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.
Estate sales were not for the faint of heart.
Just outside the deceased's house, hordes of potential buyers waited in their cars, with one hand securely fastened around the door handle. They drank cup after cup of coffee, watching for the slightest hint of the front door opening, which would mark the start of the sale. The sun would slowly creep over the horizon, perhaps watching for its own opportunity to plunder the riches of the deceased.
And when at last the door opened, the tide of buyers would cascade across the front yard, pouring from all directions and funneling through the tight confines of the doorway, then spreading out through every room, seeking what they might devour---err, take a fancy to--before anyone else decided they wanted it as well.
Dallas K. Brentwood had been a writer, the author of such immortal tomes as A Lady Named Durango, Mesquite Massacre, Texas Rhapsody, and dozens more. Over the course of his long life, he had collected a considerable amount of Southwestern memorabilia--statues, paintings, Native American artifacts, and the like--some from his periodic excursions across America, more from the legions of admirers he had also accumulated over the years. His house was a veritable museum, every room crammed from floor to ceiling with his collection. His sudden death was a blow to both his fans and his fellow collectors--many of whom were waiting outside the house, waiting to pick the house clean. Most of the priceless items had already been donated to the museums carefully named in Brentwood's will, but what was left was still pretty valuable. And it all could be had for a relative song.
William James, Brentwood's attorney, close friend, and executor of the estate, watched the melee from the living room--standing, not sitting, because every piece of furniture had already been purchased--and shook his head sadly as all his client's earthly possessions were swallowed up in the swirling madness. Then his attention was captured by a new arrival, who was standing in the doorway with a look of amazement on his face. A tall, slender fellow with longish blond hair, he was noteworthy for the mere fact that he continued to stand there, shellshocked, as opposed to leaping into the midst of the feeding frenzy. Curious, James carefully picked a path over to the stranger's side. "Can I help you?" he asked pleasantly.
"Uhhh...I'm not sure." The newcomer looked around uncertainly. "I was driving by the place, and for some reason I decided to stop and come inside. What...exactly is going on here, anyway?"
"Proof that since a man can't take it with him, others are more than willing to lighten his load." At the young man's furrowed brow, James abandoned bad humor for simple explanations. "This is the estate sale of Dallas Brentwood. I'm his executor." He handed a card to the still-dazzled fellow.
"Dallas Brentwood?" the stranger echoed. "The writer?"
"One and the same. He died about two weeks ago. Upstairs, in fact."
"Wow..." He shook his head, an awed expression on his face. "I used to read all his books when I was a kid. In fact, he was one of the reasons I decided to become a writer..." A hopeful expression crossed his features. "Do you think I could go upstairs and see his study?"
"I don't see why not...though there won't be much left, I'm afraid," James said. "I'd suggest that while you're looking around, if you see anything you like that isn't bolted down or claimed, grab it while you can. Take the tag off the item and bring it to the cashiers over there. " He smiled again at the fellow. "So...you're a writer as well?"
"Kind of," he admitted bashfully. "I haven't gotten anything published yet, though."
"Well, perhaps you'll find something that will help your career." James pointed at the stairwell. "Up that way and to your right. It's the last door straight on."
"Thanks." The young man hurried up the stairs, colliding occasionally with a buyer but making fairly good progress. James idly wondered if the stranger had potential as an estate sale buyer, then returned to the relative safety of his original position.
Some time later, the young man returned from his visit upstairs. "Mr. James, did I understand you correctly?" he asked, eyes bright and excited. "Is everything in this house for sale?"
"Yes, that's quite correct." He smiled indulgently. "I take it you've found something?"
"Boy, have I ever! His computer was just sitting there--there wasn't even anyone in the room! I can't believe I'm so lucky!"
James frowned. "His computer? Frankly, I can't believe you're that lucky, either. Usually those are among the first things to be snatched up." He headed for the stairs. "Let's have a look, shall we?" The two men ascended to the second floor and entered the private sanctum of the late Dallas Brentwood.
The room was lined with bookshelves on two sides, a window on the third, and Brentwood's desk on the fourth. The room was surprisingly untouched; every book and knick-knack remained in place, and sitting placidly on the desk was the writer's personal computer, plugged in and set up as though it were waiting to be used. And sitting next to the machine was another familiar artifact, one that James found no less surprising to be there than the PC.
"I was wondering what this figurine was," the young man said, picking it up and turning it over in his hands. It was a small statue of a woman in Greek robes, standing with an arm outstretched in benediction.
"It's Calliope," James informed him. "One of the Muses. She was the sister who supervised the others; some held that the greatest writers in history received their inspiration from her. Dallas bought this statuette about twenty years ago while vacationing in Greece. About six months later, the novel he'd been working on hit the best-seller lists. He used to claim that this was what made him hit the big time."
"It's beautiful," the stranger said softly, still examining it.
James smiled and carefully detached the claim tickets from both the computer and the figurine, then handed both to the young man. "Well, it's odd that no one's snapped these up," he said. "Perhaps it was because Mr. Brentwood died in front of the machine, while working on his novel. You know how superstitious people can be and all. Well, congratulations, my friend. I'd say this was your lucky day."
