DREAM SHADOW - Part 3

by Neetz



Ray and Winston were headed up the street when Winston came to an abrupt halt, staring down at the pavement just off the sidewalk.

"Winston? What is it?" Ray asked.

Without answering, the ex-soldier stepped out into the street a couple of steps and squatted down, his hand reaching for something on the surface in front of him.

"What is it?" Ray repeated. "What have you found?"

"Cigarette butts," Winston replied.

Ray squatted down next to him and looked at his partner in confusion. "I don't understand. What do cigarette butts have to do with anything?"

"Ray, this morning when Pete and I went out on that call, there was a car parked here. The man inside was smoking. When we got back, he and the car were gone. Then, this afternoon when Egon and I came back from bustin' that class two, he was here again."

"The same man?" Ray asked.

Winston nodded. "Yeah, I'm sure of it. Look at these butts. They're all the same brand. He obviously sat here for some time."

"Why?"

"I don't know, but I don't like it. I was gonna check it out after we got back, but we were all worried about..."

"What was going on with me and Peter?" Ray asked knowingly.

"Yeah," Winston replied.

"But what does this have to do with Emma running away?"

"We don't know for sure she ran away, Ray. All we know is that she's gone." He stood up and wiped off his hands as he looked up the street. "And now this guy's gone too."

"Oh, my gosh, you don't think this guy, whoever he is, could have done something to Emma, do you?"

"I don't know," Winston replied, "but we can't ignore the possibility."

"Should we tell Peter and Egon?" Ray asked, holding up the radio.

Winston shook his head. "No, we don't know anything yet. Let's keep looking. If we don't find her, we may have to consider this guy."

"Let's hurry," Ray agreed, and they headed on up the street.

***

Peter and Egon continued down the street, stopping at a drug store and a coffee shop to see if anyone had seen Emma. They had no luck. Peter was exceptionally silent, but even so, Egon could tell he was frantic. He also knew that despite his admonition to the contrary, Peter was taking the blame for Emma's disappearance heavily upon himself.

After almost an hour of searching, Egon tried to contact Janine on the radio only to find it was malfunctioning. A half hour later, they still had no sign of the child.

"Peter, I think we'd better get back to the firehouse. Emma might have returned or Ray and Winston might have found her."

"And what if they haven't, Egon? What do we do then?" Peter asked.

"I think we should call the police," Egon told him. "We need more help in finding her before it gets any later. This is not a very safe neighborhood."

"If anything happens to her..." Peter began, then ran his hands through his hair, pressing his fingers against his head. "My fault," he mumbled. "My fault."

"No, Peter..." Egon began.

"Don't!" Peter cried, pacing agitatedly back and forth. "Don't tell me this is not my fault. I'm the adult here; Emma's just a little girl. I'm a trained psychologist. I should have seen this coming. God, Egon, I should have known! And now she's out here somewhere, all alone, or maybe someone's grabbed her and hurt her or even..."

"Peter! Stop it!" Egon grabbed him by the shoulders to stop the pacing. "We're going to find her."

"And what if we don't, Egon?" he shouted. "Let's get back and call the cops." With that, he was practically running back up the street. Egon paused a moment before he took off after him.

When they got back to the firehouse, Winston and Ray had just reported in. They had had no luck.

"I'm calling the police," Peter told Winston over the radio. "Then Egon and I are getting another radio and heading back out."

"Pete..." Winston began.

"Not now, Zed," Peter cut him off. "Just-just keep looking, please?"

There was a delay, then Winston replied. "You got it. Out."

"Peter, do you want me to call..." Janine began.

"No," he replied, taking the receiver from her hand. "I'll do it." He dialed the number and waited for the answer. "Yes, this is Dr. Peter Venkman. I need to report a missing child."

Egon and Janine looked at each other, sharing their unspoken fears, not only for Emma, but for Peter if, indeed, anything had happened to the child.

Peter continued to answer questions. "Yes? She's my daughter... Emma. About an hour and a half, but she had been alone in her room before that, she could have been gone longer. No. Yes. Yes, would you..." His eyes suddenly grew large as something toward the front of the building caught his attention. "Emma!" he cried, dropping the phone. Egon and Janine turned to see the girl standing just inside the door, an apprehensive expression on her face. Slimer hovered in the air next to her. Peter ran across the intervening space, dropping to his knees in front of her and pulling her into a hard hug. Egon moved toward them, and Janine was about to follow, when she suddenly remembered the phone. She grabbed up the receiver and quickly explained that everything was all right now.

"Thank God, thank God," Peter kept repeating as he crushed the smaller body in his arms. Egon could see the look of surprise on the little girl's face.

"Emma, where have you been?" Spengler asked, trying to keep his voice calm. The question caused Peter to pull back and look at his daughter's face.

"Yes, where have you been?" he asked, not nearly so calmly.

"I-I just went for a walk to, sort of, think about things. I went to the park, but then it got dark and I sort of got lost, but Slimer had followed me and he showed me the way home."

"Slimer followed you?" Egon asked.

"Uh-huh, uh-huh," Slimer nodded his whole body in response. "Almost dark. Bad people in dark. Slimer protect." The little ghost puffed himself up proudly. "Slimer do good?"

"Slimer do real good," Peter replied. "I owe you, spud."

At the unusual occurrence of Peter offering him praise, Slimer leapt into the air, yelled, "Yippeeeee," then proceeded to throw his arms around both Peter and Emma's necks.

"Yuck!" Emma cried. "Slimerrrrr!"

"But Slimer do good!" he defended.

"Okay, Slimer, I think you deserve a reward," Egon told him. "There's a large box with left-over pizza in the refrigerator. It's all yours."

"Pizza!!" Slimer cried, then disappeared through the ceiling leaving only the usual dripping spot of ectoplasm to mark his exit.

"You scared us, Emma," Janine told her as soon as the distraction was gone.

Emma hung her head, then looked up at the secretary. "I'm sorry, Janine. I didn't realize it was so late."

