely things. The man is certifiable."
"You're probably right," he agreed. Forgive me, Benedek.
"I only came to visit, but from the look of the weather we're getting, it might be safer to take you back to Georgetown with me, at least until after the storm," she said. "I've talked to Dr. Sullivan, and he has agreed. A nurse will be here in a moment to sign you out. Some of the patients are being moved anyway. They were happy to discharge you under the circumstances."
"Dr. Moorhouse, I could kiss you."
"I trust you'll refrain," she said tartly, adding as an afterthought, "How are you feeling?"
"Better." He began to take his clothes out of the closet and to struggle with the ties of his hospital gown.
"I'll get the nurse," said Dr. Moorhouse hastily and left him to dress.
Jonathan didn't want to admit to Dr. Moorhouse that he was not as steady on his feet as he had hoped to be. He was not dizzy; it just took an alarming amount of energy to walk to the car. But he felt better once he was sitting down.
"Turn this way," he indicated, pointing with his good hand.
"MacKensie, that will only take us down to the ocean."
"I know. I want to tell Benedek I'm leaving."
To his surprise, she agreed, although she complained all the way. The wind was beginning to pick up as they neared the shore. When she turned on the radio, storm warnings were being announced. There was talk of evacuating coastal regions.
"You'll have to make your goodbyes brief," she said. "I don't intend to drive in a storm all the way back to Georgetown just so you can talk to Benedek. The phone will convey your message just as well."
They pulled up in front of the Marlowe house. "My God, MacKensie!" she exclaimed. "No one in their right mind would go into a place like that."
"Benedek's here," Jonathan replied, pointing at the car.
"I rest my case."
Jonathan grimaced as he got out of the car, a difficult task with only one arm functioning. "I won't be a minute," he said; but something made him add, "If I'm not back within ten minutes, get help."
"Now just a minute, MacKensie," she cried as he ran for the house. "Come back here. What do you mean?"
He ignored her. The premonition that had plagued him since morning had intensified, and he was half afraid he would find Benedek unconscious on the floor, one leg severed from his body. "Benedek!" he bellowed as he went through the front door.
He had believed all along that this was some kind of vicious prank, and he still did; but vicious pranks could harm innocent people. Whoever had done it might want to maintain the legend to protect themselves; and, knowing Benedek, he had been running around publicly all morning asking about Morton and Bad Dan. Benedek was the type of person who ran toward trouble rather than away.
Running toward it himself, Jonathan edged his way around the icebox to the cellar door, which was standing ajar. He did not know if Benny had been here very long not too long, surely not too long. Please, not too long. "BENEDEK!"
"Down here, Jack."
Benny sounded frightened, and that spurred Jonathan to further effort. Leaning against the wall to keep his balance, he hastened down the stairs, turning on the flashlight from the glove compartment of Dr. Moorhouse's car and forcing the slack fingers of his bad hand around it.
Benedek was in the far corner of the cellar, near the mysterious door. It was closed, but it was glowing slightly, and Jonathan knew without being told that something lurked behind it. He wasn't sure when he had slid from outright rejection of the theory into belief, but he realized that he had, and that it was that belief that had driven him here.
"Are you hurt, Benedek?" Jonathan cried, his flashlight pinning Benedek in place. His friend looked intact, standing on two legs, but he looked more frightened than Jonathan had ever seen him.
"Get me out of here, Jonny," he pleaded. "He's coming."
"I can see that, you fool. Why are you still here?"
"I can't leave." Benny's voice was barely above a whisper. "He wants me."
"Well, you don't have to help him!" Jonathan started toward him, circling the rubble in the middle of the floor. Around him, the whole house shook with the force of the approaching storm, and hummed with life. The air tingled as if electrified.
"I can't help it," Benedek said. "I can't move."
"What do you mean, you can't move?" Jonathan had reached Benedek by then and gripped his arm, half for balance and half to reassure himself that his friend was alive and intact. "Come on," he urged. "We'll go out together."
"I can't move." There was sheer terror in Benedek's eyes. "He called me here. He wants me. I can't move." He shivered. "I'm not possessed. I know who I am. I know I don't want to be here. But I can't make myself leave. He took my will away." He clutched at Jonathan's good arm. "Get me out of here, Jack."
