The alarm in the lab, indicating someone was knocking at the front doors, had been going off for over a minute before Egon started to wonder why Janine wasn't answering it. Then he remembered she was out with the kids. Sighing in annoyance at the interruption, he raised his head from the microscope, pushed his stool back, and headed downstairs, hoping it was anyone but a reporter, insurance salesman, or rabid tourist determined to take a photo that gave them valuable bragging rights. Whoever it was, even though he must have kept them waiting a while, they were still knocking steadily and patiently in the same rhythm when he reached the door, neither pounding in frustration nor giving up in defeat, before he turned the handle and opened it.
Well, they were definitely not reporters, salesmen, or tourists. He stood facing two men, one African-American, the other Caucasian; if not for that, they could have been clones – both were bald and wearing identical pure white suits, black gloves, dark sunglasses, earpieces, and scowls that must have been intended to be either indifferent or intimidating but came off as nothing more than mildly discomforting. Each of them carried an identical black briefcase. Their look and demeanor clearly said without words, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you, or else" – a look he knew well. The sight instantly brought to mind a face Egon hadn't thought of for years ("You're facing Federal prosecution for at least a half a dozen environmental violations") and made him narrow his eyes defensively as the hairs on the back of his neck stood up.
This can't be good, he thought with complete certainty. He took two seconds to scrutinize his silent visitors before asking, "Can I help you?" – the standard greeting for such people in such circumstances.
"Are you Dr. Egon Spengler?" This was also standard, even though the one asking always knew the answer already.
There was a pause longer than the question warranted. "I'm suddenly overcome with the impulse to deny it, but since that would be pointless, yes, I am."
"May we come in?"
"It would also be pointless for me to refuse, wouldn't it?" Egon didn't wait for a response (nor did the men seem to feel the need to make one) but opened the door all the way and stepped aside. He noticed the way the men looked around them as they came inside, not in wide-eyed awe like most first-time visitors to the firehouse, but rather as if they anticipated some surprise attack. Strange – he would have expected people in their obvious line of work to know he was the only one here now. It was tedious having to explain over and over again how the four Ghostbusters had decided to close the business and go their separate ways after spectral activity in the region dried up years ago, that since there were no ghosts left here for the them to trap, there were no more Ghostbusters, just one college professor guarding the Containment Unit in the basement of the building where he now lived with his family. Having no desire to give that speech again, he would assume they knew all this already and were just being overly cautious.
As Egon led them across the room, they didn't make a single glance up the stairs or down towards the basement... gave no clue what they had come here for. He stopped in front of Janine's old desk, where a computer and phone still sat but no longer surrounded by papers, and stood facing his guests with his arms crossed, seeing no reason to hide the suspicion in his face and voice. "Whom do I have the honor of meeting?"
"That's classified." Their voices weren't technically identical, but the identical monotone they used made them sound so; even looking directly at them, it was difficult to remember which one spoke (fortunately, it was also unnecessary). "We represent a top-secret branch of the Federal government assigned to handle threats the regular military is unequipped to deal with."
Egon found no reason to doubt this was true. He'd started hearing rumors years ago that the government was developing its own ghost hunting forces to replace the long-since defunct BUFO. Ray had even revealed during their last get-together that three men had paid him a visit to consult him about weapons designs. Winston had wondered at the time why they hadn't tried to contact the rest of them. Peter had subsequently scoffed that they "probably didn't want a repeat of '84"; likely correct, but Egon had always thought it was only a matter of time before one of them heard from them again. Apparently, it was now his turn. "Which threat are you looking for here?"
"None... today. We're investigating a high-priority case at the moment that we'd like an expert's opinion on."
"According to our data," the other agent continued, "the author of Spengler's Spirit Guide is the world's current leading expert on ghosts."
"I suppose so," Egon conceded. "If you wanted a consult, you could have called." Most requests of this sort came in by phone or e-mail. What did these two strangers want?
"A telephone call would not be sufficient in this case." The man who said this in a perfectly serene voice without a hint of urgency placed his briefcase on the desk and inserted a key in the locks over the clasps. When it snapped open, he rifled through a few papers before pulling out a thin manila folder. "Does the name 'Amity Park' mean anything to you?"
"I've heard of it." Egon had expected to hear from that town sooner or later. Just over a month ago, a frantic Winston had called to tell him about an article he'd read online about an attack on a small town by a ghost that had taken the form of a young, attractive, female pop star who channeled her power through music at her concerts. Egon had leaped from the breakfast table and rushed down to the basement, where he'd begun scanning the Containment Unit for a specific frequency. He'd checked and compared the ecto-energy signature on the read-out three times and asked Janine to confirm it as well before he called Winston back and assured him that Shanna was still inside. The resemblance was disturbingly uncanny, but as there had been no escape, he'd put the matter out of his mind... until he saw the news three weeks ago.
"Have you heard of the large-scale ghost invasion that took place there recently?"
"You'd be hard-pressed to find a ghost hunter who hasn't."
"How much do you know about it?"
"Only what I've read and seen in the news. No one's contacted me or my colleagues about it, as far as I know." Egon knew that Ray, at least, had been as curious as he had been at first about what could have drawn so many ghosts to that location (none of the research they did pointed to any weakness between dimensions or natural portal ever being found in that area, or mentioned any activity like Ivo Shandor's), but no one called them for help or to hire them. Reports on the competency of their local ghost hunters (What were their names again? He couldn't remember – no one they knew...) varied widely, but Egon could only suppose they must be good enough at their job. Well, neither he nor the other Ghostbusters had any intention of trespassing on others' territory without invitation. Amity Park's recent bout of hauntings interested him no more than any other ghost sightings around the world did.
"So you're aware of what ghosts have been sighted there."
"A little." Egon hadn't kept a constant vigil over all ghost appearances there, but he had kept his eye on them (as his three friends did) for anything particularly troubling. Besides the rock star (whom Peter had desperately hoped didn't also have the power to cast love spells), he could recall reports of a horde of ghosts that looked like modern prison guards (Peter had needed to stay here for a few days then, paranoid that the People Busters were back looking for them), a werewolf-like ghost that made Winston worry that some new disaster had happened in Lupusville, a sentient shadow that caused bad luck for anyone or anything it touched, and some full-torso apparition with an obsession with boxes. He knew Ray had notes on a lot more. "Ray Stantz could tell you more about them than I can."
"We're only interested in one." The agent held the folder out to Egon. "Do you recognize this ghost?"
The retired ghost hunter took the file and opened it to find a picture of a full-torso apparition that looked like a thin, lanky teenaged boy with spiky white hair and bright green eyes, dressed in a black and white jumpsuit not unlike their old uniforms. He flipped through the rest of the pages – more pictures of the same ghost in different locations, lists of sightings, transcripts of interviews, sheets of calculations and statistics, all on the same subject. It was a dossier on this one ghost.
Egon said flatly, "I've seen him before – never in person." He knew from what he'd seen on the news and in the papers that this phantom had a habit of showing up at practically every ghostly incident that struck the town, but nobody had any solid details to share about him – not his name, not his motives, not where he'd come from, nothing. Egon wondered what the agents could have brought this file here for; what he'd just read showed they must know far more about the ghost than he did. What did they expect him to help them with? He closed the folder and handed it back. "Do you know who he is?"