"You'd better pay more attention, young lady," Peter told her sternly. "And never, never, go out on these streets alone. This isn't the best part of town we live in here. Anything could have happened." As he spoke the heat in his voice cooled until his final words came out as a shaky whisper. He looked her up and down, seemingly needing the reassurance that she was indeed all right, then his eyes lingered on her face, as if trying to memorize it. "If anything had happened to you, Peaches, I..." his voice broke at the same time as tears of relief began to roll down his cheeks. Emma looked at him in amazement for a moment before she wrapped her arms around his neck and went back into his arms.

"I'm sorry, Peter, really I am. I didn't mean to scare anybody. I didn't want to hurt..." she stopped.

"I was afraid you'd run away," Peter said, his voice still quivering

"I thought about running away," she admitted. "But I didn't know where else to go."

"This is where you belong, Emma. This is your home now," Egon said.

"Oh," Janine suddenly gasped. "I'd better call Ray and Winston in from the search." She rushed back to her desk and grabbed the radio for the call.

"They went out looking for me?" she asked.

"Yes," Egon replied. "Peter and I only just came back because our radio wasn't working and we decided we should contact the police."

"The police?" she asked, her eyes growing wider. "I'm sorry," she repeated. "I didn't know you'd... I mean..."

"You didn't think we'd worry?" Peter asked. "Emma, we're you're family."

Emma looked from Peter to Egon, then Janine, then back to Peter. "Yeah, I guess you are," she replied.

Peter closed his eyes for a moment, then took her face in his hands and looked directly into her eyes. "Don't you ever scare me like that again, young lady."

"You gonna punish me?" she asked hesitantly.

"I certainly am," he replied, then sighed. "That is, once I get over being too relieved to think of a proper punishment." He spent a few seconds just looking at her before he continued. "I think it's time we had that talk."

Emma looked even more apprehensive, but finally, she nodded.

Getting to his feet, Peter offered her his hand. After a momentary hesitation, she took it and he led her toward the stairs. "We'll be on the fourth floor," he told Egon as they started up the stairs."

Emma frowned. "Fourth floor? I thought there were only three floors."

"Only three with ceilings," Peter replied.

***

"All right!" Winston cried into the radio. "We're on our way."

"They found her?" Ray asked, crossing the street at Winston's signal to join him.

"Better. She came home!" Zeddemore replied.

"Then let's get back there!" Ray cried, pounding his companion on the back.

They had been working the area nearer the firehouse, so it didn't take them long. They were within a block when Winston caught Ray by the arm. When Stantz looked back, Winston pointed toward a dark sedan parked just a few yards in front of them. Taking his cue from Winston, Ray started up the sidewalk by himself. He passed the car without looking, continuing on toward the firehouse.

The man in the car leaned down slightly to watch Ray. When he straightened back up, he was confronted by Winston, leaning in the open driver's side window and grabbing his keys.

"Hey," he cried, "what's the big idea?"

"Exactly what I was gonna ask you, buddy," Winston replied. "What are you doing out here?"

"It's a free country, man," he responded.

"Then what's the attraction on this block, man?"

By this time, Ray had returned and stood just behind Winston.

"I'm waitin' on my lady. She lives around here."

"She must not like you much to keep you waitin' so long. You've been here all day, off and on."

"I come and I go," he replied.

Winston reached in once more, this time grabbing a handful of the man's shirt front. "You come clean with me, bro, or I'm gonna show you where to go." The man remained silent. "I didn't say I'd tell you," Winston yanked his head outside the window and balled his other fist threateningly, "I said I'd show you!"

"All right," he replied, raising his hands in surrender. "I'll cooperate."

"Show me some identification now."

Slowly and deliberately, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. Winston nodded toward Ray and the man tossed the wallet toward Stantz. Ray turned enough to view the contents by the light of the street lamp across the way and exclaimed with surprise.

"Winston, he's a private investigator!"

Zeddemore looked back at the man. "And just who are you investigating, Mr...."

"Talbot," he replied. "Jack Talbot, and that's privileged information."

"Then I think we should have the privilege of finding out." With his free hand, he wrenched the car door open, transferring his grip to that hand, he hauled Talbot out of the car. "We're gonna go inside that building you seem so interested in watching. My friends here are scientists and I'm sure they can come up with some rather interesting ways of getting you to share your privileged information."

***

Peter stood back and watched for a few minutes as Emma walked around the roof of Ghostbuster Central. She looked out across the skyline of the city, then her eyes turned upward into the dark sky above.

"No stars," she said rather sadly.

"Too bright in the city," Peter replied, suddenly shivering as his mind brought back another memory of almost the same words being spoken. That night had been the beginning of his worst nightmare, literally, as it had been the night of his date with Jillian Lester. Now, over a year later, he was at what would be another beginning. How things played out over the next few minutes could well determine the future of his relationship with his daughter.

"I come up here a lot when I just need a little time to myself, when I need to think things through. I know it's still in the city. You can't see the stars and the air isn't exactly fresh and clear. There's still a lot of noise from the streets, even in the middle of the night, but there's still a strange sort of peacefulness I find up here."

"I didn't think you liked to be alone," Emma commented, turning back to look at him. Peter narrowed his gaze and she ducked her head. "It was something Janine and Egon told me about."

"Ah," Peter replied in understanding. "For the most part, I don't," he replied. "But everyone needs to have some time to themselves. It's human nature. Choosing to be alone for a time can help you take a better look at yourself and your problems, like you did today. The problem is when you have to be alone, when there's no one to be there for you when you're hurting or need to talk, or maybe just need to know someone cares. That's what scares me, and that's why I'm so grateful for my friends. I wouldn't be alive without them, and that's no exaggeration."

Emma looked around her once more. "Would it be all right for me to come up here by myself sometimes?" she asked.

"I think it would be all right," Peter replied, "provided you let someone know where you're going and that you stay away from the edge of the building."

Emma chuckled. "You sound just like my mom. She's always..." She caught her breath when she realized what she was saying. "She used to worry about me."

