This is an amateur, non-commercial story, which is not produced, approved of, or in any way sponsored by the holders of the trademarks/copyrights from which this work is derived, nor is it intended to infringe on the rights of these holders. And so it goes.
The pictures were yellowed with age, torn at the edges from being constantly removed, handed around, and returned to the battered leather album. Some of the shots were somewhat blurred, the result of amateur photography and being rushed for time. But as Henry Washington pointed to each black-and-white photo, it was clear that their magic had not lost its potency through time.
"Oh yeah, I remember this one," the old man chuckled quietly, shifting his body so that he was closer to his guest. He pointed to a group photo, each man standing next to a P-47 Thunderbolt with the silhouette of a ghost painted on the side. "We had just gotten back from a run over Munich and run into some of the Luftwaffe's boys. Man, that was a catfight!" His finger pointed to the picture beside it, which featured a tall, handsome pilot wearing a cocky grin. "That was 'Lucky Lou' Greene. Shot down more than a few of Adolph's finest...and more than a couple of England's gals afterwards!"
He turned the page and pointed to a new set of pictures. "That's 'Showboat' Reynolds and 'Waggle' Walters, the squadron's two best fliers. And they knew it. Never made a landing without making sure everybody knew it was them behind the stick. And over here's me and 'Crash' Carter..."
"You know," Winston Zeddemore said with just a hint of teasing in his voice, "you never did tell me what your nickname was, Hank."
"That's right, son, I didn't!" The old man's laughter was abruptly cut off by a sharp twinge of pain, which rippled through his body and forced him to lean back into the soft confines of his hospital bed until the spell was finished.
"Take it easy, Hank," Winston said, standing beside the bed with a comforting hand on Washington's shoulder. "You want me to get a nurse?"
"Nah, I'm okay." Washington shook his head. "Just old age and a broken-down heart talking back, that's all." He leaned back and sighed. "Dying really stinks, Winston. Don't ever try it."
"Point taken--and hey, don't you go ahead of time, hear me?" Winston took the album off Washington's lap and smiled. "The Black Phantom squadron. Man, I remember how we used to beg to get a look at this every weekend." He looked up and grinned at the old man. "I also remember how the stories changed every time you told them!"
"Boy, if'n I'd told you the same stuff every time, you'd have gotten bored and gone running off with that pack of wild animals," Washington said. He took the album from Winston and caressed the pictures tenderly. "Besides, you think some of those war stories were tall tales, you should have heard the talk at the reunions!"
"I wish I could have gone to them," Winston said. "I'll bet they were something."
"Nah, just a bunch of old men talking about the past." Washington fell silent, his gaze turning towards the bright spring afternoon. "But you know, I sometimes wish they were still around, son. It gets lonely every now and then, being the last one around." His face brightened as though he forced the loneliness back. "Of course, between you and my daughter, I can't get too lonely, can I?"
"How is Tish, Hank?"
"Why don't you ask her yourself?" Winston turned around to find a strikingly beautiful young woman standing in the doorway, smiling brightly at him. "Tish, you remember Winston Zeddemore from the neighborhood, before he went and became a big, bad Ghostbuster?"
Her smile brightened. "I remember a Winston Zeddemore who wouldn't let me play ball with the rest of the kids because I was 'just a girl', Dad. You think he's gotten a bit more enlightened in twenty years?" She opened her arms and accepted Winston's bear hug. "Looks like there's hope after all!"
"Man, when did you grow up and become drop-dead gorgeous?" Zeddemore laughed. "Especially with your old man's genetics?"
"Hey, don't blame me," Tish said teasingly. "You were there--you just didn't notice."
"More fool me." He guided her over to the chair he'd been sitting in and pulled a second chair beside the bed. "So, what have you been doing?"
"Writing," she replied. "I'm working on a book on black aviators for the Smithsonian. Given my family history, I was a natural for the job." She spotted the album and smiled. "Don't go running off with that, Dad. I need some of those pictures for the book."
"You mean you're including the Black Phantoms?" Hank asked, pleased. "The guys would be tickled pink to know that."
"You were part of the Tuskagee Airmen," Winston remarked. "One of the few black squadrons that saw action, and one of the best. I'd say you qualify." He leaned forward. "Maybe when I read Tish's book, I'll finally get the answer to my question."