"You're not kidding!" he said breathlessly. "The price is even low enough! God, I can't wait...to think I'll be writing on Dallas Brentwood's computer!"
"Perhaps some of Calliope's magic will rub off on you," James said. "By the way, in case it does, could I have your name, so that when I see it on the bestseller lists, I'll remember you?"
"Aw, I doubt that'll happen," the young man grinned, "but just in case...it's Penny. Joe Penny."
"Well, my congratulations again, Mr. Penny," James said, shaking his hand. "And all the best to you." He watched Penny towards the stairwell; frowning, he shook his head and stared out at the chilly February morning, then looked around the room again.
How curious. In all his years as a lawyer/executor, James could not recall a single instance where such so many valuable items in excellent condition had not been snapped up immediately. How very strange...
Suddenly James was gripped with an inexplicable desire to leave the room. It overwhelmed him, drove him backwards into the hallway. He shut the door behind him and hurried back downstairs, where the terrible sensation passed just as abruptly as it had come. He shivered slightly and glanced back at the study, then hurried downstairs.
For some reason James didn't relish going back inside that room--not for anything in the world.
That night, Joseph Penny lugged his new computer up three flights of stairs, all but threw his battered old Selectric off his desk, and proceeded to set his new device up. He skipped dinner, failed to answer his phone calls, and didn't even notice the loud heavy metal music coming from the apartment downstairs.
At long last, all was ready. Joe Penny carefully placed the figurine at the left corner of the desk, then sat down in front of the computer and began to type....
* * * * * * *
"So when you want to save your text, you point and click at this doo-dad," Janine explained, moving the arrow on her computer screen to the appropriate site and smacking her mouse twice. And nothing happened. "I said, you point and click," she repeated, smashing down hard on the mouse; the machine beeped in pain but dutifully obeyed her command this time. "See, Winston? Nothing to it!" she said triumphantly.
"You sure make it look easy, Janine." Winston sat back in his chair and smiled. "I've never been too good with computers...and with Egon and Ray always hogging the one upstairs, I don't get much opportunity to practice. If I'm going to get anywhere with these things, I'm probably going to have to go out and buy one of my own." He sighed and shook his head. "That ought to be an experience."
"Hey, I think it's great, you wanting to do writeups on the cases," she assured him. "Besides, it means I don't have to do it for Dr. Venkman." She punched the "close" icon on her screen and smiled. "So...what's your first novel going to be about?"
"Whoa there," Winston laughed, holding up his hands. "I just started taking those creative writing classes. Slow down a few years, will you?"
"Ahhh, you'll do great." Just then they heard the door to the firehouse creak open; shivering slightly as the brisk December breeze shot around her, Janine instantly switched into her "professional receptionist--don't give me grief" mode and swiveled into position behind her desk. "Can I help...you?" The last word came out as a combination gasp and squeak.
The man who was stumbling towards them looked like death warmed over; his hair was a long, greasy blond/brown, stubble covered his face, and his filthy clothing hung listlessly upon his skeletal frame. "You gotta help me," he mumbled, heading straight for where Janine sat. "Help me," he repeated.
Winston rose to his feet, equally ready to catch the intruder or send him flying. "Hey man, I know it's tough out there," he said in concerned tones, "but this isn't a safe place to crash in. Let me fix you something to eat, or maybe drive you over to a shelter..."
"NO!" the bedraggled man screamed, pounding his fist on Janine's desk; the receptionist gave a startled squawk and propelled her chair backwards. "You don't understand! I need your help! I need the Ghostbusters! YOU'VE GOT TO HELP ME!"
Janine and Winston had seen their share of lunatics and cranks in their time with the company, but the intensity and passion this tramp was emanating was unlike anything they'd ever experienced. He stared wildly at them for a moment, then pulled a tattered wallet out from the back pocket of his pants and fished around inside it, finally flipping a plastic card onto the desk. "I can pay," he raved. "You gotta help me..." And suddenly his eyes rolled up into his head; Winston was barely able to catch him before he went crashing to the floor.
"Poor guy," he shook his head. "Times are tough all over, and he was pretty convincing, but..."
"Winston." Something in Janine's voice gave him pause; he turned to find her holding up the card the stranger had given them. "This is a platinum American Express card," she informed him.
"What's the name on it?"
She studied the card. "Joseph Penny." Her eyes widened suddenly. "Hey, isn't that the name of that hot new Western writer? The one who's gotten all those stories published, and the huge contract from Doubleday? All in the last year? I read about it in the Post last weekend--the critics are just going nuts over his stuff!"
"Yeah, I've heard about him. But Janine, come on. Does this look like a rich and famous writer to you? He probably stole the wallet, and Penny got the cards canceled before the guy could use them ."
She shook her head. "Don't ask me why, but Winston, I think he was telling the truth. He's scared to death about something. I'm bringing the guys down here."