"You were very important to her," Peter replied. "In her message to me, she said you were her whole world."

"We kinda looked out for each other," she told him. "Sometimes she got really sad and I'd try to make her laugh."

Peter chuckled. "Well, maybe you did inherit something from me." His expression sobered as he looked directly into Emma's eyes. "Emma, I want you to know, I'm not trying to take your mother's place. I know no one can do that." She turned her back to him and he sighed. "Don't turn away from me, Peaches," he implored. "We can't avoid this any longer. It may hurt to talk about it, but it will hurt longer if we don't."

"I just want my mom back," Emma cried. "Can't you understand that?"

Peter stepped up behind her and hesitantly placed his hands on her shoulders. She flinched slightly, but did not pull away.

"I understand. I felt the same way when my mom died. In a way, I think we were like you and your mom. We depended on each other a lot. My dad wasn't around much when I was growing up, then they got a divorce and it was just me and mom against the world. It wasn't easy, but we helped each other. Even after I was all grown up, I still counted on her being there. I didn't realize just how much until she was gone."

"Did you get mad?"

"You bet I got mad!" Peter replied. "I hated the world for being so out of kilter without her, I hated my dad for how he'd treated her..." he paused and his voice became just a whisper. "I even hated her for leaving me." Emma turned and stared at him. "But most of all, I hated myself, for not being there when she died, for not showing her more how much I loved her, for not letting her know how much she meant to me all my life." He hung his head for a moment. "But you know what? I believe she knew. I didn't realize that for a while, but... I... she knew."

He stepped past Emma and sat down on the low wall that surrounded the air conditioning unit. "When I was a kid," he said finally, "my dad was the center of my life. I thought he was the greatest. But he had this flaw. He made promises he didn't keep. He said he'd be home for Christmas, but he almost never was. He never remembered when my birthday was. He said he'd write or he'd call, but he didn't. Then, one day, he'd be there again and it was like he'd never been gone. I still loved him, even though he hurt me a lot. You see, I couldn't hate him. He was my dad. He was the best. So, when he didn't come home for Christmas or some other important day, I figured it was because he had something more important than spending time with me. I just wasn't that important to him. So, in a way, I started hating me.

"By the time I got to college, I had a firm belief that people were only in it for themselves, that only a fool trusts anyone besides himself, and that the only thing friends were good for is to hurt you. I had so many walls around myself, I couldn't even see past them anymore. That's when I met Egon. And he did something absolutely remarkable to me. He trusted me!" He laughed. "He actually trusted me with how he felt about things, the things that gave him joy and the things that hurt him. And the funny thing was, I had never realized how good it could feel to have someone trust you. We became friends, really good friends, despite the fact that most people would think we had nothing in common. Then one day, amazingly enough, I realized I trusted him! I actually had learned to put my trust into another human being and know, know absolutely, that he would never willingly hurt me."

He looked over at her. "After that, we met Ray and he brought a whole new kind of trust with him. Even with all the pain he had gone through in his life, he was still able to reach out to others. After Egon broke down that first major barrier, it was so easy to trust Ray. There's nothing hidden at all with Ray. He's made of glass. Everything's right there to see, including his heart, and like fine crystal, he can seem very fragile. And yet, Ray's one of the strongest people I know. You know why?" She shook her head, now paying rapt attention to his every word. "Because he loves so easily and he draws strength from that love."

He smiled. "I bet you're wondering why I'm telling you all this. It's because you're a part of this family now, Emma. And don't think for a minute that the people under this roof are not a family. We may not have come from the same gene pool, but we share so many things, the most important of which is love. There was a time when I couldn't have admitted to loving anyone, not even my mother, because I thought love was a weakness. But I was so wrong."

"Did..." she started, then turned away.

"It's okay, Peaches, you can ask me anything you want. That's what this is all about."

She took a breath, then looked at him again. "Did you ever hate your father for what he did?"

Peter felt his stomach lurch at the implications in the question, but shook his head. "No. He's my dad. And he loves me... in his own way. I just had to accept him as he was and realize that his failures were not because of faults in me, but in himself. He can be a great guy, he's just not the kind you can depend on." He put his hand on her shoulder. "Emma, I want to be the kind of father you can depend on. I want that very much, but it's as much up to you as it is up to me." He swallowed hard before asking, "Do you... hate me?"

"No," she replied, "but I wanted to."

"Why?"

"Because... because you were here and she was gone and I didn't want you, I wanted her. It was like I wasn't supposed to miss her."

Peter shook his head. "That's not true. You can't help but miss her, and I don't want to take her place. I want my own place in your life, not hers." He took her hands and pulled her down to sit beside him. "There are a lot of kids these days that are raised by just one parent. That's not easy, but it's not impossible either. The really lucky ones have two parents who love them, but each parent is a separate individual. You love different people in different ways. It doesn't have to be more for one and less for another, just different. You loved your mother and you will always love her, but what I'm hoping is that there will be room in your heart to find a different place there for me."

"When I came back tonight, and you scolded me..."

"I was scared, Peaches. I was afraid I'd lose you before I had a chance to find you. I was feeling, and acting, like a father... your father. Did that upset you?"

"No, I... I sort of liked it."

Peter looked at her in surprise. "You did?" he asked.

"It... reminded me of mom, but different, like you said."

Peter smiled. "That's good! That's a great start."

Emma turned away. "I didn't want to like you."

"Why not?"

"Because I thought if I liked you, it would be like forgetting about mom. I had those dreams."

"Do you want to tell me what the dreams were about?"

"NO!" she cried and jumped up.

"Emma, please, don't run away from me."

She turned and looked at him. "I'm not, I... I don't want to hurt you."

"You..." he looked at her in amazement, "you don't want to hurt... me?"

"I didn't want to like you, but then I heard you talking to Egon and then Janine and Egon talked to me and Ray did to, and they told me that they loved you and that they were protective of you because you'd been hurt."