"Oh?" Tish asked. "What question's that?"
"What your father's nickname was."
"Oh, that," she said with a nonchalant wave of her hand. "That's easy--it was..."
"Tish..." warned her father.
Hank looked up at the ceiling. "Take me now, Lord."
Winston gave the old man a long look. "This I gotta hear."
"Ohhh...." He gave the two younger people a dirty look. "I knew I shoulda never taken you to those reunions," he chided his daughter.
"According to what the guys told me," she continued with a smile, "Dad was without exception the last pilot to take off. And since they had this pact to always leave together, they all had to wait on him before they could take off."
"That's because I always wound up last to use the bathroom," he grumbled.
Winston nodded with a grin of satisfaction on his face. "It took a long time to find out, but it was worth the wait, I'd say." He rose to his feet. "Well, I've got to get back to the firehouse before too long. I've got a couple of calls tonight, and I'll need to get a nap in before too long."
"Hey, when you gonna bring some of those doo-dads here and show me what you do?" Hank demanded. "I ain't gonna be here forever, you know."
"Dad, don't talk like that," Tish said, an edge in her voice.
"Well, I ain't. Facts are facts. Sooner you learn to accept 'em, the better, I always say." He shook Winston's hand warmly. "Thanks for bringing the album from home, son. And don't be a stranger. Otherwise, I'm gonna have to start chasing the nurses again, and they're too fast for me."
"Will do, Hank. Take care." As Winston reached the door, Tish rose as well and hurried toward him. "Can we talk?" she asked quietly, glancing at her father, who was thumbing through the album again.
"Sure." They headed into the hallway, out of earshot. "What's up?"
Tish bit her lip, uncertain on how to proceed. "I was talking to the nurses about Dad earlier, and they...well, they said that he's getting a bit odd at night."
"Odd? How so?"
She took a deep breath. "They said that late at night...he's talking to people who aren't there. To the other members of the squadron. They told me a few names that I recognized from the scrapbook and all."
Winston shrugged. "Medication will make you see odd things. Take it from one who knows firsthand."
"No." She shook her head, eyes bright with worry. "They say he's very much with it, because he stops talking to them the minute he knows someone's there. But he starts up again a few minutes after he thinks they're gone." She looked up at him. "Winston...I'm worried, and a little bit scared. I don't even like the idea of him dying, but this...I couldn't bear to see his mind deteriorate first."
"Have you talked to the doctors about this, Tish?"
Winston put an arm around her shoulders. "Well, that's what I'd suggest. And I'll try to get over here more often. Maybe he's just lonely and scared, and talking to his old war buddies is his way of coping, you know?" He looked down at her and smiled. "Man, I must have been blind to not see how you grew up."
"It's never too late, you know," she smiled, holding up her left hand to reveal five ringless fingers.
"I'll keep that in mind," he nodded. "May be awhile, though. I keep odd hours, you know?"
"I'm a freelance writer, Winston. I can adapt my hours to yours any time. And you know, I had quite a crush on you when I was fourteen..." She smiled brightly again.
"I tell you what. I'll come by the day after tomorrow, and afterwards, we'll go out to dinner." Winston was oddly pleased by her nod of acceptance, and was surprised to hear himself whistling cheerfully as he left the hospital for work.
* * * * *
He was still whistling to himself when he arrived at the old firehouse that was hope to the Ghostbusters. Walking inside, he noticed that ECTO-1 was missing, which meant the guys must have gotten a call while he was out. Since they hadn't paged him on his beeper, it probably was a local inquiry, either a crank call or a low-class ghost. Considerate of them to leave him be; maybe he'd cook tonight and return the favor.
"Must be a lady," Janine remarked from her desk as he drew near. Her eyes were focused on her computer screen, but Winston had learned a long time ago that she missed nothing.
"Now, what makes you say that?" he asked, going to his mail slot and pulling out a pile of envelopes.
"Every time you meet a pretty girl, you start whistling all the time. It drives Dr. Venkman crazy, you know." Janine paused in her word processing and gave Winston her full attention. "So, what's her name, where did you meet her, and when are you taking her out?"