"We call him the Ghost Boy. He was one of the first ghosts to be sighted in Amity Park several months ago, before the appearances became more frequent. He's the one who brought the others and started the invasion."
Egon raised his eyebrow skeptically at the way he said that, as if it was an obvious, unquestionable, and inarguable fact. "I never heard that part." In fact, it made no sense, given what he'd observed of the Ghost Boy so far. They must have a lot of classified data on him that hadn't been released to the public. "You have proof of this?"
"We have footage of him attacking the mayor."
"What? When?" Egon knew of only one incident that could fit that description, but they couldn't be talking about that one because...
"Less than three weeks ago. You must have read about it. During the first town meeting about the new ghost crisis..."
"I read all about it," the scientist assured them, more confused than ever. "I also read the interview afterwards where the mayor stated he couldn't remember anything that had happened that day. He must have been possessed at the time, which any other ghosts near him would have known. If the Ghost Boy was behind the invasion, why would he attack one of the humans they were possessing?" How could they have ignored that?
"If he wasn't, why would he attack the mayor at all?"
Had they been listening to what he'd just said? How could he make it clearer? "He could have been fighting the other ghost. Which means he could have been trying to stop it. Trying to save the man."
"We have more footage of him attacking civilians – mostly students and teachers at the high school. He's clearly on a rampage and a serious threat to public safety."
Egon couldn't believe what he was hearing, and he couldn't help arguing with this unfounded, illogical theory the same way he would have argued with someone who claimed the Earth was flat. "One of those students said he saved her."
"She merely saw him attack another ghost and jumped to conclusions."
Somebody's jumping to conclusions, all right, their audience thought to himself. "Seems to be a habit of his. He also attacked the pop star ghost who hypnotized most of the town and almost the world."
"Yes, fortunately, something went wrong with their plan there."
They took that exclamation as a literal question. "We don't have time to speculate on what disagreements might lead ghosts to turn on each other."
Apparently, you don't take the time to speculate about anything. "Then I take it you don't know what started the fight between him and the spectral shadow after the latter started attacking a water park, either."
"No," the agent said, shaking his head. He opened the folder again and flipped to a page near the back. "We haven't determined how he picks his targets yet. So far, he's damaged or destroyed the water park, a mall, a warehouse, a bowling alley, an ice cream parlor..." He turned the page. "... a private research lab, a football field, a water tower, the high school several times..."
He wasn't finished, but the last thing on Egon's mind was etiquette. He took a step towards them and, shocked that he needed to point this out at all, said, "You're listing places that were damaged during battles between ghosts."
Egon waited to be sure he'd heard that right and that nothing else was coming. "It might not have been intentional."
The conversation had turned from irritating to infuriating. Not that either of the strangers could tell, as it took a lot more than that to make Egon Spengler raise his voice or display emotion. He simply said in his standard monotone, with nothing more than a slight scowl and a faint edge to his voice, "Not all ghosts are evil or out to cause chaos. The presence of one during an incident does not automatically imply causation or malice."
"This one poses a clear and present danger to society and must be neutralized before he causes any more destruction."
"You have no proof he deliberately caused any of the destruction he's been involved in. What about the ghosts he's stopped from hurting people?"
"We have been unable to prove any of those claims to date."
If not for his decades of training, Egon knew he wouldn't have been able to repress the urge to scream at them. He could feel the strain in his voice as he forced himself to say, slowly and calmly, "Maybe the destruction was the coincidence, and he was either in the wrong place at the wrong time, or trying to prevent it."
"You think he's some sort of hero then, too?"
A brief pause followed this, but it ended with Egon (truthfully) assuring them, "No." Ray had never been able to get any of his friends to agree with him on that point.
"Then you understand the importance of stopping him before it's too late."
No, he hadn't said that. Egon honestly didn't know whether the Ghost Boy was behind the attacks on Amity Park, trying to stop them, or a bystander who'd gotten caught in the crossfire – there was evidence for and against all three possibilities. He only knew there currently wasn't enough evidence to call him a malevolent spirit as confidently as his two accusers did. He opened his mouth to say so but quickly closed it again. What was he doing? Why was he so determined to defend some ghost hundreds of miles away to two strangers? It was none of his business. He didn't even know which argument was right, so why was he arguing with them like this? Why did it matter so much to him – how afraid everyone was of him, how quick they were to blame him for everything when, for all they knew, he might be trying to protect them? And now the government was sending agents after him without proof that he'd hurt anyone. It was so irrational, so unreasonable, so... familiar...
"These men are consummate snowball artists! They caused an explosion!"
That was why Egon couldn't stand what he was hearing, why it bothered him so much, why it felt so personal. True, the ghost might actually be as dangerous as they claimed, but until they had more reasonable grounds to believe so, they had no right to go after him like this. Egon couldn't help but sympathize with him, whoever he was – if anyone knew how it felt to be treated like criminals when you didn't deserve it, it was the Ghostbusters.
All their former leader said, however, was, "Not everyone trusted us when we first opened. You know how that turned out. If I were you, I wouldn't be so quick to decide which ghost to blame for this invasion. Making assumptions before you have all the facts can be dangerous."
Neither of them seemed the least bit insulted or troubled by his accusation; one said in a perfectly neutral tone, his confidence completely unshaken, "We know enough to know this unauthorized entity cannot be allowed to roam free."
The other said just as coolly, "Which brings us to why we're here."
Arguing with them was pointless. Anxious to get this over with as quickly as possible, Egon sighed in defeat, rallied his strength, and asked, "Yes?"
"We'd like your professional opinion on what we're dealing with, doctor." The agents turned to each other. The one who had given Egon the file nodded, and his partner handed him his own briefcase, which the former held up so he could unlock it. Egon watched him take out a glass sample jar containing a small glob of glowing, green, viscous liquid. "You know what this is?"
He'd know it in his sleep. "Judging by sight alone, my first guess would be ectoplasmic residue."
"Correct. We collected it after a battle three nights ago. Care to guess from whom?"
He didn't need to guess. "The Ghost Boy?"
"Also correct." He held the jar out to Egon, who made no move to take it. "What can you tell us about it?"
This was definitely more than he had expected. The scientist raised his arm towards the jar but froze in hesitation half-way. Something inside him resisted the idea of cooperating with them, shrinking back as if from some danger, but his own curiosity overruled it. This might be his only chance to get some answers of his own.
He took the jar and held it up above his eyes with one hand, adjusting his glasses with the other. It definitely looked authentic. "Hmm..." His visitors followed him as he walked around the desk, opened a drawer, and pulled out a PKE meter (even after closing up, he didn't feel comfortable without always having one nearby, in good working order). Ectoplasmic residue couldn't give as detailed a reading as you could get from the ghost itself, but it would tell him something. He pointed the probe at the jar, and the antennae instantly popped out as the familiar flashing and beeping started. He watched the screen intently, waiting for the analysis to complete and the results to appear.
Egon didn't tell them so, but the readings were unusually erratic. The meter was reacting very oddly to whatever it had detected. He placed the jar on the desk so he could turn the dial, adjusting the sensitivity. He soon found a setting that seemed calibrated to the type of energy in the sample.