"That's part of loving someone, not wanting to hurt them," he replied.

"But I was hurting you!" she cried. "But I couldn't help it. And I was afraid if I hurt you, they'd want me to leave and maybe you'd want me to leave and... I don't know where I'd go."

Peter caught her hand and pulled her back to stand in front of him. "There is nothing you could do that would make me want you to leave. Tell me about your dreams. Let me help."

"They were awful," she whispered.

"Maybe I can help them to be less awful. Last year, when I had really bad dreams, my friends helped me. If I hadn't let them, I wouldn't have survived. Come on, Peaches, talk to me."

"In... in the first one, I was standing with my mom and suddenly a hand came in and pulled her away. I called for her, but she wouldn't come back. I was all alone, then I saw a man, all dark, I couldn't see his face. Then he got closer and... it was you." She looked away, but Peter turned her face back toward him.

"Go on," he prompted.

"I asked where my mom was and you said that you were going to take me away and I would never see my mom again. Then you grabbed me. I tried to get away, but you wouldn't let me. You picked me up and started laughing and carried me off and I could hear my mom calling for me, but I couldn't see her."

Peter nodded. "That's a terrible dream. Did you feel that way when I came to the Anderson's that night? That I was taking you away from your mother?"

She hung her head. "Yes," she replied. "I felt like you'd taken her away from me so you could have me all to yourself. I thought you were some kind of monster." Anxiously, she looked back up at him. "I know you're not a monster now."

Peter sighed. "Why didn't you tell me this before?"

"At first, I was afraid you'd be mad and punish me. Then, I was afraid you'd hate me and want me to leave."

"That won't happen," he assured her again. "What about the second dream?"

"It was worse," she replied. "I was upstairs in my room and I heard voices, so I came down the big staircase and you were talking to someone over by Janine's desk. At first, I couldn't see her face, then I saw her. It was my mom. She was saying you promised you'd take care of me and you were telling her you didn't want me, that you hated her and you hated me. Then she said she'd take me back, but you hit her and she fell and she didn't get up, then you saw me and you laughed and you started after me."

Peter sighed. "No wonder you pulled away from me screaming when I came into the room."

"I was still scared of you then, but that night, I heard you talking to Egon and..."

"Wait, what do you mean?"

She looked down again. "I was going to the kitchen for a soda and I heard you talking to Egon. You told him you were scared. I hadn't thought about you being scared until then. And then, Egon asked you what you thought about me."

"I'm afraid I didn't have a very good answer for him," Peter admitted.

"But you did," she replied. "You said I was smart and you said it like you thought that was really great, like, maybe, you were proud of me. It reminded me of my mom. She always used to tell me how smart I was, and it hurt for a minute, but then it felt better because it was like..."

"Like what?" Peter asked urgently.

"Like the way she cared about me wasn't all gone. It was still there, but it was you instead of her." Tears filled her eyes. "Downstairs, when I came back, I saw it then, too. You hugged me really tight and... and you were crying, and I knew that you really did care about me, even if you'd never known me." She sniffed as the tears started rolling down her cheeks. "I used to ask mom why she loved me. It was like a game, and she used to say 'because' and I'd say ''cause why' and she'd say, 'just because.' It was like, there didn't have to be a reason to love someone. You just did."

Peter wiped at the moisture that filled his own eyes. "You know, that's probably the smartest thing I've ever heard anyone say in my life." He smiled through the tears on his face. "You don't love someone because they're pretty or smart or anything like that. You love someone because of what's inside them and what's inside you. Love just happens, when you're very, very lucky."

"My mom loved me like that," she sobbed. "Oh, Peter, I miss her!" With that, she threw herself into his arms and cried. Peter's arms wrapped around the fragile little body and pulled her close, rocking back and forth as he tried to comfort her.

"It's okay, Peaches. You go right ahead and cry because it's okay to miss your mom. It's okay to feel sad and scared. It's all okay, so long as you don't hold it inside. So go on and let it out. I'm right here and I'll stay right here as long as you need me."

As Peter rocked his sobbing daughter, he knew that somewhere in the cool, dark night on the roof of the old converted firehouse, under the invisible stars and amid the clatter of New York City, somehow through all the pain and misunderstanding, the fear and sadness, right in the middle of it all, he knew that somewhere...

...love happened.

***

"NOOOOO!" she screamed, the sound echoing inside her head and painfully in her ears. She jumped to her feet in a blind rage, striking one wall and then another. She had lost her tenuous grasp on the child's mind. It wasn't supposed to happen like this. He was supposed to suffer much more, never quite able to find the love he so desperately wanted from the little girl. But the power she had maintained over the child's emotion hadn't been strong enough to hold back her waking mind, and now, she felt the warmth of her emotions directed toward the betrayer.

Suddenly, the hall lights came on and the sound of voices and rushing feet floated into her locked room. Frantically, she fell back onto the bed, struggling to still her rapid breathing, urging her body to ease its tension and pulling the mask in place. By the time the light came on in her cell and she heard the key turn in the lock, she had returned to the image she had so long maintained.

"Was it her?" asked a voice.

"Are you kidding?" came the reply. "This one wouldn't notice an explosion if it was right under her."

"Must have been the girl in 204, but it didn't sound like her."

"Well, it wasn't the witch here," the second voice concluded. "Come on, let's check on the others. They're all probably up and will have to be sedated."

"One thing about this one, she saves the hospital a fortune in thorazine."

With that, the doors were closed, the lock re-engaged and in seconds, the room lights once again turned off. She had been lucky. They hadn't bothered to come close enough to notice the perspiration on her brow or the traces of blood on her fists. By the time they came to feed her in the morning, she would have seen to it there was no trace left of her fury of this night.

Her plan hadn't gone exactly as she had hoped, but she had always known the child alone would not be enough. It would have been delicious to have known he suffered at never being able to win the love of his own daughter, but that was not to be. Perhaps, she realized, this was better. Now he had begun to truly bond with the child. That in itself could be a powerful weapon, but not as long as she was trapped in this place.