Winston looked up and studied the secretary intently. "You don't waste time, do you?"
He sat down on the edge of her desk. "All right, I give up," he grinned. "Her name is Tish Washington, and it so happens that we grew up together. I was visiting her father at the hospital today, and she happened to drop in. And we're going out to dinner in a few days."
"So," Janine nodded, taking notes on a steno pad, "you got an address for her?"
"What for?" Winston asked.
"So I can tell the florist where to send the flowers," she said, as though it were perfectly obvious.
"Janine! This is just an old friend, nothing more."
"Sure it is, Winston," she said placidly. "You whistle after meeting all your 'old friends'."
"Man..." He lifted his hands in surrender. "For what it's worth, I don't know where she's staying. Probably at her father's place."
"Okay." Janine peered intently over her glasses. "And his name is...oh, wait. Hank Washington, that's right. You had me send some flowers to him the other day. Okay, I can take it from here."
"You really don't waste time, do you?" he laughed.
"That's why you guys pay me the big bucks," she said smugly. 'When you pay me at all, that is." The latter was aimed at Peter, who arrived in ECTO-1 with the others during the course of the conversation. He made a face at her but chose to carry a handful of smoking traps to the basement instead of joining in.
Ray handed Janine a pile of receipts. "Rough day?" Winston asked him.
"Golly, Winston, you really missed some beauts today! We had a Class Three at the Battery, a non-repeater at Shea Stadium, and a really ugly sucker at the Flatiron building! It was great!" Ray suddenly lost a great deal of enthusiasm as a slime-covered Egon walked sullenly by. "Uh...well, it was great for some of us, anyway."
"Sounds like it," Winston agreed. "Say, Ray--would it be a problem if I were to snatch one of the meters sometime soon? I've got an old friend in the hospital who keeps wanting to know what I do for a living, and I thought I could show him a few of the tools."
"I don't see why not," Stantz shrugged. "We've got all of them working and calibrated, so we won't be caught short."
"Sounds good, my man." Winston yawned and stretched. "Well, I'm going upstairs and catch some shuteye. Later on, Janine." He and Ray climbed the staircase, laughing and talking; Janine waited until she was sure they were out of range, then grabbed the Manhattan phone directory. "Let's see...Washington, Washington...now would that be 'Hank' as in 'Henry', or...."
* * * * *
"You mean to tell me you can detect spooks with this doo-dad?" Hank Washington demanded. He gripped the PKE meter with his right hand, turning it every direction so that he could examine it more closely. "You gotta be kidding me, son. This is just a toy, right?"
"No joke, Hank. This thing's saved my neck on more than one occasion. Some ghosts don't take kindly to being busted, and you oughta know what it's like going into enemy territory."
"Well...how's it work?"
Winston took the meter from the old man. "Well, it probably won't pick up anything but residual energy off me, but what you do is flip this switch..." To his surprise, the instant the meter was activated it flared into life, beeping and flashing while the legs extended. "Well sunuvagun...looks like we've got something here!"
"Ahhh..." Washington's voice was slightly uneasy. "Maybe you just got a lot of that PKE stuff on you, like you said."
"No way." Winston was slowly pacing the room, waving the meter around and studying the results intently. "Residual energy doesn't give off this kind of reading, and besides, I checked myself this morning, just to make sure you'd get to see something." He frowned and shook his head. "I'm not an expert at interpreting these readings--maybe I ought to call Egon and the guys, have them come over and check this out."
"Winston, I'm sure they're real busy," Hank said quickly. "You don't need to get those boys out here on a wild goose chase..." Suddenly he gasped, his face contorting as a burst of agony shot through his body. His hands clawed at his chest momentarily then fell slack as his body slumped back against the mattress. Nearby, the heart monitor abruptly screeched in loud alarm.
Winston turned and headed for the bed, but an army of nurses and doctors flooded the room and gently pushed him back...or tried to. Because at that moment, two things happened.
First, the PKE meter reading jumped all the way over to the right.
Second, all hell broke loose within the room.