"Well," Winston conceded, "Okay, but call Doubleday while you're at it and get the name of Penny's agent. If nothing else, he can tell us whether or not this really is Penny, and if it isn't, he can get the wallet back to him."
"Will do." She hit the intercom alert button and started giving orders; Winston took the unconscious visitor over to a nearby sofa and dumped him unceremoniously on it. As he studied the man, the Ghostbuster noticed something odd.
The man's fingers were twitching spasmodically...as though he were typing on some unseen keyboard.
Peter looked down at the unconscious man on their sofa with equal parts curiosity, disgust, and pity. "Janine, if I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times--you can do better than this." Ignoring her stuck-out tongue, he shook his head sadly. "So, has the mad scientist contingent come up with anything?"
"I'm afraid not," Egon replied, studying his PKE meter. The arms of the device were at rest, with no beeping coming from the base. Ray's nearby gigometer was similarly silent. "Whatever this person's problem, it isn't connected to anything paranormal, so far as I can determine."
"Shoot, we've got more residual PKE on our bodies than he does," Ray added. "You say he insisted that he needed our help, Janine? Maybe he'd been staying someplace that had manifestations?"
"We're not even sure who he is," Winston said. "A wallet and credit card isn't anything but circumstantial evidence."
Peter shook his head again. "Look, guys, when he comes to, let's give him a shower, shave, hot meal, warm clothes, and take him over to Mercy Mission. We can give the wallet..."
"...to me," came a new voice. The Ghostbusters turned as one to find a woman of medium height and brownish hair coming through the front door. The instant she spotted the derelict on the couch, she gasped and rushed over to his side. "Oh, Joe, what have you done to yourself this time?"
"You mean this really is Joe Penny?" Janine gasped.
"Yes, it is." The woman looked up at them. "I'm Chloe Markham, Joe's agent. You must be the woman who called my office. Thanks for your concern, by the way--I was worried sick about him." She looked around at her hosts. "So, would you mind telling me how he got here, of all places?"
Winston shrugged. "He walked through the front door, same as you."
"Well, that's something. Usually it takes nothing short of three people to get him away from his computer." She paused as Penny's head began to shake back and forth. "He's waking up...Joe? Joe, it's Chloe. Can you hear me?"
"What....what?" He slowly opened his eyes and tried to focus. "Chloe? What are you doing...." He took in his surroundings and blinked. "Where am I?"
"Ghostbusters Central," Janine informed him. "You kinda dropped in, remember?"
"Ghostbusters..." His eyes widened as his memories returned. "Oh, thank God I made it! I was afraid he wouldn't let me...you've got to help me, please!"
"Hey, slow down," Winston urged, helping him into a sitting position. "Get yourself together, then tell us your problem. We'll do what we can."
"I don't know how long I've got," Penny moaned, holding his head in his hands. "God, I feel terrible."
"Not surprising," Egon jumped in. "I would suggest you come upstairs and let us prepare a hot meal for you; at a glance, I would say your blood sugar has dipped below the suggested minimum for a man your height, weight and age."
"That sounds wonderful," Penny sighed. He glanced up at the Ghostbusters, gratitude written in his expression...and then he spotted the computer sitting on Janine's desk. His eyes abruptly glazed over; lurching to his feet and sending Markham sprawling backwards in the process, he stumbled purposefully over to Janine's desk. And at that moment, both Egon's and Ray's meters began screeching. Startled, the scientists lifted their devices and gasped in surprise. "I have a sudden surge in PKE, Ray," Egon said.
"My gigometer's climbing fast, too! What's going on?"
"HEY!" Janine yelled as Penny sat down in her chair and cleared her screen. "I was working on something! Get away from there!" Penny ignored her; his attention was completely focused on computer screen. He flexed his fingers experimentally and started typing.
Peter helped Penny's agent to her feet, then headed over to the desk. "Hey, guy, it's rude to go shambling off like that..." His eyes suddenly grew wide. "Holy cow!"
Winston came over and followed his partner's gaze. Penny's fingers were almost a blur as they raced back and forth across Janine's keyboard. The word processing program struggled to keep up with the rapid input being fed into it, but it didn't seem to matter to Penny; he continued to stare sightlessly at the screen and work.
Egon's PKE meter was now lit up like a Christmas tree. "This is incredible," he said. "I never seen a reading like this before. It's pushing the meter's upper limit." He glanced over at Ray. "Possession?"
"That's be my guess. What do you suggest we do?"
Egon pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "Ms. Markham, would you happen to have a key to Mr. Penny's apartment?"
"As a matter of fact, I do." She fished around in her purse and pulled a ring out. "He gave it to me a month ago," she added, blushing slightly as she handed one particular key to Egon."
"Excellent." Egon glanced over at the still-writing Penny, then returned his attention to the group. "Ray, you and Peter take Ms. Markham to the apartment and do a full set of PKE readings. Janine, Winston and I will run a few tests on Mr. Penny."
"What makes you think he's going to cooperate?" Janine asked, aiming a thumb at the subject of conversation.
Egon frowned. "We'll think of something."