Just a little more patience, she counseled herself. Just a little longer while her agent set the escape plan in motion.

Soon, Peter Venkman would learn what the true price would be for his betrayal of her. He had plunged her into hell. Now, she would return to him.

And hell would come with her.

***

Egon simply couldn't stand to wait any longer. Quietly he made his way up the stairs to the roof, but before he could reach the door to silently peer out and check on his friend, it opened, revealing Peter and in his arms, a quietly sleeping Emma, one hand still clutching the front of Peter's shirt.

"Is she all right?" Egon asked in a whisper. Peter smiled and nodded, then he started carefully down the steps. Egon kept just in front of him until he reached the bottom of the stairs, then he followed as Peter headed for Emma's bedroom.

Watching from the door, Spengler saw how tenderly Peter lowered his burden onto the bed, slowly pulling the covers up over the child and gently removing her hand from his shirt. He kissed the delicate little fingers, so small within his own hand, before tucking that arm also beneath the blanket. Then he leaned over and placed a soft kiss on her forehead. For several seconds, he sat and watched over her, his eyes full of warmth and, for the first time since this whole episode began, peace.

At last, Peter rose and quietly stepped out of the room, closing the door behind him. Then he stood and looked at Egon, a smile curling his lips. "We're okay, Egon," he told his friend. "Both of us."

Egon returned the smile, then pulled Peter into his arms and gave him a hard hug before releasing him.

"I want to hear all about it, but right now, we have another problem." Peter frowned as the physicist continued. "Winston and Ray have brought us a reluctant visitor. We have him in the lab."

"In the lab?" Peter asked. "Who is he?"

"A private detective named Jack Talbot," Egon replied and told him of Winston and Ray's encounter with the man as they headed for the lab. "Winston convinced him that we have ways to make someone talk. We thought you'd better hear what he had to say."

As they stepped into the lab, Peter's eyes grew large at the scene before him. A black man, in his thirties, Talbot was sitting, not very comfortably, in a chair near Egon's brainwave scanner. Peter wondered if they had used the device on him or merely threatened to. In any case, Winston stood on one side of him, his proton pack on his back and the thrower in his hand, while Ray stood on the other, trying very hard to maintain a menacing look. It was so out of place on Ray's features, that Peter had to suppress an urge to laugh.

"Well, Mr. Talbot," he said. "I'm Dr. Peter Venkman and I understand you have something to tell me."

"I already told these guys," Talbot replied. "Don't know why I should have to repeat it to you."

Winston brought the thrower up and let it drop into his open palm, just loudly enough to make Talbot jump slightly.

"You were watching this building. Why?" Peter asked.

"Because I was paid to watch this building, okay?"

"Who paid you?"

"Tell him," Ray growled when the detective hesitated.

"Geoffrey and Muriel Marshall," he replied.

"Mary's in-laws?" Peter looked at Egon who nodded. "Why?" he asked Talbot.

"I was supposed to keep an eye on the little girl, you know, make sure you guys weren't doing anything to hurt her."

"And get any dirt on us you could that the Marshalls could use to take Emma away from me, right?" Peter surmised.

"Yeah, maybe." He took a deep breath. "Listen, I really think they just wanted to make sure their granddaughter was okay."

"She isn't their granddaughter," Peter told him.

"Okay, man." He held up his hands in surrender. "But look at it from their point of view. They don't know you from Adam and they still think of the kid as their granddaughter. You brought her to a house with three other guys and no women, except your secretary during the day. What would you have done if you'd been them?"

"So you've just been watching the building?" Peter asked.

"Yeah, and I followed the kid tonight when she sneaked out."

"You what?" Peter almost exploded.

"Hey, I'm supposed to make sure she's okay, right? And you guys didn't seem to be paying any attention at the time, so I followed to make sure no one tried anything. But that green thing was following her too, and I don't think anything was gonna hurt her with it around. I kept my distance, but I didn't let her out of my sight."

Peter felt some of his fury die away. "If you're telling the truth, then I guess I should thank you," he admitted. "But I don't like being spied on."

"Well, I got a news flash for you, man, I wasn't the only one."

"What?"

"Last night, there was this guy standing across the street for about an hour. He hardly even moved, just stood there looking up at the building like he was in some kind of a trance."

"What did this man look like?"

"Couldn't tell. He was wearing a trenchcoat and a hat. I think he was wearing glasses, thought I caught a flash when he turned, but he stayed out of the light."

"Could the Marshalls' have hired two detectives?" Janine asked, looking at Egon.

"Lady, they got enough bread to hire a dozen, but I don't think this guy was working for them. In fact, I don't think he was a PI. He only stayed for an hour. No one came or went in that time. He wasn't exactly being inconspicuous to anyone who might have wanted to look, and there was somethin' about the way he just stood there. It was strange."

Peter and Egon exchanged worried looks.

"Okay, so we have another mystery man out there. We'll keep our eyes open for the next few days and see if he reappears." The psychologist turned back to Talbot. "So, Mr. Talbot, what did you learn parked on the street looking at our building?"

"Wouldn't have learned much, but I wasn't just sitting there lookin'. I got equipment, too."

"What kind of equipment?" Peter asked.

"Real high tech listening devices," Winston told him. "We found them in the car along with a bag full of cassette tapes."

"I don't suppose you were listening to Pearl Jam," Peter surmised.

Talbot shrugged.

"You realize, Mr. Talbot, that electronic surveillance of individuals without the consent of at least one of the parties involved is against the law?" Egon asked.

"Really?" Talbot replied with feigned innocence. "Did you know holding someone against their will while threatening them with a weapon is against the law?"

"And just what did you learn from your listening?" Peter asked, ignoring Talbot's question.

"Nothing that would help the Marshalls," he admitted. "In fact, I sort of got to liking you guys. You seem like a nice bunch, even if you are a little strange. I mean, chasing ghosts? You gotta be crazy."

"And sitting all night in a parked car listening to other people's private conversations is sane?" Winston asked.