A gust of wind roared from out of nowhere, slamming into the hospital staff and threatening to drive them away from Hank Washington's body; they gripped the cold rails of the bed, anchored themselves as best they could and continued to work on resuscitating the old man. Pinned against the wall, Winston could only watch, wide-eyed, as the storm raged on, knocking flower vases, plastic cups, pieces of paper--anything that wasn't securely anchored--across the room. And through it all, the PKE meter continued to glow brightly.
The heart monitor suddenly stopped screaming, switching over to a wavering staccato beat.
And the storm abruptly stopped.
Winston waited just long enough to make sure that Hank was going to pull through this crisis, then headed for the phone.
* * * * *
"Sorry Winston," Janine informed him, "but the guys got a call from New Haven; I don't think they'll get back until tomorrow morning. Ray said he'd call me when they got their hotel rooms--maybe I could have him call you when he checks in?"
Zeddemore grit his teeth in frustration. "Well...no, tell you what. I'm going to be coming back to the firehouse in a while; I'll check in with them there. They didn't take all the packs and traps, did they?"
"No. Your pack's sitting in your locker, and last time I looked there were at least a half-dozen traps sitting in the basement. Everything okay out there, Winston?" Janine's voice was tinged with concern. "You need me to come out to the hospital or anything?"
"No, it's okay. Nothing I can't take care of myself. See you later." He hung up the phone and looked up to find Tish Washington running down the hallway towards him. "Winston?" she cried breathlessly. "What happened? They called me and said that Dad had a heart attack, and that some weird stuff happened while they were trying to revive him! Is he okay? Where is he? I want to see him..."
"Okay, okay, slow down," he ordered, holding her by the arms. "Catch your breath. He had a bad attack, but they took care of him--they've taken him down to ICU for the time being. It's okay, Tish. It's okay." She suddenly burst into tears; Winston wrapped his arms around her and hugged her tightly, comforting her as best he could while his mind started trying to piece together the puzzle surrounding the recent events.
"You can go in now, Miss Washington," a kindly-faced nurse said; trembling slightly, Tish rose to her feet and hurried into the ICU ward, leaving Winston alone with Hank's doctor, an older, tired-looking woman named Dr. Bloemker. "So, Doctor, what's the situation?" Winston asked her.
"Well," Bloemker said, blowing a sigh through her lips, "frankly, it's not good. We brought him back this time, but next time...and there will be a next time, I promise you...I don't know if we'll be as lucky." She shook her head and stared at the wall. "Considering what was going on while we were working on him, though, I'd say the word 'miraculous' is a better choice."
"He's not going to make it out of here, is he?" Winston asked, a plaintive chord in his voice.
Bloemker shook her head. "Frankly, I'm all in favor of asking his daughter to authorize a 'no code' on him. Let him go in peace. We're just prolonging the inevitable, and causing him a lot of pain in the meantime." She rose to her feet and shook his hand. "Pleasure meeting you, Mr. Zeddemore. If you'll excuse me, I've got a few patients to check on."
"Thanks again, Doctor." As she walked off, Winston glanced down at the PKE meter sitting in his lap. It was crazy, the whole thing. The initial reading indicated a low but evenly-spaced out amount of PKE in the vicinity--high enough that he knew he wasn't the source, but not so high that it posed a threat. Or so he'd thought, until that maelstrom hit while they were trying to revive Hank from his heart attack. The meter had been screaming like crazy at that point.
If Winston were paranoid, he'd almost swear that someone or something wanted Hank Washington dead. But that was just silly thinking, a moment of sheer whimsy, and wasn't relevant to the important question--what had caused the PKE surge and disturbance?
Well, he might not know the what and why, but he could do something about the situation. First off, he'd check on Hank when Tish was through...and perform a discrete PKE check in the ICU room, just to be sure. Next he'd make sure Tish was all right, and then he was going back to the firehouse and make a few preparations for this evening.
* * * * * * *
Winston returned to the hospital that evening, carrying a paper sack in one hand and a large briefcase in the other. He'd checked with the reception desk to make sure Hank was still in ICU, then hurried over to the elevator and went up to the ward. Tish was sound asleep in the visitor's lounge, so he left the items he'd brought beside her and headed over to the nursing station, then asked to see Hank.