The readings were less confusing now, but Egon still couldn't make much of them yet. "Definitely a terminal apparition..." he said aloud.
"The spirit of a human who was once alive in our world?"
Egon nodded without elaborating, too busy focusing on the device in his hand. What it was showing didn't make sense. "Hmm, that's odd..."
Egon looked up at them. "Are you sure this is from the ghost in the file?"
"Positive – we watched and recorded him being injured before he flew off. Why?"
"According to your data, my observations, and eyewitness accounts, that ghost has never exhibited power beyond that of a Class 6, but the energy level of this sample is much higher – if you're not mistaken, then he's only using a fraction of the power he's capable of." The strange thing was, Egon didn't think they were mistaken – justified or not, their mission was too important for them to be as sloppy as that; they would never risk committing an error as recklessly foolish as guessing where a sample came from.
"I'm sure that the ghost you took this from is much stronger than one who can do what we've seen the Ghost Boy do. He has the energy of a Class 10." Egon couldn't explain this discovery, but it made him inclined to think that the ghost wasn't out to harm anyone – if he were, he obviously could have done much more damage long ago.
To his surprise (but it shouldn't have been), his announcement seemed to have the opposite effect on his audience. One of them turned to his partner and whispered behind his hand, "It's even worse than we thought."
"We might not have the resources to fight this menace. We'll have to notify headquarters that a change in tactics is necessary."
They nodded in agreement and continued their discussion as they waited for further details, but Egon didn't have anything else to tell them yet. The PKE meter was still having trouble making sense of what it was reading, and so was he. He'd never seen numbers like this. They didn't resemble anything he could recall off-hand. Strangest was the negative valance; theoretically, that indicated some other supernatural creature that gave off psychokinetic energy, like the Bogeyman, and not a true ghost, but that didn't seem possible in this case – the energy was definitely ectoplasmic, but of a frequency the meter couldn't read clearly. Perhaps the sample was contaminated; simultaneous readings from multiple beings with different energy fields could produce...
"... then our theory's probably correct."
Those words caught his attention. They had a theory already? Egon looked up and asked, "What theory?"
One of them turned to him and explained, "We have reason to believe this isn't just a ghost. Our evidence suggests he could be a human with ghostly qualities and the ability to change from one form to the other – a part-human/part-ghost hybrid."
Egon blinked once, but on the surface, nothing else happened – inside, it was like the words had flipped a switch turning off all his limbs, freezing him from head to toe while sending his heart into hyperdrive and his blood racing through every artery as the memories awakened by the speech swept over him, consuming every thought in their path. His mouth was the first thing to recover from the blow, saying the first thought that jumped into his mind: "That's impossible."
"That's what all the experts say. All except one."
"You've had some experience with that yourself, haven't you, Dr. Spengler?"
"Far out – complete proto-ectoplasmic conversion!"
He blinked again before he answered. "I'm surprised you believe me. No one else does."
"But it is true, isn't it?" The question was rhetorical, not a sign of skepticism or mistrust.
Egon's monotone held steady when he replied, "It's true, but I'm the only one. There have been no other documented cases, or any reason to believe that the conditions could be recreated."
It was then that the change in the rhythm of beeping signaled that the meter had finished calculating the ghost's unique ecto-energy signature. As soon as he saw it, Egon felt his eyes widen and heard a quick but sharp gasp of shock before he could stop himself. That frequency... he recognized it! No, it couldn't be! He tried to think through the memories – a burst of green light, a burning sensation all over his body, the feeling of his flesh dissolving molecule by molecule – flooding his mind. It had been years, he'd only seen it once, he must be remembering it wrong... But he knew he wasn't. That reading was burned so deeply into his mind by the horror of that experience, he could never forget it...
"In other words... you're a ghost!"
"Not technically, since I'm still alive, but for all practical purposes... yes."
In-between their flurry of jobs and rush to make money over the next few days, he'd had Ray meticulously analyze and record everything about him and his energy and properties in that state so he could be sure he was cured afterwards. He'd never thought he would see it again! That would mean...
But it didn't necessarily mean that. Now he was the one jumping to conclusions! For all he knew, there could be other creatures that projected this same energy field. There was no reason to assume this was the result of the same process.
The recognition, memories, fear, and denial all flashed through his mind in an instant. An instant was all the time he had before one of the agents asked him, "What is it?" Fortunately, his powers of emotional control didn't fail him now. He immediately put his look of deep concentration back on and, to buy himself some time, acted as if he was so absorbed in reading the meter that he hadn't heard the question.
Why wasn't he telling them what he saw? What had happened to him wasn't a secret (he'd written all about it in a chapter of Spengler's Spirit Guide on the possibility of proto-ectoplasmic conversion), they had discussed it less than a minute ago, so why didn't he just go ahead and tell them where he'd seen this before? Why did he suddenly feel like... like he was trying to hide something?
He heard one of them ask, "Have you ever encountered this type of ghost before, Dr. Spengler?"
Since that didn't include himself, he answered, "It's like nothing I've ever encountered." Some instinct Egon couldn't explain but couldn't ignore held him back from telling them how close they might be to the truth. He didn't trust them enough.
"You don't think this is another case of proto-ectoplasmic conversion then?"
"It's not possible to tell from this alone." He wasn't lying. His former colleagues could all testify that he never accepted a theory of his was correct until there was no room left for doubt. Had he been out in the field tracking a ghost with this reading, he wouldn't have told his teammates what he suspected until he had more evidence, no matter how unlikely any alternatives seemed.
"Is it possible for you to tell?"
There was another pause as the wheels turned in the scientist's head. Should he say this was completely beyond his realm of expertise, that he could tell them nothing more, and they might as well be on their way? Would they accept that? They had no reason not to believe him; only he knew what to look for. Should he dig deeper and confirm what they were dealing with, or send them away before they could learn the truth? Before he could learn the truth...
Egon switched off the meter and set it down on the desk. He picked up the jar of ectoplasm and held it in front of his eyes again. "It might be. I would need to examine it more closely in my lab to be sure." No matter how disturbing the possibility was, he had to know.
"That's acceptable. Proceed." The agent spoke as if he were giving instructions to an employee.
Egon marched calmly upstairs, his two visitors close behind. He wished he could have done this alone (and not only because he hated letting strangers into his inner sanctum), but he knew they never would have consented to that. He'd have to tread carefully with them looking over his shoulder. He let them take a cursory glance around his laboratory, then asked for permission to take part of the sample. They didn't object, as long as they could measure and document every drop.
One agent pulled a small notebook and pen out of his jacket, the other a tablet and stylus, and they both watched carefully as Egon put a few drops from the jar in the spectrum differentializer (the ectoplasmic equivalent of a mass spectrometer). The results were inconclusive, meaning it wasn't pure ectoplasm, as Egon explained to his guests. What he didn't tell them was that, on one of the jobs he'd accompanied the guys on in his half-ghost state, he'd been scratched by a particularly vicious Class 5 with sharp claws and shed a few drops of what looked like green blood. As he was unable to touch anything solid – including needles, syringes, tweezers, Q-tips, or anything else that could have been useful in studying what had happened to him – he'd made sure to tell Ray to gather some. It was a tiny sample, and this was all they'd been able to do with it, but it had produced the exact same combination of results.