Talbot smiled. "It's a livin'."

"Now what do we do?" Janine asked.

"May I make a suggestion?" Talbot asked. "If you let me go, I won't mention to the police or the Marshalls that you grabbed me. I already told you I got nothing against you to give them."

Peter shrugged. "Personally, I don't want to keep him here."

"Winston, I believe he's your prisoner," Egon deferred.

The ex-soldier motioned toward the door with the end of his thrower. "Get out of here," he told the detective. "And don't let me catch you hanging around this building again."

Talbot stood, then looked toward the pile of equipment and bag of tapes that lay on the lab table. "What about my stuff?"

"What stuff?" Winston asked. "Surely you aren't saying that these illegal electronics that we just happened upon are yours?"

"That stuff costs money!" Talbot protested.

"So does a good education," Zeddemore replied. "And I think you got a real bargain in higher learning tonight."

Talbot sighed, shrugged, then headed for the door with Winston right behind him.

"I'll be back as soon as I've finished taking out the trash," he told his partners.

"So, what do we do with all these tapes?" Ray asked. "We could keep them as a record of all that went on these past few days."

Peter looked at Egon and smiled. "I don't think we'll need anything to remind us. What we've shared, we'll always remember and the way we remember it, well, that's something personal for each one of us. I vote we burn them."

"And this equipment?" Ray asked.

"Put it in storage," Egon suggested. "You never know when we might could use the spare parts."

"I don't think we'll need to worry about Mr. Talbot anymore," Peter said, "but this other man, that bothers me."

"Like you said, we'll keep an eye out. If he shows up again, maybe Winston could convince him to come in for a chat," Egon smiled.

"Did someone mention my name?" asked Zeddemore as he stepped back into the lab.

Peter draped his arm around the older man's shoulders. "Have we mentioned to you lately just how handy you can be to have around?"

"No, but you've never had to," he replied. They all nodded in agreement as Ray packed up Talbot's equipment and carried it away to storage.

***

The next morning found the entire firehouse sleeping late for a change. It was almost ten when Winston slipped out of the bunkroom and headed downstairs to start breakfast, and it wasn't long after that the smell of brewing coffee wafting through the air brought the others down as well.

"I think we're going to have to consider doing a little redecorating around this place," Janine was saying as Peter, the last to come down after his morning shower, joined them. "It's much too masculine around here for a little girl."

"What do you mean?" asked Ray.

"Well, just look around you," Janine replied.

"Do you think this place is too masculine for you, Em?" asked Peter as he sat down next to his daughter with a conspiratorial smile.

"Well, now that you mention it, the bunkroom could use some new curtains and maybe new wallpaper, maybe roses."

"Roses!" Egon, Ray and Peter all said at once. Winston couldn't keep from laughing at the expressions on their faces.

"Emma, I don't think these guys are up for roses just yet, but we could certainly put roses in your room."

"That would be nice," she replied, then looked at Peter, "would that be okay?"

Peter smiled in complete happiness. "Anything you want, Peaches."

"Uh-oh," Egon shook his head. "You're going to spoil the child, Peter."

"Oh, I don't think a little indulgence once in a while will spoil her. I like to indulge myself occasionally and it hasn't done anything bad to me."

"Yeah."

"Right."

"Sure, Pete."

They all started to laugh as Winston served up their breakfast. "By the way, now that things are about to get back to normal around here, how about we get back on schedule as far as making breakfast goes. That would make it Peter's turn to cook tomorrow morning."

"Since when has Peter ever taken his turn?" Ray asked.

"Since he has a daughter who needs to be taught responsibility by example," Egon replied.

"Huh?" Peter looked up from his coffee, then gave a side glance toward Emma. "Oh, yeah, I guess you're right."

"Please, Peter, don't change too much. We wouldn't know what to do if you suddenly became too responsible," Winston chuckled.

"Pay no attention to them, Peaches," Peter told her, then his expression became more serious. "But you guys have brought up a point. I think last night we got over a major hurdle here, but we can't expect everything to be perfect all at once. We all want Em to be happy here and to have a good home, and she told me last night that she wants to stay, so that's a good start. But some things will change around here. We're not just four carefree bachelors anymore. We're three uncles, an aunt and one father, and we have to understand that this change may cause some problems. I want everyone to understand that right from the beginning. Especially you, Peaches. If you have any problems, you have to feel free to talk to me or to any of the guys or Janine. Understood?"

"Yes, Peter," she replied. "I don't want to cause any trouble."

"Whoa!" Peter held up his hands. "That's just my point. It is not, repeat not, you're fault. Change is inevitable and we all care about each other around here and any kind of problem we have, we'll all work it out, no blame, no guilt. Okay?"

She smiled. "Okay."

"Okay, so what do we have on the schedule for today?" he asked Janine.

"Well, there are two busts scheduled, but they both sound like pretty easy ones. I was thinking, it might be a good idea if we went shopping, got Emma some new clothes and maybe some of those things to redecorate her room."

"Sounds like a great idea," Peter replied. "You ladies get to go spend money while we men make it. My, how times have changed."

"I said we, Dr. V," Janine reminded him. "That means I expect you to come along and bring your checkbook. Egon, Ray and Winston should be able to handle the busts today."

"Me? Shopping?" he asked.

"I think it would mean a lot to Emma," she prodded.

Peter looked at his daughter's expectant face and relented. "Change is good," he sighed, "but when you ladies go into the lingerie department, I'll go for a walk."

They all laughed.

***

Shopping with Janine and Emma was definitely a new experience for Peter, much to his consternation and the ladies' delight. He had, on a couple of occasions, been dragged to a clothing store by one of his girlfriends, but there was quite a difference between the type of items they wanted his opinion on and what Janine and Emma were picking out.

"And she'll need more school clothes," Janine told him when he complained at one point. "Now that she's living with us, you're going to have to get her enrolled very soon."

"School," Peter sighed. "I hadn't even thought about that."