The old man was sleeping, hooked up to a variety of monitors and IV lines that snaked across his body in every direction. He looked pitifully frail and vulnerable in the muted lighting; Winston held his hand and gave it a quick squeeze, then quietly activated the PKE meter that he'd hidden under his coat. To his surprise, the low-level reading appeared again. That confirmed one suspicion in his mind--something was out to get Hank Washington. Well, they'd have to go through Winston Zeddemore first, that was for sure.
On the way back to the lounge, he grabbed a blanket from a cart and tried to place it over Tish, but that only succeeded in jolting her awake. "What?" she gasped, blinking as struggled to become fully awake. "Winston? Is Dad okay? What's going on?"
"Easy, Tish." He sat down beside her and handed her a greasy paper bag. "McDonalds was all that was on the way over. Sorry."
"S'okay." She attacked the Big Mac greedily and slurped the soda down in record time. "How is he?"
"Resting. I checked on him when I got here. Tish, we need to talk." As she ate, he explained his theory about the readings he'd taken and what they signified. Her eyes widened as his words sunk in. "But Winston, why would someone be after Dad?" she asked. "It doesn't make sense!"
"Ghosts don't always make sense, Tish. Only thing I can guess is that for some reason--maybe some weird sense of revenge on dying themselves--this thing wants your father dead. But it's okay--I've brought some stuff to make sure it doesn't get a second chance to cause trouble."
"I appreciate that, Winston." Her eyes were shining up at him. "I appreciate your being here." To his surprise she suddenly leaned forward and kissed him...not on the cheek, as he would have expected, but on the lips.
Before he could react to that, he heard an alarm wailing from the ICU ward, and seconds later the words "Code Blue" were heard, followed by Hank's room number. "Damn," Winston snapped, and in one smooth motion he left the couch, grabbed the briefcase and ran into the ward, Tish following close behind.
To her shock--but not his--the medical staff were standing outside Hank's room, all of them looking angry and frustrated. "What's going on?" Winston yelled at Dr. Bloemker, who looked the maddest of the lot. She tilted her head towards the doorway; Winston looked inside and groaned.
Once again the hurricane-like winds were blowing around the room; he could feel the breeze pushing him backwards, away from the door. And in the center of the storm lay Hank, untouched by any of the chaos that swirled around his bed. The monitors and IV stands were also unaffected by the winds--it was as though the storm's only purpose was to keep the physicians out.
"Enough," Winston growled. He sank to the floor in a crouch and snapped the briefcase open, pulling a ghost trap out of the padded interior. Taking a deep breath and saying a quick prayer, he placed the device on the floor and pushed it forward, watching in satisfaction as the winds ignored the intrusion. "Big mistake," he muttered, slamming his fist on the activator pedal.
Generally, the Ghostbusters preferred to pin an entity in their particle streams before using the traps, which had a limited power source and expended a great deal of energy when open. Besides, it looked more impressive to catch the ghosts before trapping them. But it was quite feasible to snag spirits by simply opening the trap and letting it suck everything it could into its embrace, as the entity which was blockading the way to Hank's bed suddenly discovered. There was a long, eerie wailing that seemed to go on forever as something kept pouring into the bright funnel of light that led to the trap's mouth....then the trap snapped shut, and the winds abruptly ceased. Winston lifted his fist from the pedal and let the doctors rush past him to Hank's side, where they prepared to perform yet another resuscitation.
And Hank Washington's eyes flitted open, and he mouthed a single word: "No."
Tish and Winston saw him speak, as did Dr. Bloemker. She glanced back at Tish, who nodded fiercely in reply, then motioned for the staff to continue working. Winston guided Tish back to the waiting room, holding the smoking trap in his free hand.
Forty-five minutes later, Dr. Bloemker appeared in the doorway. "Your father would like to see you," she informed them. "Both of you. I wouldn't dawdle, either. Tish and Winston leapt from the couch and rushed to the room where Hank lay, an oxygen mask strapped across his nose and mouth. His eyes were tightly squeezed shut, but when Tish's hand brushed against his, they opened slowly and focused upon his visitors.
"Dad?" she said softly.
"Let...go..." he breathed, each word heavy with effort and agony. "Let guys go...please..."