If only they'd been able to do more back then... Egon suddenly got an idea and pulled out something he hadn't had when the accident happened – the atomic destabilizer he'd designed to fight the Bogeyman. He turned the setting all the way down (no sense risking unnecessary damage when there was no battle) and directed it at a petri dish containing more of the sample. The beam produced no effect, no change at all, meaning it wasn't solid matter, either, but already ethereal.
Even though the agents explained they'd already done this, he also put a few milliliters in the centrifuge. It separated into what, to the chemist's naked eye, looked like the components of human blood, except for an extra component that looked identical to the green substance originally put in – because ectoplasm, not being solid matter and not subject to the same laws of physics, didn't separate at all in a centrifuge. The agents had gotten the same results, but there was one thing Egon was able to do with it that they weren't. He had a small laser mounted on his workbench that could shoot a proton stream just like a particle thrower. He fired a weak beam at the test tube and, to his surprise, watched the separated components join back together again. He couldn't help saying, "Fascinating."
"What do you make of it?"
"It would appear that being subjected to a charge of positive energy forces it to return to its whole ectoplasmic form." He'd never seen any substance react to a particle stream that way, not even the ectoplasmic residue of a metamorph. Egon temporarily forgot his anxiety in the euphoria of observing something new and unknown. Could the ghost have multiple separate and different forms like a metamorph and undergo this process regularly? If so, he wondered how it changed between forms. He wished he knew what that process looked like above the cellular level. If only he could study it in person... if only he could see it up close...
Egon blinked and shook himself back to Earth as he realized what he was thinking. His superego had to remind him he wasn't talking about some lab rat, possibly not even a ghost. With a start, he remembered his audience. They were busy making copious notes and whispering to each other again. Egon couldn't tell what they thought of this discovery, if he'd just told them anything valuable or not. It suddenly struck him that they'd never told him what they planned to do with any information he gave them.
"Is that consistent with complete proto-ectoplasmic conversion?"
Would they answer him if he asked a question? "Why does that matter? It's not necessary to confirm that. Conventional anti-ghost weapons would work on a partial-ectoplasmic being as effectively as a full one; nobody knows any particularly effective method for fighting half-ghosts, not even us. What use would confirming that be to you?"
He heard exactly what he'd expected: "That's classified."
Egon didn't drop it. He tried process of elimination next: "I'm afraid, if you're trying to find the best way to fight it, I can't help you. If you're looking for a way to cure the condition, we..."
"We're not looking for a cure. We just need to know if the ghost is part-human. Is this consistent with complete proto-ectoplasmic conversion?"
He wasn't going to get any answers this way. He'd find a way, though, before he let them out of here. For now, at least they'd asked another question he could answer honestly: "I don't know."
"Is there any other way you can check?"
"... Possibly..." This was a half-lie. The truth was, there was one thing Egon was sure would tell him once and for all what the Ghost Boy was – one of the simplest but often most informative methods available to a scientist. Winston would have suggested it before anything else. Egon would have done it first himself if what he expected to see hadn't been so unsettling.
"What do you mean?"
He had to be careful how he answered. Not to arouse suspicion about why he hadn't mentioned it from the beginning. "I was just thinking... I admit, it sounds crude, and it's a long shot, but..."
"Never mind that. What is it?"
Egon steeled himself and said with perfect composure, "I could try looking at it under a microscope."
"We've done that already."
"I know, but you didn't know what to look for."
"And you do?"
One deep breath, and then: "Remember that accident you read about? There was one point when Ray Stantz was able to collect a blood sample. As you know, we were focused on constructing a molecular phase amplifier then and didn't have the time or interest to do anything but put it briefly under a microscope."
"You remember what it looked like?" one of the agents asked with keen interest.
"I'll never forget it."
"Then what are you waiting for? Take a look! Tell us if it's the same!"
Except for raising an eyebrow, Egon didn't move. "Why is that so important?"
"Because that will tell us if the ghost is also human, won't it?"
He had to admire that circuitous answer. "Theoretically."
"So get on with it."
Egon shrugged as he turned and stepped towards his workbench. "As you wish, gentlemen." He took one last drop of ectoplasm for the slide, which one of the men recorded while the other returned the jar to his briefcase. His audience remained standing a few feet behind him – whether more like students listening to their professor lecture, or professors grading a student's presentation, he couldn't decide – while he braced himself and bent over the microscope.
A few quick twists and adjustments later, the image beneath the lens came into focus. Green blood cells whose shape was familiar but also slightly off, as if they'd been taken apart and put back together again. Clear but luminescent plasma. Pulsating silver strands designed to transmit energy the way neurons transmitted signals. Other cells and substances Egon couldn't name but had seen before. He'd seen it all before. One other time in his life, years ago, during the most horrific nightmare he'd ever lived through. This was what his own blood had looked like after that explosion destabilized his entire molecular structure, melting every cell in his body and rebuilding them into an insubstantial shadow of his true form. The resemblance was unmistakable. He'd had his doubts, but now, there was no question: this sample had come from a human who had undergone complete proto-ectoplasmic conversion. A living being that had all the qualities of a spirit. Someone who was simultaneously both human and ghost. Just as he had once been.
The implications struck him with the speed and force of a lightning bolt. He was seeing two things at once: one was himself as he'd been then, weightless and transparent, his limbs fading in and out, flickering on and off, just on the edge of disappearing completely; the other was the ghost he'd seen in the papers, on the news, in the file. The thought that played in his mind over the first image was: It's happened again. The second: He's just a kid.
The boy in the photographs couldn't have been more than 15 or 16-years-old, at the very most. Egon had seen too many ghosts of teenagers and even children for the sight of another to faze him, but this was different. This was no scientist whose experiment had gone wrong. No engineer whose invention had backfired on him. No professional ghost hunter equipped by years of experience to deal with such shocking developments. The next person to go through the hellish ordeal of having your body and soul turned inside out, your DNA twisted and mangled until you were nothing but a dim reflection of yourself, separated from the solid world as if by a veil, was a young boy.
I'm so sorry. Egon shuddered as he thought of what the kid must be going through. It had been hard enough for him to deal with – he didn't want to imagine what it was like for someone that young. But the boy had survived whatever had done this to him and come out fighting. Egon grinned in admiration as he recalled the stories of his exploits, his battles with other ghosts, the people he'd saved, the attacks he'd thwarted.
It all made sense now. The fact that the ghost was actually half-human explained everything. Why there were no reports of the death of someone in that age range in that area around the time he appeared. Why he seemed neither interested in resting in peace nor in causing wanton chaos like terminal or non-terminal apparitions. Why there was such a discrepancy between his active power and his potential power – he didn't know what he was capable of. Why he stayed in that small town instead of moving on now that he was a hunted criminal – he was protecting his home. Egon had no proof of this, but he knew it as confidently as he knew his own name. He knew with 100% certainty that this kid was a hero, not a threat, trying to do the right thing, trying to turn a horrific disaster into something good and noble and beneficial, even though forces he couldn't control sometimes caused things to get messy. He knew this. He felt like he knew and understood this ghost and his motives as well as he knew his best friends... irrationally, of course, just because they had been through the same terrifying experience... something the boy never should have gone through at all...