"What did you think?" Janine asked. "That she'd just be hanging around the firehouse all day, every day?"

"No," he shrugged. "I just hadn't thought about it."

"Well, start thinking!"

"Okay, school clothes. What do kids wear to school these days?" Janine and Emma exchanged a conspiratorial look and Peter groaned. "Why do I get the feeling sending you to school is going to be an education for me?" he asked.

After a few more hours of shopping for clothes, they stopped off at a paint store to pick up some paint and wallpaper samples, then they decided to stop for lunch. Emma excused herself to go to the little girl's room. Peter watched her cross the restaurant, keeping an eye on her all the way to the door, a smile coming to his face as he watched.

"You're gonna be a really great father, Peter." Janine's uncharacteristic tone caught him by surprise and he stared at her.

"Hey, who are you? I thought we brought Janine Melnitz on this shopping trip."

"Cut it out!" she replied, swatting him on the arm. "I have just as much right to get serious as anyone else, especially when there are no witnesses."

Peter smiled. "You've always been nicer to me when there were no witnesses."

Janine tilted her head and looked away. "As long as it is just you and me here right now, I just wanted to tell you how great I think you've been with Emma. She's still pretty nervous, but at least she's letting herself like you. I think she wanted to all along."

"I like her, too, Janine," Peter said with a sense of wonder. "She's really a great kid. But it's still pretty scary to have someone who depends on you so completely."

"We depend on you," Janine told him.

"I know, and believe me, I depend on you guys too, but Emma is just a little girl. There's so much growing and learning she has ahead of her and I'm gonna have a great deal to do with how easy or hard all that is for her."

"Peter, you've got the best instincts with people of anyone I've ever met. I know the guys have all told you that before, but maybe you need to be told a lot just so you'll believe us. As long as you trust those instincts, everything will be fine with Emma. I'm not saying you won't make mistakes, but I bet you make fewer than most fathers who've spent years learning how to handle children."

"I want to be a good father, Janine," he admitted. "I want that more than even I realized."

"To make up for your own father's shortcomings?" Janine asked gently.

"Maybe," he admitted, "but... there's more to it now. Now that I am a father, I understand what a responsibility it is. And now that I know Emma and can see that she needs me, I don't want to mess this up."

Janine smiled. "You won't."

"I hope you're right," he replied.

"Right about what?" asked Emma as she returned to the table.

Peter brushed his hand across her hair. "That the chocolate cake won't ruin your dinner," he smiled.

"Yeah, sure," she shook her head. "Grown ups!"

"Can't live with 'em, can't live without their checkbooks!" Peter exclaimed, and Emma laughed.

Janine smiled as she watched the two of them. This was the beginning of something very special for both of them. And, she had begun to realize, something she wanted for herself and for Egon someday.

Peter paid the check and they left the restaurant. On the way home, they stopped at a bookstore and a toy store because, as Peter pointed out, Emma needed more than just clothes. By the time they got back to the firehouse, it took all three of them to carry in the bags and packages from Janine's car. After the others got home from their afternoon job, Emma modeled some of her new clothes and showed them all the other things Peter bought for her.

"Looks like we'll have to schedule a few extra jobs to pay for all this," Ray commented, then wished he hadn't when he saw Emma's face fall. But Peter noticed too.

"Nah," he said quickly. "We've been doing pretty good lately and we can afford to be a little more extravagant, especially with the ladies." He winked at Emma. "Oh, by the way, Egon, a messenger dropped by this afternoon to deliver your symphony tickets. They were COD, so I covered for you. You owe me $100."

"Wow!" exclaimed Ray. "A hundred dollars for symphony tickets? Must be something special."

"Very special," replied Egon, reaching for his wallet. He passed the money to Peter, then reached for Janine's hand.

"Very special indeed," grinned Winston.

"Ignore them, Egon. They're just jealous," Janine purred.

"No, we aren't," Peter replied. "I've been to the symphony with Egon. He's not my type."

They all laughed, but behind that laughter, there was a collective sigh of relief that the crisis had passed and finally, finally, it looked like Peter was in for some happiness.

***

The next couple of days went relatively smoothly. Janine agreed to continue to spend the night until the weekend, but Emma seemed to be over the worst of her nightmares, although she still had some unsettling dreams. The difference was now she could turn to Peter, and to everyone's relief, that's exactly what she did.

They spent a lot of time together, just talking and getting to know each other. Peter learned what an avid reader Emma was and took her for a second trip to the bookstore and to the library where she got her own library card. They talked about her mother more, too, and Emma obviously found it easier each time to talk about things with Peter.

Then came Saturday. Peter had been dreading it all week and he hadn't told Emma anything about it until the night before. He didn't want her to be confronted by the people she had believed were her grandparents without warning.

When they arrived, promptly at two on Saturday afternoon, Peter led them upstairs to the family room to talk. He didn't know what exactly he had expected from the Marshalls, but he was surprised to find himself actually feeling sorry for the rich couple.

"This has all been quite a shock for us, Dr. Venkman. You must understand that." Muriel Marshall seemed very frail and lost as she sat on the sofa next to her husband. "Mark was our only child and I'm afraid we doted on him, to the point that it made poor Mary uncomfortable. Believe me when I tell you, Dr. Venkman, that we never meant to make her feel unwelcome, but there was always something wrong there. There was a friction between her and Mark every time we saw them. I suppose now we can understand what that was, but at the time, we just knew that our son wasn't truly happy in his marriage."

"I understand," he told them.

Mr. Marshall took up the narrative. "As far as Emma was concerned, Mark adored her. He took pictures of her constantly and he was always talking about how perfect she was. I would have never for an instant have guessed that she wasn't his own child. In a way, that makes me very proud of my son."

"I can understand that, too, Mr. Marshall," Peter replied. "But I can't completely share your feelings. If your son had not forbid Mary from telling anyone about Emma in the first place, I might have come to know my daughter sooner and she wouldn't have had to go through this painful period of adjusting to a parent who's a complete stranger to her."