"Of course I will. Come with me." He pulled at Benedek, who came limply as if he could only move where he was guided. One step at a time, they worked their way back toward the stairs; it was like wading through molasses. Jonathan was not sure he was strong enough to fight whatever it was that had drawn Benedek to the cellar.
The struggle told. Benedek's face was damp with perspiration as he fought against the compulsion that had brought him here. Had Morton fought like this while his friends watched uncomprehendingly, and then fallen victim to something no one else could see? Would Bad Dan attack Benedek before Jonathan even knew he was there? In that moment, Jonathan MacKensie believed in ghosts.
But that belief only lasted a moment. Frightened though Benedek was, he must have psyched himself into this. It could not be real. It violated reason and logic.
Then why was the door glowing? Benedek could not cause that with his imagination, although it could be a trick; he might believe it so much that he was arranging proofs the way people perpetrated hoaxes to prove wild theories. Jonathan looked over his shoulder at the door. It was brighter now, although it shed no actual light in the cellar. Benedek was shivering as if he were freezing, and Jonathan could feel the tremors run through him as he got Benedek's arm around his shoulders and tried to pull him toward the stairs.
"Not far now," he muttered encouragingly. "It's not far. You'll be safe once we're away from here. He can't make you come back."
"He made me come here," Benedek insisted wearily. "I planned to come to the hospital and tell you what I'd learned. I'd promised, but I came here instead. I rationalized it, but I came here instead."
"That was just your natural stupidity," MacKensie joshed, hoping to provoke Benedek to his senses. "You wanted to come here, and you're trying to excuse it. That's just like you. When you got here, you scared yourself. Bad Dan's not nice. He'd scare anyone." He realized he sounded like an idiot, but he had to keep talking to hold Bad Dan at bay.
Then there was an ominous creaking sound the wind disturbing the house, Jonathan told himself and Benedek shouted, "He's coming! Help me, Jack! He's coming!"
To his horror, Jonathan saw the door standing ajar. He could not see anything else, but from the way Benedek stiffened against him and clutched at him, he knew that Benny did, fearing he couldn't resist. Jonathan was unsure if he could prevent himself from being caught up in Benedek's fantasy. He could not allow it to be anything else. He put himself between Benny and the door, and pushed him toward the stairs. "Almost out," he encouraged his friend.
The voice did not come from Benedek. Jonathan looked at the door. There was a faint outline of something moving toward him. He wondered why he could see it maybe because he was in contact with Benedek. Whatever the reason, he did not like the sight of the shadow that drifted toward them. "Stand aside," came a voice, and he was not sure if he really heard it or if it was inside his head. "He is mine."
"No," Jonathan shouted. "He isn't yours. You can't have him."
"He came at my bidding," the shadow said.
"He's right, Jack," said Benny faintly in his ear.
"Then you're leaving at mine. I won't let him have you, Benedek, so show some fight. I'm no ghost expert. I don't know what to do." He repeated it desperately. "I don't know what to do. You help me get you out of this, Benedek, or I'll kill you."
The faintest of chuckles came from his friend, who was still holding on. In some part of his mind, Jonathan knew he was anchoring Benedek to the here and now, just as Benedek was keeping him on his feet. He had no energy left, and his shoulder throbbed under the weight of Benny's lax arm. If he had to fight the shadow for Benedek's soul, he knew he could not win, not if it was to be a physical battle.
Still, Benny's laugh encouraged him, and gave him strength. His friend was not totally gone, then. Maybe there was still hope.
The shadow swung a sword in their direction. Jonathan wondered if it actually needed to touch Benny to do its work, or if it could remove his leg from there. He pushed Benny nearer the stairs.
"No." Jonathan's defiance could not completely mask his terror. "I don't owe you anything, and I won't let you have my friend."
"You tell him, Jon-Boy," Benny muttered.
"But how do I stop him?"
"I don't know."