What happened to you? The fears that had tormented Egon earlier were completely forgotten, replaced by a storm of burning questions. What circumstances could possibly put a teenager in a situation that exposed his molecular structure to complete destabilization? Someone that age shouldn't have even been at risk for something like this. Surely he hadn't been trying a new invention in battle against a demon, too, had he? Egon closed his eyes as his memories involuntarily returned to the explosion – the pain, the confusion, the terror, the darkness, reemerging in a world you recognized but felt you didn't belong in...
What was it like? What happened to the boy must have been different. The ectoplasm in the sample was completely stable. The ghost showed no signs of progressive destabilization like he had. He'd been around for several weeks, at least – much longer than Egon had before he could no longer maintain his form in this world...
How long? Weeks ago? Months? Years? How long had he been living like this? They couldn't be certain – a first sighting did not equal a definite date, especially for someone who tried to stay hidden...
Does anyone else know? Family, friends, doctors... or was he all alone? Had he disappeared after it happened, or managed to keep it a secret...?
Do your parents know? What if he didn't have any?
Who are you?
"What is it, Dr. Spengler?"
The table had shaken when Egon gripped the edge in both hands. He turned and faced his guests with a stony, unreadable expression on his face. His last question had answered a different one. He suddenly understood everything – why they had come here, why knowing if this ghost was actually a human mattered so much to them, why it was so important for him to verify or disprove that once and for all, what they would use that knowledge for. They didn't want to know if the Ghost Boy was dangerous or not. They didn't want to know how to cure the condition or prevent it. They didn't even want to know how to defeat him. They wanted to know who he was. They wanted Egon to tell them either, "No, it's just a regular ghost," so they would know there was no need to investigate further... or, "Yes, he's human," so they could devote their attention to figuring out which human he was, arrest him, lock him up, and perform whatever experiments on him struck their fancy.
"Have you reached a conclusion yet?"
Up until now, Egon had sat almost perfectly still with his back towards them, going through a rollercoaster of thoughts in his head but (he hoped) giving nothing away with his body, and they hadn't said a word, obviously not wanting to disturb his concentration. But now they would expect an answer. He opened his mouth as if he was about to speak but closed it again and put his chin in his hand, looking down as if he was still thinking over something he wasn't sure of. He gestured for them to wait a moment, turned back around, and looked through the microscope again.
Brilliant plan – why chase a powerful ghost when you could just walk up to a front door and ambush a kid? All they needed was definitive proof that he was indeed human, as they suspected, and they could proceed. Why hadn't they told him that when he'd asked? Had they correctly surmised he would disapprove? That he would refuse to help them if he knew what they were planning? (The Ghostbusters weren't exactly known for peaceful cooperation with government agents.) Well, if they had, they were right. Because Egon had absolutely no intention of giving them the go ahead to hunt down an innocent kid, especially one whom he'd never seen intentionally try to hurt anyone. Whoever he was, the Ghost Boy didn't deserve to be their new guinea pig.
They were expecting an answer. He couldn't put it off much longer. Egon knew there was no way he could convince them the Ghost Boy wasn't dangerous, that it was safe to leave him alone – they'd made that clear from the beginning. Nothing he said or pointed out would change their minds. You couldn't reason with people who refused to listen to reason.
"Was our theory correct?"
If he told them the truth, there would be no stopping them from going after the boy. I can't let that happen. Egon had never met him, but he already felt a strange bond with this kid, the only other person who knew what it was like to be turned into a ghost without dying. He felt like he was being asked to betray an ally who was trusting him to protect his secret. Egon couldn't let him down. He couldn't hand him over to these two and their fellow irrational bureaucrats. Which meant he would have to lie. It went against every rule he lived by as a scientist and a businessman, but he had no choice... No, you do have a choice, he corrected himself. And he chose to protect a strong, brave kid who had risen above an unspeakably terrifying ordeal to become a hero. Someone like that was worth lying for.
"What do you think, doctor? Is the ghost half-human?"
The pause that followed wasn't long. "In my professional opinion, based on what I see here, and everything else I've observed, and everything you've told me, I'd say..." Egon finally turned around, stood up, and looked them directly in the eye with an expression any poker player would envy. "No. It isn't."
His audience briefly looked at each other – not in doubt, merely surprise – then turned back to face him again. "You're sure?"
"Positive. It's definitely a species I've never encountered before – I'd say there's a high probability it isn't a true ghost – but you can put any thoughts of proto-ectoplasmic conversion out of your mind." The agents exchanged another look, one of them raising an eyebrow in the first sign of suspicion. Egon didn't miss a beat. "I'm not surprised." They turned back to him. "You'll recall that I eventually destabilized completely, until I no longer had the strength to maintain my form on our plane and was forced into the Ghost World. This ghost obviously doesn't have that problem. His form is perfectly stable – nothing like I was after being turned half-ghost."
"You can't think of any conditions that would cause that?"
As they turned back to each other, Egon could tell his explanation had had the desired effect. While one of them made notes on his tablet, the other wondered aloud, "If that's not it, what are we dealing with here...?"
The question wasn't directed at him, but Egon volunteered an answer anyway: "My best guess would be a new, particularly powerful species of metamorph, one with the ability to mimic not just the shape but the energy field of humans."
One of the men began furiously tapping the screen on his tablet. "Hmm... there were reports of a metamorph back in September..."
"Mostly near the high school. One in the pharmacy..."
"A high school roaming with impulsive teenagers would be the ideal place for a playful shapeshifter to cause maximum chaos," Egon suggested next.
"But not very promising. This puts us back practically at Square One." It seemed like Egon's attempts to be helpful had convinced them.
"At least we can rule out one possibility."
"Not necessarily – this could just be a different kind of half-ghost." They certainly didn't give up easily.
"It could be anything. We could spend years searching for something that doesn't exist." Egon was pleased to hear where this was going but said nothing – now was not the time to interrupt them.
His partner frowned in disappointment. "We'll have to stick with the standard hunting protocol until we acquire more information."
"Affirmative." Egon let his mouth smile a fraction but still said nothing. "We can't waste time on a potentially pointless investigation." Exactly what he wanted to hear.
"But what else could it be?"
"There's no way to know for sure until we capture it."
Grinning in equally deep satisfaction at a mission accomplished and amusement at that last statement, Egon finally spoke up: "Good luck with that, gentlemen." Based on what he'd seen of their detective skills, they'd need it. And based on what he knew of the Ghost Boy, they were no match for him. He'd just ruined their one chance of beating him by crushing their hopes that they could go after a kid instead of a powerful phantom. They now had no choice but to abandon the idea of searching for a kid with ghost powers. At least for now.
Egon could tell by the way they both turned to him that they hadn't forgotten he was there, merely been too busy with urgent matters to acknowledge him. "Is there anything else you can tell us that might help us identify the type of ghost, Dr. Spengler?"
"Or anything that might help us capture him?"
Egon shook his head. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I've told you everything I can. There's nothing more I can do to help you."
He could tell they weren't pleased, but they apparently had no intention of wasting time dwelling on that. "Looks we have quite a challenge ahead of us then."
"This could be the most difficult target we've ever hunted."
"I have no doubt of that," Egon agreed with completely unfeigned sincerity.
"Can you recommend anything, doctor?"