* * * * * *
Surprisingly, they didn't even need the key to the apartment; in his haste (or desperation), Penny had left the door unlocked. All the same, all three visitors had to fight an overwhelming reluctance in order to step through the doorway. Ray's PKE meter was glowing slightly, an omen that the parapsychologist found promising.
Peter looked around with disdain. "Geez," he said, sniffing at the disorganized clutter and garbage that littered the floor. "If he's so busy, why doesn't he just hire a cleaning service and let them take care of things? This makes the firehouse look immaculate by comparison!"
"I've hired three different services for him," Markham said. "None of them
lasted over a week--the help refused to come over. They said they got the
distinct feeling they weren't wanted here."
She shivered slightly. "I see what they mean."
"Not unusual," Ray informed her as he slipped his ecto-goggles on. "Many spirits view their habitat as sacrosanct--only a select few, like yourself, are permitted inside. If you hadn't come with us, I doubt Peter and I would have been able to get in."
"Which is not to say I feel all that welcome, anyway," Peter said. "Find anything?"
"Well, there are definitely traces of PKE," Ray replied, "pretty evenly spread out through the apartment. That would definitely point towards some sort of spiritual possession going on. But it doesn't tell us what's behind it, how it got to Penny, or why it's doing this. And those are the questions we need answered."
Markham had gone over to Penny's desk and was reading a manuscript on the PC screen. "This must be his latest novel," she mused, scrolling through the pages. "You know, I've told him time and again to save this stuff periodically, not just leave it on here. My clients have lost more Great American Novels because of carelessness like that. But he never listens--laughs about it, if you want to know the truth."
"Confident son of a gun," Peter said, moving over to join her. "Any good?"
"Oh yes. Some of his best stuff to date." She smiled up at Peter. "This is the kind of writer agents dream of--comes from out of nowhere and just sets the world on fire. I just wish he'd let himself enjoy it."
"Well, if he's possessed by some sort of literary-minded ghost, it probably won't let him have the time," Ray said as he came over to join them. As his PKE meter swept by the statue of the Greek maiden, its whine increased in intensity momentarily, then it reached the computer and all audio hell broke loose. "Now that's interesting," Stantz commented, waving the meter over the computer. "This thing is hot!" He switched the meter off and removed his goggles, then gave the computer a critical once-over. "Hmmm, nice setup."
"It's one of the better ones on the market," Markham agreed. "It must have cost him a fortune."
"Well, he's certainly got the fortune," Peter remarked.
"No, he's had this as long as I've known him," Markham shook her head. "And he wasn't in very good financial shape when we met. He must have gotten quite a deal for it, somehow."
"Hmmm." Ray's brow was furrowed in thought. Fishing out a notepad and pencil from one of the many pockets on his coveralls, he turned the computer around and scribbled something down, then returned it to its original setting.
"What is it?" Peter asked.
"A possible lead. Let's head back to the firehouse and see how Egon's doing."
* * * * * * *
Egon was staring intently at a video screen, brought downstairs along with several other pieces of equipment that he'd needed when all efforts to budge Penny from where he sat proved fruitless. So long as the writer was left alone to work, he didn't really care what the Ghostbusters did--even when Egon placed an odd-shaped helmet atop his head. It was this gadget, connected to the screen, that was providing them with a ghost's-eye view of Penny.
"What are all those dark spots here and here?" Janine asked, pointing to several areas around Penny's on-screen image.
"Regions of PKE activity. This is a situation we've never come across before," Egon said, rubbing his chin in thoughtful contemplation. "Selective possession of a host. Fascinating."
"Selective possession?" Winston echoed. "You want to explain that, Egon?"
He reluctantly turned away from the screen and cleared his throat. "In all prior cases of possession that we've encountered, the spirit entity is in complete control of the host. For all intents and purposes, the body's original spirit--the true owner--is engulfed, or perhaps submerged would be a better term."
"Okay, but you're saying this one is different."
"Correct, Winston." Egon turned back to the screen. "These shadows that Janine just pointed out are thought to be 'creative centers' of the brain--areas in which writers, artists, and people in similar professions demonstrate a high degree of brain activity. As you can see, the entity is centering its efforts in those areas of Mr. Penny's brain--continuously stimulating them so that he has a compulsive, obsessive urge to write."
"I know a few writers that would love to have that happen to them," Winston said.
Janine glanced over at Penny, still merrily typing away. "To the exclusion of eating, sleeping, bathing, or living?" she asked softly.
"Janine has a point," Egon agreed. "I don't know how long these 'creative bursts' last--Mr. Penny has been going strong for about forty-five minutes with no sign of slowing down--but I would venture to say that each burst has been growing in duration since the first occurrence. The entity is growing more skilled at applying the stimulus, and the body is growing accustomed to accepting the bursts. Eventually, Penny might become an idiot savant of sorts, able to write incredible works of fiction but unable to perform even the simplest tasks, such as feeding himself, bathing, and so on. "
"That's terrible!" Janine declared. "What are we going to do?"