"Big help you are," Jonathan said, but he kept his good arm around Benedek as if he could protect him by holding on. Maybe he could. Bad Dan had not moved for the past few minutes. He hovered in the middle of the cellar. Jonathan could see him better now; not enough to make out much detail, but enough to tell that one of his arms was clad in a more recent sleeve than the other one. The hand that held the sword wore a modern signet ring. Morton's? Although the face was unclear, he could see two eyes glaring at him, one vivid blue, one brown. The spirit hovered above the ground, one leg ending in a bloody bandaged stump just below the knee.
"I have come for my leg," Bad Dan announced, and Benedek made an inarticulate sound of fear. Somehow that galvanized Jonathan.
"You can't have it," he said. "What good would it do you anyway? Do you know what year this is? It's 1986. 1986! Blackbeard is long gone, dead more than 250 years. You'll never gain revenge from him on this earth. Benedek's leg won't make a difference to you. Go. It was too late before you even began."
The shape faded to a shadow again, but did not retreat. "Keep going, J.J.," Benedek whispered. "You've got him now."
"I've got him?" echoed Jonathan stupidly. "What do you mean, I've got him?" Realizing he had no choice, he squared his shoulders, wincing, and said, "Bad Dan, go from this place. Your revenge is futile. It was exacted long ago in a worse hell than this one." He did not know where the words came from, but they felt sure and right. "Your place is prepared there. Go. Maybe there will even be peace one day for such as you."
The shadow burst into light. For the first time, Jonathan could see him clearly, feature for feature, a harsh-faced, hard man, a patchwork of parts held together by fierce, burning hatred that gave vivid illumination to his movements as he lifted the cutlass and wielded it over his head.
"No!" Jonathan cried. "Other hands can't do your dirty work. You were betrayed long ago, and you cannot take vengeance through those you betrayed, lured here to pay for something you owed elsewhere. Those hands will not take revenge for you. They can't." He felt an intolerable weight of exhaustion hanging over him, beating him down, but he stood his ground.
The cutlass fell from Morton's hand. Jonathan had no idea who had sacrificed the other arm, but it lifted as if in tribute, then relaxed to hang uselessly at the pirate's side.
Benedek collapsed in a heap at Jonathan's feet.
They were alone in the cellar.
Shaking violently, Jonathan bent over Benedek, relieved to see that his leg was intact. "Come on," MacKensie urged. "Wake up, Benny. I can't carry you out of here, and from the sound of it, that storm could wreck the place."
Benedek rolled over onto his back. There were tears on his face, and he rubbed at his eyes to erase them. "Whoa," he said weakly. "You got him, Jack. Great work! I didn't know you had it in you. It'll really sell papers. I got it all on tape."
"What!" cried Jonathan in shock and outrage. "You got it on tape?"
"I couldn't leave," Benedek said weakly. "I couldn't fight him. But I could do that. Even if he'd gotten my leg, I'd have had my story."
"Your story! Benedek, I could kill you!" He grabbed Benedek's shoulder and shook him. "I risked my life for you. I stood up to whatever that was, and all you care about is a stupid story. You're mad!"
Benedek caught his good arm. "Jonathan," he said in a small voice that somehow stopped MacKensie in mid-tirade. Benedek sat up cautiously, then sagged against his friend. Jonathan caught him, and, for a moment, they stayed that way, clutching each other, still shaken. Then Benny said, "Thank you. There aren't many people who would do something like that for a friend."
"I still don't believe it," Jonathan denied hastily. He was not sure what else to say, and, knowing Benedek, he would cover up his vulnerability with something completely infuriating if Jonathan gave him the tiniest opening.
"How can you not believe it, Jack?" Benny demanded. "A classic example of spirit manifestation. What I wouldn't give for photographs. I wish you'd brought a camera."
"A camera?" Jonathan was furious. "I barely get out of here in one piece, I'm about to collapse myself, and all you worry about are stupid pictures. He probably wouldn't have shown up on film anyway."
"You never know," Benedek said blithely. He dragged himself upright with an uneasy glance at the distant door, then reached out a hand to MacKensie. "Come on, J.J. I don't know what you're doing here, but you look like you must have made a daring escape from the hospital. I'm finally corrupting you." He slid his arm around Jonathan's waist for support, and the two of them struggled up the stair. The house shook and vibrated around them as if it was in imminent danger of collapse; but this time, it was only the storm.