He couldn't be serious! Didn't they remember what he said earlier? "My recommendation is that you give up and leave him be," Egon replied.
"Noted." The man slid his notebook and pen back inside his jacket, then added, with no segue, "Thank you for your help, Dr. Spengler."
"Your country is forever indebted to you for your service," the other said as if he was reading from a script. Egon resisted the urge to sigh. "Perhaps you'd also be willing to help us capture him? We could use your expertise and experience."
He wasn't prepared for that. Egon needed a second to resist the temptation of a chance to learn more about the ghost and remind himself it wouldn't be worth the risk. "I'm retired," he said decisively.
"We could make it worth your while."
"I'm sorry, but I'm afraid that's not possible."
Where was Peter Venkman when he needed him? "I have a family, a job, and a Containment Unit to guard. I don't have time to travel to Amity Park."
"It wouldn't take very long. Not for you."
"My decision is final."
Egon wasn't sure where this would have gone if they hadn't heard the garage door open downstairs. All three of them fell silent as they listened to a vehicle drive inside, the engine shut off, a car door open and close, and a thick Brooklyn accent call out, "Egon! I'm back!"
For some reason, one of his visitors found it necessary to announce, "Your wife's home."
Something about the authoritative way he said that made Egon glare at them both. Without a word or a single glance back, he walked between the two men – brushing roughly past them as he did so – and out of the lab. The same feeling made him head, not for the staircase, but his and Janine's bedroom, where he grasped the pole that was hardly ever used anymore tightly in his fist before sliding down.
Janine was getting something out of the backseat of the van but stopped and looked up, holding three shopping bags in one arm, when she heard him hit the floor. "Missed me, huh?" Even after all these years, she still smiled at him as brightly as ever every time he entered the room.
He noticed she was alone. "Where are the kids?"
"The movies. I've got about an hour-and-a-half before I have to go pick them up." They met between the van and the desk, and she put her free arm around him and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek before walking past him and setting her packages down on the desk. "Whew, I'm beat," she said as she began unpacking some things. "Dori took an hour to find a pair of shoes she liked. We got the stuff for Harold's ant farm, too. Honestly, of all the hobbies he could've inherited from you..."
Egon looked nervously up the empty stairs. They only had a few seconds before his guests joined them. There was no time to explain. He moved so that his back was facing the stairs, hiding his face from anyone who would come down. "Janine..."
"Oh, bad news – Laura did a great job today. Guess we can't put it off much longer – we're gonna have to take her in for her test soon..."
"Later." He put his hand on her shoulder, and she looked up at him, her smile fading into concern when she saw the look in his eyes. "We have a situation here right now."
"What's wrong?" He watched her eyes narrow questioningly as he heard footsteps behind him. "Who are the guys in white?"
"Guys in white..." one of said guys repeated. "Hmm, not bad..."
"Would make a great code name," said his partner.
He'd have to fill her in on the details later. Without turning around, Egon whispered, "Walter Peck's successors." That was all he needed to say. His wife scowled and nodded – message received. He turned around, putting his arm around her shoulders, while she crossed her arms, on her guard and ready to face the enemy.
Their visitors walked up to them, and Janine shook both of the hands they offered her. Egon, sensing there was no need for introductions, didn't make any. "Mrs. Spengler... how nice to meet you," one of them said with a frown.
"You, too – who am I meeting?" she asked.
"Classified. Sorry for the intrusion. We weren't expecting you home so soon." Egon and Janine both raised an eyebrow at that comment but didn't have time to say anything. "We were just discussing some sensitive business information with your husband."
She turned to Egon. "They have a warrant?"
"Not that kind of business, ma'am. Just a consult regarding a spectral mystery."
"Oh, good. I'll fill out the invoice for our consulting fee before you go."
"That won't be necessary," said Egon. "There won't be any charge for this. I couldn't give them much information." Janine's eyes briefly widened with surprise – A mystery involving ghosts that he couldn't solve? That he showed no interest in solving?! – but went back to normal with impressive speed (she'd clearly learned much from him).
"Unfortunately. However, you could still be of immense help to us against this powerful, dangerous ghost."
"I haven't heard of any new powerful, dangerous ghosts around here lately," Janine said skeptically.
"Not here, in Amity Park," Egon told her. "Remember, where that mass ghost invasion occurred a few weeks ago?" He squeezed her shoulder ever so slightly: Back me up.
She didn't let him down. "What? No way! You promised me no more out-of-state jobs!"
She caught on quickly (no such promise had ever been made or requested). Egon held his hands up in front of him in surrender. "I assure you, I've already explained that it's impossible for me to take it."
"Good, 'cause you're not leaving me and the kids here all alone. We're not getting involved in this again."
Egon cleared his throat as he turned from his wife to his interrogators. "I appreciate the honor, gentlemen, but as you can see, and as I've been trying to tell you, I must decline."
They exchanged a look that told Egon they did understand this was one force they were powerless against. One of them finally said, "It seems there's nothing further to discuss, Dr. Spengler."
The other held out his hand. "Thank you for your time."
It took Egon a surprising amount of effort to reach out and shake their hands. "Thank you for the visit. One of the most interesting mornings I've had in a long time."
"We needn't remind you that this is all highly confidential?"
"No, you need not," Egon assured them. "Trust me, I'm very good at keeping secrets."
"Very good. Let's go."
Janine walked with them to the door like a sentinel escorting prisoners, but they either didn't notice or didn't care. She opened the door and kept her eyes trained on them as they walked over threshold.
"Thank you, ma'am."
"We'll be in touch."
Janine said, "I'm sure you will," as she closed the door behind them.
When she turned around, Egon put his finger over his lips before she could say a word, then gestured for her to follow him. Neither of them said a word as he led her up to the lab and began opening drawers. He knew he had one around here somewhere... Janine asked him, "What are you looking for her?", but he shook his head and waved his hand. He didn't trust that it was safe until... "Ah-ha," he said softly as he found the detector.
Egon spent the next half hour sweeping every inch of the building the "guys in white" had crossed for bugs. He wasn't surprised to find three – one under the desk downstairs, and two in the lab. What did surprise him was how different they were. Two of them looked like regular hidden microphones, albeit sleeker and tinier than any he'd ever seen. One of the two in the lab, however, was actually shaped like a bug – a tiny white beetle with red eyes. Janine watched intently as he dismantled all of them piece by piece until there was no chance they'd be transmitting any information anywhere. "We're clear," he said as held a piece from the odd one out under the magnifying glass – the first words either of them had spoken since he'd begun his search.
"Finally. Want to tell me what's going on now? Who were they?"
"The new BUFO, it would seem. Government ghost hunters. They wouldn't tell me anything else."
"I have no reason to think we're in any danger, no."
"What were they doing here? Trying to recruit you?"
"Not primarily. They just wanted information."
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"We used to hunt ghosts for a living – tell me anyway."
"I will, but not yet. The guys need to know, and I don't want to tell it more than once. The less we speak of it, the better."
"What do they need to know? What's this about?"
"Something big, Janine. Possibly the biggest thing since Ragnarok." He finally stepped away from the magnifying glass and held up the tweezers containing the current subject, puzzled about the difference between the bugs. "I absolutely couldn't work for them, though, so thank you for helping me out. You played your part beautifully."