Egon sighed and pushed his glasses up his nose. "I honestly don't know. This is not a typical possession case. We can't force the entity out with our weapons--the effect on Penny could be disastrous, if not fatal. If we can obtain more information on the entity--what it is, how it came to be centered on Penny--we may be able to find a way to persuade it to leave on its own accord."
"And if we can't?" Winston asked, eyeing Penny.
"I'd rather not think about that."
* * * * * * *
ECTO-1 returned about an hour later; Penny was still going strong with no end in sight. The Ghostbusters compared notes on the second floor, leaving Janine to keep watch on the frenzied writer.
"This case both fascinates and worries me more every minute," Egon confessed, munching on a donut. "It's obvious that the entity is growing stronger with every active period--and the fact that its protective wards are still quite secure at Mr. Penny's apartment while he's here indicates that it was quite powerful to begin with."
"Look, can you do anything for him?" Markham asked, exasperated with Egon's seeming detachment.
"Ms. Markham," Ray said soothingly, "believe me, we're trying to. But we have to know what we're up against before we can proceed. Egon's just running the facts through his head to find connections."
"Hey guys," Janine called from downstairs. "The spook's fled again, and I've got a comatose writer asleep at my desk."
Why don't I take him home in ECTO?" Winston suggested. "It'd give us some peace and quiet, and Janine could get back to work."
"If you wouldn't mind taking me along," Markham added. "I don't think there's much more I can do here. At least I could look after Joe while he sleeps, and maybe neaten the place up a bit."
"That's an excellent idea," Egon nodded. "Miss Markham, we'll be in touch as soon as we have more information." Winston and Peter escorted the agent downstairs, leaving the two scientific minds at the table to ponder the case further; Ray handed his partner the notepad he'd written upon earlier. "Here's the serial number for Penny's computer--it's a Gateway 486."
Egon studied the numbers. "Excellent. With any luck, we can trace the machine's whereabouts from the time it left the manufacturer to its previous owner. That might give us a clue as to what has happened to Mr. Penny."
Janine appeared in the stairwell. "They just left, Egon. Peter put Penny in the back seat, and Ms. Markham insisted on sitting back there with his head in her lap." She smiled gently. "You know, I get the feeling that she doesn't do that for all of her clients."
"Only the talented ones," Peter remarked from behind her.
Three days later, Chloe Markham found herself once again at Ghostbusters Central. "Miss Melnitz said you wanted to see me," she said, "and she was kind enough to stay and keep an eye on Joe. So what have you got?"
"We think we know what's going on," Ray informed her as she sat down at the dining table. "How is Mr. Penny, by the way?"
"Writing," she sighed. "I started timing him the other day--he goes strong for about three hours or so before collapsing. I thought you'd want to know."
"Thank you," Egon nodded solemnly. "Every bit of data helps."
"So," Markham asked, "what have you found out?"
"We went to the computer manufacturer and traced the machine down," Ray said. "It was originally purchased by Mr. Dallas Brentwood, who apparently..."
"DALLAS BRENTWOOD?" Chloe gasped. "My God...I had no idea!"
"I take it you've heard of him," Peter grinned.
"Dallas Brentwood was a client of our company for twenty-five years," Markham explained. "The man was prolific--it wasn't unusual to see four or five books of his go into print a year, and they were all very good sellers. He was working on a novel when he died, in fact...they said they...found...him..." She gasped again and paled.
"In front of the computer terminal," Ray finished. "Right?"
"Most entities that we encounter have ties to the temporal world," Egon explained. "Unfinished business, unresolved problems, and so on. A second factor in the manifestation of ghosts is sudden death. Mr. Brentwood would seem to have met both qualifications."
"So you're saying..."
"That Dallas Brentwood is possessing Joe Penny, in order to finish all the stories he had wanted to write but never got the chance to do," Peter said. "And if he was as busy as you say he was, that could take quite a bit of time."
"Brentwood's spirit was probably waiting in the PC all along," Winston said. "We got hold of his executor, who said that a lot of people went up to that room but didn't want to go in, himself included. The spook was waiting for a compatible host to show up and claim the machine...and Brentwood would in turn claim the host."
Markham sat back and let all of this sink in. "So," she said slowly, "what do you intend to do?"
"That's where we're at a loss," Egon admitted. "Our normal procedures are out of the question, as we can't use our proton packs and traps to force the entity out without injuring Mr. Penny. The ideal scenario would be to make contact with Brentwood's spirit and persuade him to leave voluntarily, but if the ghost is not willing to cooperate..." He shoved his glasses up his nose. "In any case, we believe it's the best option."
"Do what you have to do," Markham nodded. "You...won't hurt him, will you?"
"Not at all," Ray explained. "What we're going to do is route a low-level proton charge through Mr. Penny's body--nothing that will hurt him," he hastened to assure the alarmed agent, "but enough to irritate Brentwood's ghost and make it a bit uncomfortable. That may be enough to get it to emerge in order to find out what's causing the discomfort...and from there, we can try to get it to leave voluntarily."