"What? Dad, what are you talking about?" In reply, Hank's hand left hers and slowly extended its index finger until it was pointing directly at the trap, which Winston was still carrying. "Dad? No, we can't do that! We can't let that thing go--it's trying to kill you, Dad!"
He shook his head slowly. "Time...they're waiting..."
And suddenly it all hit Winston at once. Hank's talking to absent comrades late at night...the low, evenly distributed PKE that was benign until Hank's attacks...and the medical staff tried to save him...Winston knew enough about PKE from Egon's lectures to see the truth.
It wasn't a single entity that had been present; it had been several. And they hadn't been trying to kill him....
"They were trying to let him die," he breathed aloud.
"What?" Tish asked, glancing away from her father, who nodded at Winston with a tired smile.
"It wasn't a ghost--it was several. The other members of the Black Phantoms. They've been waiting for Hank to join them..." He glanced down at the trap. "Oh God, what have I done?"
"You saved his life!" Tish cried fiercely. "That thing would have let him die for no reason..."
"No, Tish." Winston shook his head. "They were trying to spare him any more pain. Dr. Bloemker said she was going to talk to you about issuing 'no resuscitation' orders...it's just prolonging his agony. He wants to go, Tish. Give him that right."
"But..." Her eyes filled with tears. "He's my father, Winston...I can't do that!"
"If you love him, Tish, you've got to let him go in peace."
She turned back to Hank, her tears streaming down her face. "Dad?"
He smiled at her, nodded, and patted her hand weakly. Then his gaze fell back to Winston...and the trap in his hand. Nodding in understanding, Zeddemore set the trap back on the floor and opened it with a quick stomp on the activator pedal. There was an explosion of light and sound, quickly extinguished, and a quick PKE check showed the low, even concentration of PKE once more. "Thank God they're not feeling vindictive," Winston breathed. "Tish..."
She leaned closer to her father's face. "Is this what you want, Dad?"
He nodded once.
"All right." Her lips brushed against his cheek. "I love you, Dad. I'll take care of it. You can rest now." She hurried out of the room.
Winston went to the bed and took the old man's hand in his. "Take care, Hank," he whispered, struggling to keep his own tears from breaking loose.
Hank Washington died peacefully in his sleep two hours later.
* * * * * *
He was buried in Arlington, with full military honors; Winston was one of the
pallbearers. Afterwards, Tish handed him her father's old photo
album. "He wanted you to have this," she informed him. "I've got to
take care of the rest of his effects, but this...this was special."
"I don't know what to say," he finally blurted out.
"Well," she said with a sad smile, "just remember that I'm going to need some of those photos, so you'd better take good care of it." She rose on tiptoe and kissed him on the cheek. "Thanks for everything, Winston. I'll see you soon."
A few nights later Winston had a dream.
He found himself standing on an airfield somewhere; it was just before sunrise, with a brisk chill in the breeze. Not too far away he saw a collection of P-47 Thunderbolts, each with the silhouette of a ghost on the side. A group of pilots were nearby, talking and joking among themselves.
"It's good flying weather, isn't it, son?" Winston turned and found Hank Washington standing there, looking young, alive and happy, dressed in his vintage leather jacket and headgear. "Well, I better be going--they look like they're getting impatient." He slapped Winston on the shoulder and hurried towards the other pilots, who were laughing and yelling for 'Slowpoke' to get his butt in gear.
A few minutes later the squadron had taken off, ascending into the bright blue morning sky. Winston watched them soar higher and higher, until they were completely out of sight.
And Winston smiled as he dreamed, and grieved no longer.
This is the best story I've ever written. Period.
While there was never a "Black Phantoms" Squadron, the Tuskagee Airmen did indeed exist. The story was inspired by a book published by the Smithsonian--a book that, due to my misplacing it, cost me $6 in library fines! Since that time, the Airmen have had a great HBO movie made about them, and there are two G.I. Joe figures commemorating their efforts in the Second World War...and I WANT ONE! BAD!
Ahem. Just as info, Dr. Bloemker is of course Mary Bloemker, keeper of the Peter David bibliography, fan of many programs, and the Person Who Hooked Me On Power Rangers. Blame her for "Reality Check". It's all her fault. Honest. :)