"Thanks, I try. Must be big if they need to spy on us." She leaned forward to get a better look at the bug. "What's with that weird one anyway?"
"I've been wondering the same thing. Maybe the people in their surveillance department have vastly different tastes in design."
"Or maybe someone else left it."
Janine shrugged. "Maybe someone was spying on them and just decided to leave it here when they realized where they were."
Egon wanted to say how unlikely that was until he remembered what he'd learned a few hours ago. Instead, he said, "After what I've seen today, nothing would surprise me." He dropped the last piece in the trash can by his feet.
"They go after any of the guys?"
"They probably wouldn't have told me if they had, but I don't think so. I was the only one who could help them."
He didn't answer right away. "Let's go pick up the kids." It wasn't time yet, but Janine nodded without asking questions. Once they were out on the road, he said, "Hopefully, I'll be able to explain it to all of you tonight."
"You'll definitely be explaining it to me tonight."
"Fair enough. So, what movie are they seeing?"
They spent the rest of the ride talking about her day out with the kids. Janine was telling him about Dori's agony over choosing what ice cream she wanted when they pulled into the mall. They strolled inside, arm in arm but without speaking, and Egon noticed that Janine didn't look surprised when he walked up to a pay phone. She leaned against the wall and looked around as if keeping a lookout for suspicious characters while he dialed.
A confused but pleasant female voice answered, "Hello?"
"Egon? What number are you calling from?"
"Pay phone. Long story. Is Ray there? It's important."
"Sure – just a minute. Ray!"
Egon heard the sounds of a video game and shouting get louder in the background, then Ray calling out, "I want a rematch, Lois!" before saying over his daughter's laughter, "Hey, Egon, what's up?"
"Ray, I shouldn't say much now, but something big happened today, something very big."
Ray's tone turned much more serious. "What are you talking about? What's going on?"
"Remember those government agents you said came to talk to you about anti-ghost weapons?"
"Yeah... they come to you, too?"
"Do you remember Chapter 16 of Spengler's Spirit Guide?"
Ray seemed confused at his question being ignored, but began to say, "Uh... the one on proto...?"
"We need to talk. All five of us. You're not going to believe this."
Ray didn't respond as he processed what his friend was saying. He and Egon had known each other so long, he didn't need much time to follow his thoughts. He didn't ask any more questions. "Okay. Let's talk. When?"
Egon would have preferred if he could tell them about this in person, but Winston was the only one who still lived in New York, and he couldn't wait until Ray and Peter could get time to fly or drive in. Fortunately, no one could set up a connection more secure than Ray Stantz, and Egon defied anyone to hack or eavesdrop on them when they turned on their web cams that night.
"Well, we're all here, Egon," Winston said when they each had a window up on the screen. "What's the story?"
"It better be good," Peter grumbled. "Ann said she had a big surprise for me tonight."
"Hey, sign off if you want – no one'll miss you," Janine said from her perch on the edge of the desk (she'd told Egon to take the chair, insisting she found this more comfortable).
They didn't have time to listen to these two banter. "All secure, Ray?" Egon asked.
"Everything's set," Ray said confidently. "No one's getting in without me knowing. What's going on, Egon? We're all ears."
"Did you all get the e-mail I sent you? The article about the Ghost Boy in Amity Park?"
They all nodded. Peter also shrugged and said in a very bored tone, "Yeah, what about him? New job?"
"I received a surprise visit from two government agents today..."
"They didn't blow up the Containment Unit, did they?" Peter asked nonchalantly.
Egon had learned long ago that the best way to handle his nonsense was to ignore it. "... who asked me to analyze a sample of ectoplasmic residue from him."
"The government's after that ghost?" Winston said incredulously. "In that small town? He's hardly done anything. What have they got against him?"
"What did it show?" asked Ray.
"That he's not a ghost," Egon said slowly.
Janine asked next, "Then what is he?"
Egon closed his eyes for a few seconds before he raised his head and answered, "He's a human being. Still alive. Who's undergone complete proto-ectoplasmic conversion." He paused long enough to take in the stunned, confused faces on the screen before he went on. He told them everything – what the men had asked, how he'd argued with them, the readings the PKE meter had shown, what he'd observed in the lab and seen under the microscope, what this meant about the Ghost Boy, how he realized what the men were after, what he'd told them and why, and the bugs he and Janine had found in the firehouse.
Nobody interrupted him with questions but let him talk until he was done. Peter, unsurprisingly, was the first to speak, albeit only a flat, "Wow," looking like he'd just run headfirst into a brick wall.
"Unbelievable..." Ray whispered before his mouth slowly curved into a broad grin. "A completely stable Class 10 half-ghost! Incredible! This is the greatest discovery in the field of paranormal research since, since... well, since anything!"
"You sure about this, Egon?" Winston asked, sounding as if he hoped there was a chance he was wrong.
"There's no question," Egon told him.
Janine put both her hands on her cheeks. "Oh, man, the poor kid."
"What do you think happened?" Peter wondered. "He get too close to a backfiring Spirit World portal or something?"
"I don't know how it happened," Egon admitted. "All I know is that it did."
"Any idea who he could be?" Winston asked next.
"None," Egon replied, shaking his head.
"It could be anyone!" Ray said, still beaming. "There could be more than one! If it's the type of ghost that causes supernaturally-induced temporary face blindness preventing you from recognizing it..." Egon took Janine's hand in his own, sure she was remembering the same ghost he was – the only one they'd ever met with such a power until now. "Maybe there's some sort of anomaly in the town causing kids to..." Ray's empathy suddenly caught up with his enthusiasm. "Oh, man, I hope not! That would be terrible!" His gaze shifted; Egon supposed he was looking at the picture of the Ghost Boy. "He looks so young..."
"Can't be older than Laura," Janine observed.
Winston's gaze shifted, too. "He's fought a lot of ghosts around there, hasn't he?"
"I'm working on a list," said Egon. "He seems to be the most active ghost in the town, almost always appearing whenever there's another ghost."
"I told you he was a hero!" Ray exclaimed triumphantly. "He's been trying to protect everyone from them for months! Maybe longer!"
Peter smiled and said, half to himself, "Way to go, kid."
Egon nodded. "I agree, Ray. Anyone except those bureaucratic half-wits could see that."
"You know them," Peter said dismissively.
"Think the kid knows what he's doing?" Janine asked.
Peter shrugged again. "Seems to be doing fine so far."
"What if he starts destabilizing like you did?" Winston asked Egon.
"If he hasn't by now, I find it highly unlikely he would start in the future."
"He sure can do a lot more than you could," Peter observed.
Ray continued that thought: "Yeah... flying, shooting energy blasts... What else do you think he can do? You think he can sense ghosts like you could? Man, I wish I could meet him!" His tone abruptly changed as he looked worried. "You don't think they'll catch him, do you?"
"They haven't caught him yet," Egon said firmly. "And their coming to me for help tells me they know they have no chance of catching him unless they can sneak up on him when he's vulnerable, in his human form. As long as they never find out, he should be fine."
"Think they'll ask any of us for help next?" Winston asked him.
"It's possible, which is why I had to warn you. We can't help them hunt him."