"And if that doesn't work?" Markham asked.
"We'll review our options and go from there," Egon replied.
"Well, we've got a game plan," Peter said, clapping his hands. "Let's go over to Penny's apartment and have a chat."
"About time you guys got here," Janine grumbled as she let them inside. "It's all I can do to keep from running out of here."
"Where is Mr. Penny?" Egon asked as he removed his coat.
"Where else?" Janine pointed with her thumb towards the next room, where the sounds of rapid typing could be distinctly heard. "You know, I timed him just for kicks...this guy could make a fortune in the secretarial pool. He's three times faster than anyone I've ever seen."
Peter and Winston had gone over to stand beside Penny, who continued to write, oblivious to everything but the words that flooded from his fingers. "Hmmm...." Peter studied the paragraphs as they scrolled up the page. "You ever read westerns, Winston?"
"Not really. Mysteries are more my taste. How about you?"
"Nope. Never could stand anyone who'd rather kiss his horse than the girl. Hey Ray, you ready to hook our zombie up and give him a jump-start?"
"On my way." Stantz joined them at the desk and removed his proton pack; Egon joined them after taking a few PKE readings around the room. The two scientists set to work, strapping a device that resembled a blood pressure cuff around the writer's arm, then sliding two black cables into a device that sat atop the cuff. The other ends of the cables were inserted into a pair of holes on Ray's pack. "All set," he called out cheerfully.
"All right," Egon nodded, studying his PKE meter. "Start with the lowest possible level." Ray complied, and the pack emitted the familiar high-pitched whine that the Ghostbusters had grown to know so well. "No measurable activity," Spengler frowned. "Try the next setting, Ray."
The pitch of the whine increased slightly. "Nothing yet. Go up again. Incidentally," Spengler added, "you didn't tell me there were two PKE frequencies here, Ray."
"What?" Ray asked, surprised.
"I picked up two distinct patterns on my sweep. The more powerful one is emanating from Penny, but I wasn't able to determine the source of the second."
"But I didn't get anything when Pete and I were here..."
Peter rolled his eyes. "Uh-oh...Egon, is this something we should be worried about?"
Spengler shook his head. "The reading was faint enough that it shouldn't matter. We can deal with Brentwood's ghost first, then lock on the second reading when we're finished."
Chloe Markham stood nearby with Janine, watching the tableau with distinct unease. "You're sure this won't hurt Joe?" she asked.
"Nah," the receptionist shook her head. "It's walls, buildings, and stuff like that the guys trash. They're real careful with people."
Ray had gone up three more levels, with no effect. "Obstinate little critter," Peter commented.
"Try going up two levels this time, Ray," Egon suggested. Ray complied, and was rewarded when the PKE meter gave a startling beep. "Up one level, now," Spengler ordered. The meter beeped again, this time more insistently. "Another one, Ray."
Suddenly, Joe Penny turned around and glared at the Ghostbusters. "Do you all mind?" he demanded hotly. "I'm trying to get some work done around here!" He noticed the device on his arm and started working to remove it.
"Uhhh....just who are we talking to?" Ray asked.
"Who do you think you're talking to?" Penny snapped, tossing the device at the chubby Ghostbuster. "Look, you're trespassing here. Take your toys and leave right now, before I call the police!"
"I don't think you want to do that," Peter said smoothly.
"And why not?"
"Because you'd have to stop writing to make that call," Venkman pointed out. Penny stared at him for a moment, then shrugged. "Stay, then, if you insist," he said airily. "Just leave me alone. I've got to get this finished."
"Mr. Brentwood..." Egon started.
"What?" Penny growled, then froze.
"Bingo," Winston smiled.
"Mr. Brentwood," Egon started again, "don't you think it's time you released your hold on this man?"
"Go away," the spirit ordered, and instantly everyone in the room felt an overwhelming, irresistible need to leave; Janine shivered and took a few hesitant steps towards the door, but Egon moved quickly to block her, as well as anyone else who entertained similar notions. "I don't think so," Spengler informed the spirit. "I think it's you who ought to be leaving, if anyone."
"I've got things to do, places to be, and stories to write." Penny turned towards the terminal. "Don't let the door hit you on the way out." Another wave of revulsion engulfed the Ghostbusters; Peter groaned softly, then suddenly grabbed the thrower attached to Ray's proton pack and took dead aim at the computer.
"Either talk to us or face the ultimate in writer's block," he said with a smile.
Penny stared momentarily at Venkman, then turned in the chair. "Look," he pleaded, changing tactics. "This kid was never going to go anywhere. I've given him a reputation, money--everything he's ever dreamed of! What more could he possibly want?"
"His own life," Chloe Markham said softly. "His own opportunities."
Penny/Brentwood snorted. "What opportunities? You tell me how many new writers manage to break into the market at all, much less with as big a splash as I gave him. He'd never get as far as he did without my guidance. It's the best of both worlds--I can keep writing, and he gets the glory."