They emerged into wind and rain to find Dr. Moorhouse about to go for help. "There you are," she said impatiently. "Your ten minutes are past due, MacKensie. Let's go. This weather is getting impossible."
"Whoa," Benedek said with a big grin. "What're you doing here, Dr. M?"
"I don't have the least idea," she admitted.
Jonathan grinned at Benedek, and Benny grinned back. Not even the rain that drenched them on the way to their cars had the power to dampen their spirits.
"I still don't believe any of it," insisted Jonathan several days later back at Georgetown. After another night in a D.C. hospital, he had been discharged again. Although his arm was still in its sling, he felt better except for a certain disquiet he was not prepared to admit to anyone, least of all Edgar Benedek.
"Are you sure, Jack?" Benny asked suspiciously.
"Yes. Nothing happened to you. You got yourself psyched up to believe that Bad Dan was after you. Morton's injury was a freak accident, something he and his drunken friends covered up with a tall tale."
"Then why did Sullivan say his hand could have been severed by a cutlass?"
"Because any sharp object could have done it. You might as well say Darth Vader did it with his light saber."
"Hey." Benny was obviously charmed by the idea. Then he shook his head. "It won't do, Jon-boy. There were no Jedi knights in that cellar. We both saw something. I know you saw it, too."
"Then why does your tape only have our voices on it?"
"Spirit voices can't be recorded that way. You can't record telepathy on a tape recorder either. Besides, have you really listened to that tape? When you're talking, there are background noises, the storm, the house creaking, all that. When Bad Dan should have been speaking, there is just background. If it had been completely blank in those spots, you'd believe I doctored the tape."
"He's got you there, MacKensie," Dr. Moorhouse said from behind her desk. "You can't deny this one."
"It's all a lot of rubbish. If there was no ghost, that's exactly what I'd expect to hear."
"Then why," Benedek asked, "did you fight so hard? If you didn't believe it, you could have walked away and dragged me with you. No, you believed, J.J. I don't think you could have gotten rid of him so easily if you hadn't."
"You call that easy?" Jonathan shook his head. He did not understand why he had put up such a fight; maybe he had been influenced by Benedek's hallucination. He said as much aloud.
"No way, buds," said Benedek gleefully. "This one was real, and you know it. That's not the spookiest thing, though."
"What is?" Jonathan was not sure he really wanted to know. Bad Dan was the type of thing that could give a person nightmares.
"You, Jack. You said exactly the right things to him. With your lack of background in ghosts and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night, you shouldn't have known he couldn't use his 'prosthetic' hands to attack me."
"That's not a good argument, Benedek," he said quickly. "If Bad Dan wasn't real, it doesn't matter what I said to him."
"If he was real, then it matters a lot," Dr. Moorhouse argued. "How did you know what to say, MacKensie?"
He did not answer immediately. He remembered standing in the cellar facing Bad Dan facing something in spite of his furious attempts to deny it, and hearing the right words come, knowing with utter certainty that they were right. He had felt overpowering relief knowing he had saved Benedek. Now, in the cold clear light of day, he felt remarkably foolish about the whole thing. "I don't know," he conceded reluctantly. The only thing he did know was why he had done it, and that was another story. Benedek might be infuriating, exasperating, and annoying, but Jonathan had not meant Bad Dan to have him. He started to smile at Benny, then decided against it.
Benedek caught the aborted smile and returned it happily. "You do believe in it," he said. "You just don't want to admit it."
"We'll never know," said Dr. Moorhouse. "With the Marlowe house destroyed in the storm, we'll never verify any of it. If Bad Dan was real, that's the end of him."
"Or the beginning," Benedek said in an ominous voice. "Free to roam the world, he might still be seeking new victims, no longer bound to the house."
"Benedek, you talk a great deal of nonsense," cried Dr. Moorhouse in exasperation.
Jonathan shook his head. He had read Benedek's National Register story, and Dr. Moorhouse had had fits over it, but it could not be helped. No reputable person would believe a word of it, anyway.
And neither did he.
Or did he?
© Sheila Paulson. The contents of this page may not be copied or reproduced without the author's express written permission.
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