"No way!" Peter said emphatically. "The Ghostbusters don't negotiate with government goons! Besides, us ghost hunters have to stick together!"
"Don't trust anything they say. They tried to conceal their intent from me. They might claim they want to cure him, or try to hire us to catch another ghost in the town, or anything. Don't believe any of it – they're after him."
"Gotcha," Winston said with a nod.
"Isn't there anything else we can do?" Ray asked with concern. "Should we check out Amity Park? Try to find him? Maybe he could use some help..."
"No," Egon said instantly. "We go anywhere near him, we'll only be putting his identity in danger. Unless some genuine crisis arises that requires us to intervene, we need to stay as far away from that town as possible. Don't give the spies watching him and us any reason to become suspicious."
Ray nodded and said cheerfully, "Don't worry, Egon – we'll do whatever we can to protect him. He deserves that."
"Yeah," Winston agreed. "Whoever he is, he can count on us."
"Yeah, we're all agreed on that," Peter said quickly. "So… what do we do?"
"Notify the rest of us immediately if any of these... uh, guys in white contact you," Egon explained, using Janine's accurate moniker in absence of a better one. "And keep an eye on the news in Amity Park for anything particularly troubling or suspicious."
Janine saluted him. "Aye-aye, captain!"
"Sure, we can do that," said Peter.
Winston closed his eyes and shook his head, still finding the situation a lot to take in. "Man, never thought we'd see one of these again."
"Neither did I," said Egon. "Everyone else in the field claims it's impossible." He'd been unable to prove anything he'd written about it.
"Bet he did, too." Janine suddenly turned to him and asked, "Wait, what if he's read your book?"
Egon's eyes widened. That had never occurred to him. He'd spent all this time marveling at how he'd found another half-ghost; he'd never bothered to ask if the Ghost Boy knew he wasn't the only one. Did he know he wasn't alone? That the author of Spengler's Spirit Guide had gone through the same thing?
Ray was the one who answered, "I doubt it, or he would've tried to contact you, wouldn't he?"
Peter answered that: "Probably not – what ghost goes to a ghost hunter for help?"
"Hey, a lot of ghosts came to us for help!" Winston reminded them.
Egon was inclined to agree with Peter. Still, Janine had made him realize there was a chance. What if the Ghost Boy did come looking for him someday? "I don't know, but I hope he does," he said aloud. "There's a lot I'd like to ask him."
"Like you said, keep your eyes open," Ray said encouragingly.
"We all will," Winston added.
"Good," said Egon. "Right now, the guys in white aren't even sure a human with ghost powers exists. We need to keep it that way. We shouldn't talk about this very much, and only when we're sure no one can hear us. Never write anything about it – anyone could find it."
Peter was, predictably, the first to sign off. His parting words were, "Roger. Don't worry, Spengs – your friend's secret's safe with us."
For the time being, at least. Egon checked over a few things as he put the computer to sleep for the night. "No signs anyone was secretly listening in on us. You said the kids were in bed, right?"
"Trust me, I would've heard them," Janine answered as they both stood up. "So what's our next move?"
"We watch and wait. I don't expect we'll hear anything significant for a while."
But on this point, Egon was wrong. Less than two weeks after those guys in white left, he and Janine received two identical letters in the mail, one for each of them, with no return address. They waited until the kids left for school to open them.
"What is this, a wedding invitation?" Janine read hers aloud. "Who wants to be a millionaire? Congratulations! You, as one of the best known ghost hunters in the world, have been personally selected to participate in the most lucrative hunt of the century…"
Egon's was the same. "Do you like money? Do you have what it takes to compete with the best of the best? If so, please accept this invitation to win one million dollars by catching the most famous ghost of the U.S.A.'s most famous haunted town, Amity Park…" His voice trailed off in disbelief when he saw the enclosed picture. Was this a coincidence, or...?
"Don't miss your chance to prove you're just as good as the guys."
Egon looked up at Janine when he heard that. "What did you just say?"
"That's it. That's the last line."
"What?" He looked back at his own invitation. "The last line of mine says, Don't pass up this opportunity to learn the secrets of the paranormal – important scientific discoveries await."
Egon felt a chill run up his spine. Janine put the reason why into words: "Someone's done their research."
"Who sent these?"
"No name. No phone number, either. There's just a map with two locations marked – one where we're supposed to meet, and one where you make the drop-off and collect the reward, if you win."
So now the Ghost Boy had a million dollar bounty on his head. Specifically offered only to "the best known ghost hunters in the world..." Egon immediately picked up his cell phone and put it on speaker so Janine could hear.
He called Peter first. As soon as he answered the phone, he said, "Morning, Egon. You get one, too?"
"Yes." Which meant Ray and Winston must be reading theirs right now, too. "What's the last line of yours say?"
"Huh? Uh, lemme see... Easy money – no scam, scheme, con, dodge, or shortcut required."
"Someone knows you very well."
"Yeah – looks like our friends in white realized we don't trust them and came up with some trick to get us to do their dirty work."
"I don't think so – check this out." Janine put down the enclosed picture and map, turned the last page of the letter over, and handed it to her husband. On the back was a list of the hunters and teams who had been invited to participate. One of them was called the Guys In White.
To Janine, Egon said, "Congratulations – they liked your name enough to steal it." To Peter, he said, "Could be part of the trick."
"I don't think so – you set a trap for someone, you don't put your name on it." That was a good point, but what did it say about the Ghost Boy? Just how many people were after him?
"So what do we do?" Janine asked.
Egon thought for a moment before answering. "Whoever's behind it, it's a trap. I'm not sure for whom, but I'm not having any part of it."
"What about the Ghost Boy?" Janine asked worriedly.
"Someone needs to double-check their research," said Egon, handing the letter back to her. "Look at these names. I've heard of them – they're the last candidates I would suggest as the best ghost hunters in the world."
"Best known," Venkman pointed out. "Maybe they really are the best the world has to offer besides us."
"At any rate, they have about as much of a chance of catching a Class 2 as Bassingame would, let alone the Ghost Boy."
Janine began looking through the pages again. "Then what's the point of this? What are they trying to do?"
"I don't know, but I'm not going to help whoever's after him by being their unwitting pawn."
Janine and Peter agreed with him. They soon found out that Ray and Winston had also received their invitations, with individual closing lines tailored to appeal to what they couldn't resist. It was deeply disturbing. Who would take the time to learn so much about them just to get them to come hunt this ghost? Egon was sorely tempted to accept the invitation and investigate, get to the bottom of this mystery, but, fortunately, he had Janine to remind him of his own reasoning. There was something sinister going on here, something they couldn't understand, and if they showed up, no matter what their intentions, they'd be playing right into someone's hands. Ray and Winston agreed the only smart thing to do was stay out of it.
Egon added his and Janine's invitations to their file on the Ghost Boy who someone hated enough to lure the best ghost hunters in the world after him with a million dollar prize. The more pieces they found to this puzzle, the harder it became to put them together. What did you do to make such powerful enemies, kid? What was he up against? What kind of secrets were hiding in that small town?
Well, whatever was going on, nobody was going to trick the Ghostbusters into contributing to the problem. Or turn them against the first new ghost hunter they'd been able to admire in years. There was nothing they could do for now but keep his secret. Good luck, kid. Whoever you are. We're all on your side.