"You're hurting him," Winston said. "Maybe even killing him. Pretty soon there'll be nothing left of him inside...only you. Is that really what you want, Mr. Brentwood? Do you really want that on your conscience?"
Brentwood considered this, then sighed. "All right, all right. I've got a few more stories, maybe a novel or two left. Let me have him for another month or two, then I'll let him go."
"And what then?" Markham cried. "While you're working on those stories, how many more will you dream up? How many times will you say 'just one more story'? How much longer will you insist on living your life through Joe?"
All during the discussion, Janine had been edging around the Ghostbusters, searching for something she could use as a weapon if worst came to worst. While a blunt object might not be much good compared to a proton pack, it was better than nothing. Spying the Greek figurine on the desk, she slipped an arm around Winston and grabbed it tightly. Without warning a wave of energy shot through her, causing her eyes to widen and a soft "oh" to escape her lips. Unfortunately, the Ghostbusters were too involved in arguing with Brentwood to notice their secretary's plight.
"And what happens if you kill Penny while you're writing those 'last few stories'?" Markham demanded. "What are you going to do--wait for another victim to come along and let you take over?"
"Look, the sooner you shut up and leave, the sooner I can get back to work and finish up these stories, " Brentwood/Penny was insisting. "Now I've really got to insist you get out and leave me alone." This time the compulsion was overwhelming; the Ghostbusters and Markham fell back, unable to withstand the psychic assault thrown at them. Egon stumbled backwards and fell against Janine, who oddly enough held her ground. He glanced up at her and paled. "Uh-oh."
The others turned and, seeing the blank expression on their receptionist's face and her stiffened posture (as well as the Greek figurine, still tightly grasped in her hand) , looked to Spengler, who was scanning her with his meter. "Don't tell me," Peter pleaded. "I don't wanna hear this."
"Dallas," Janine suddenly said in a clear, melodious voice devoid of any Brooklyn accent. "Dallas, this has gone far too long."
Brentwood/Penny turned in response, and the instant his eyes fell upon Janine, he stiffened. "Go away," he repeated, uncertainty lurking in his voice.
"I will, once you leave this poor fellow alone," she said firmly. "And stop those silly little parlor tricks this instant. I won't have it, Dallas."
"Egon?" Winston whispered, his eyes riveted on Janine.
"Possession," Spengler confirmed, staring incredulously at his meter's readings. "By something that is off the scale."
"That second reading!" Ray exclaimed. "The figurine must have been the source!"
"Oh great," Peter groaned, slapping his head with his hand. "Two for the price of one. I knew I should have stayed in bed today."
Meanwhile, the possessed pair glared at one another. "I told them, just a few more stories and I'd let the kid go," Brentwood/Penny said peevishly.
"A promise you had no intention of keeping," the entity within Janine replied. "Dallas, I've been quite patient with you up to now, but time's up. I've been very good to you over the years, but you've written all the stories I allocated to you. It's time now for Joe to write the stories I've chosen for him. All right?"
Brentwood/Penny's face fell as he sighed heavily. "Just this last story?" he said plaintively. "I'm on the last page--honest."
Janine nodded indulgently. As Brentwood/Penny went back to work with a fierce determination, Egon took a deep breath and cleared his throat. "I don't believe we've met," he said to the entity inside the receptionist.
"No, we haven't," she smiled back. "I'm known as Calliope."
"Of course!" Ray snapped his fingers in recognition.
"Of course," Peter echoed dryly. "So what does that have to do with our literary spook?"
Calliope/Janine smiled benevolently at him. "My duty is to provide the spark of imagination and inspiration in writers. Everyone I've ever touched has been given a certain number of stories to tell, over the course of their lives. In Dallas Brentwood's case," she said with a slightly pained look, "he decided to go over his allotment, stealing from Joe Penny, actually. I waited to see if you could reason with him, but when he proved obstinate, I decided to lend a hand." She glanced down and examined Janine's body. "Hmmmm....not bad, not bad at all."
"Do you think Brentwood's going to leave Penny's body?" Winston asked.
"He will if he knows what's good for him," Calliope/Janine replied, then smiled brightly. "Ah yes, Winston Zeddemore...that reminds me..."
"Never mind," she assured him with a maternal pat on the shoulder. "You'll understand eventually. Now then..." She returned her attention to the computer terminal, where Brentwood/Penny had just stopped typing. "Are you finished, Dallas?"
"Yes, yes..." Brentwood was clearly unhappy with the situation but resigned to his fate.
"Have you saved the document first?" she reminded him. As Brentwood grumbled under his breath while he complied, Calliope/Janine shook her head. "You know," she remarked to the Ghostbusters, "progress has really complicated this job in ways I could never have dreamed of, way back when."
"All right," Brentwood/Penny sighed. "I'm done. Let's get this over with."
"Oh, don't be so morose," Calliope/Janine chided gently. "You can always take the reincarnation option and start on the stories you didn't finish this time. Now come along." There was a soft shimmer in the air, followed by a pair of gasps from Penny and Janine, who released the figurine and collapsed. Egon was able to catch her just before her head hit the floor.
Markham and Winston had hurried over to where Penny had slumped over. "Joe?" Chloe asked worriedly. "Joe, can you hear me?"
He moaned softly. "He's gone...finally, he's gone..." She and Winston helped the exhausted writer to the bedroom, while Peter and Ray helped Egon cart Janine to a nearby couch. The receptionist's eyes blinked several times as she struggled to focus on the three worried faces. "What happened?" she asked weakly.
"You got possessed by a Greek muse, then you fainted, but Egon caught you," Peter explained.
"Hot damn," she sighed before passing out again.
After making sure that Penny was truly free of the spirit's control, the Ghostbusters had taken Janine back to her apartment before heading home to the firehouse. In the back of ECTO sat Brentwood's computer, given to them by a relieved Joe Penny. "Take it," he ordered over their protestations. "I don't care if it's free of the ghost. I can buy a new machine. I don't ever want to see that thing ever again."
"So what do we do with it?" Winston asked.
"Well, you had been looking for a PC," Ray commented. "Can't beat the price of this one. And before you ask," he held up a hand as Winston opened his mouth, "yes, Egon and I are positive that it's PKE free. We ran five readings to be sure."
"Well...." Winston thought about it. "If you're sure."
That night, Winston sat down in front of his just-installed computer and called up the Word Perfect program. Excitement rushed through his body; ever since that afternoon, it seemed as though his mind was bursting with story ideas that begged to be written. Fingers poised over the keyboard, he pondered momentarily about what to write, then inspiration struck and he set to work.
Fifteen minutes later, he sat back and reviewed the most recent paragraph he'd typed:
Durango leaned back in her saddle and considered the proposition, then lit up a cigarillo and took a deep draw from it. "Sorry, pardners," she said, blowing out the smoke as she spoke, "but this gun isn't for hire at that price."
"Well, maybe we can make it worth your while," said the first stranger, hand poised over his own weapon.
With a blur of motion, Durango's hand darted to her holster and retrieved her Colt 45. "Then again, maybe not," she smiled.
Winston glared at the computer, then at the ceiling. "Cut it out, Brentwood!" he yelled, reaching over for the proton pack he'd kept nearby.
The computer beeped abruptly, then suddenly the screen cleared itself.
Grinning, Winston applied fingers to keyboard and started over, the soft clicking of his typing echoing into the night.
This story remains one of my personal favorites, despite the circumstances it was written under. More on that later.
Dallas Brentwood comes from the middle name of an old friend and Brentwood Boulevard in St. Louis, which I often take to get to work. Inspiration is where you get it. William James is in fact my attorney, though he practices a different type of law than the character portrayed here. Joe Penny's last name comes from the term "penny dreadful"--a nice literary term that I always found catchy. Chloe Markham showed up in my second RGB novella "Perfect World"--kind of. If you haven't read it, I'm not going to spoil the joke. "Durango" is of course Deanna Troi's holodeck character in the TNG episode "A Fistful of Datas".
And I hope you all caught the significance of Calliope/Janine patting Winston on the back. Would that we'd all be "touched by the muse" so easily.
When published, the story was dedicated to Kathy Hintze, who had been the editor of "Adventures" up to her death in 1993. Mary and I had met Kathy some years earlier through the Blakes 7 convention "Scorpio" and MediaWestCon, and it was always wonderful to see her behind her table, talking to everyone and selling her wares. Kathy had been diagnosed with cancer, and as time passed it certainly took its toll, a piece at a time. But through it all she kept her sense of humor and her courage intact--leaving all of her friends stunned and inspired.
To give you a case in point--in early 1993, I'd agreed to work a convention for Orion Press in Kansas City. The convention was a dog, so we packed up early and headed for home. Our car conked out in the middle of the interstate in a bad section of town. To make matters worse, it was the weekend that a massive arctic cold front had swept down over the Midwest. To make matters even more worse, KC was holding the NCAA Basketball division championships that very weekend--no hotel rooms available. Stranded at an auto dealership that was about to close, trying desperately to find somewhere to stay until Monday, when they could fix our car, stuck in a town where I knew hardly anyone, I did the only thing I could--I called Kathy and asked if she could help.
She was there in half an hour. She got us to a hotel that had agreed to put us up. She got us to a K-Mart where we could get some warm clothes. She loaned us a chunk of money. She took us up to the airport so that we could rent a car till Monday. She took us somewhere to eat. It was only later we found out she'd just finished a nasty round of chemotherapy and was her immune system was dangerously vulnerable. Yet she hadn't thought twice about it. That was Kathy. She's definitely on my short list for "Candidates for Sainthood".
Anyway, at the 1993 MediaWest Kathy had commented that she'd threatened Sheila--said that if Sheila didn't keep writing RGB fanfic, she'd come back and haunt her computer. Well, you just donít forget things like that, and eventually the story wrote itself. I think she would have liked it, though she would have blanched at having it dedicated to her. Tough. This one's for you, Kathy. Keep haunting our computers and goading us to write more. We wouldn't have it any other way.