"Yes, I can see your point of view," Marshall replied. "And I can also see that you care for the child and her well being."

"She's my daughter," Peter said simply.

Mrs. Marshall flinched at the words. "I'm sorry, but it's still so hard to accept. If this is all true, then there is nothing left of my son." She brought her handkerchief up to her eyes and her husband put his arm around her, pulling her closer to him.

"We never wanted to lose contact with Mary and Emma, but I'm afraid Mary could never forgive us for the way we acted toward her just after the marriage. As Muriel has told you, it was obvious that Mark was unhappy, that something had gone wrong, but he refused to speak to us about it. That put a wall between us, something we had never had before. We had always been so very close to our son. Anyway, the truth is, we blamed Mary for it and at one point, there was quite an argument. It wasn't long after that Mark died. It was so sudden. When we tried to encourage Mary to come to stay with us, she accused us of only wanting the child. She swore that despite our money, we would never be able to take her child away from her. It was shortly after that she moved away and it took us some time to find out she'd gone to Chicago."

"You knew she was in Chicago?" Peter asked in surprise.

"Yes, we'd known for years, but we didn't know she'd moved back to New York until Mr. Parsons told us of the accident."

"And you never intended to fight Mary for custody of Emma?"

"No," replied Muriel. "We would never put the child through that. We would have welcomed them both into our home. I wanted desperately to make peace with Mary and I'll admit we both wanted to be close to our grandchild, but considering Mary's attitude, we thought it best for Emma's sake that we accede to her wishes."

"And now?" Peter asked.

"Now, Dr. Venkman, we have to come to terms with the fact that Emma is not our grandchild and that we have no one left to follow on after us." Geoffrey Marshall looked at Peter directly. "We still want what's best for Emma. Maybe she isn't our son's child, but he loved her very much and we will always feel close to her. For that reason, and because, as I said, we have no one left but Emma, we wanted to ask that you allow us to keep track of her. We'd ask you to let us know how she's doing, that's she's all right and if there is ever anything she needs. We would like to talk to her, if you think it would not upset her too much."

"You seem like a very nice man, Dr. Venkman," Muriel told him, "and I'm glad Emma has someone like you to love her. I hope you will take pity on two people who still can't quite bear to lose the last trace of their own child. If we could choose to be, we would still be Emma's grandparents and if she'll let us, we'd like to be her friends."

Peter looked from Marshall to his wife, then shook his head. "I'm not sure what to say, Mr. and Mrs. Marshall, except that I want to assure you that I intend to be the best father I can to Emma and I don't hold any malice toward you at all. How can I hold it against you that you had a misunderstanding with Mary? I have my own particular guilts in that area. But I can't promise you that Emma will accept you. I'll ask her if she'll speak with you, but I won't force her. I care about her too much and our relationship is still too tenuous at the moment to jeopardize it by making her do something that would be painful to her."

"We'll abide by her decision," Marshall replied.

"Mr. Marshall?" Peter looked at the man carefully. "I have to ask you about something. We are aware you hired a private detective to keep an eye on us."

"Oh, dear!" Muriel exclaimed. "We didn't want you to find out about that. We weren't trying to pry, we just had to be sure Emma would be safe."

"I understand that, Mrs. Marshall," Peter replied. "And I don't hold it against you, except for the fact that I'm not very comfortable with my privacy and that of my friends being invaded. But I must ask that you call Mr. Talbot off, and any other investigators you might have hired."

"I promise you," Marshall replied, "Talbot was the only investigator we hired. He had done some work for a business associate of mine here in New York and it seemed prudent at the time to make sure you were the right kind of person to take over the raising of our... of Emma. I will make certain he is off the case this afternoon. We didn't intend to pry, but we felt strongly that we had to protect her if you hadn't turned out to be the sort of man you are. I will tell you, Talbot's reports indicated that there was nothing for us to worry about as far as your character and that of your associates was concerned."

"I'm glad at least some good came of it if it put your minds at ease." He stood up. "I'll go talk to Emma now. I'll let you know what she decides."

He went to Emma's room and found her lying on her bed reading.

"Are they still here?" she asked.

"Yes, and they would like to talk to you," he told her.

"I don't think I want to," she replied.

"I already told them that I won't force you to talk to them if you don't want to, but for what it's worth, I think you should."

"They didn't like my mom. Why should they like me?"

"They had a misunderstanding with your mother and I believe they are sorry for it. Emma, their son is gone and you were the only part of him they had left. They aren't young and they are very sad. But I'm not asking you to talk to them for their sakes, but for yours."

"Mine?"

"Yes, because as you and I know, people can have misunderstandings and sometimes those misunderstandings can go on for years and never be resolved. I don't want you to go through your whole life hating these two people when you could make some peace with them now. I want you to see they aren't the ogres you have pictured them to be. I don't want you to be afraid of anyone. Will you do that? For yourself?"

Emma looked at him for a moment, then nodded. "Will you be there?"

"If you want me to," he replied.

"Okay."

When they walked into the family room, the Marshalls both stood, Muriel's hands flying to her face. "Oh, she's grown into such a beautiful little girl," she exclaimed.

"You look very much like your mother, Emma," Mr. Marshall told her.

"Peter said you wanted to see me," she told them.

"We just wanted to be sure you are safe and happy," Mrs. Marshall told her, reaching her hand out toward the child. Emma stepped back into Peter.

"It's okay," he whispered.

After a moment, Emma took a step forward and gave her hand to Mrs. Marshall very hesitantly. "I'm fine," she told the woman.

"Do you like it here?" Mr. Marshall asked.

"Yes," she replied.

"We only want you to be happy, Emma," the older woman said. "That's all we've ever wanted. We know you aren't our granddaughter, but we still love you."

"My dad said I shouldn't be afraid of you," Emma said, and Peter caught his breath at hearing her call him that for the first time.

"We don't want you to be afraid of us either."

"I don't think I am anymore," she replied.

"Your... dad... is very wise," Mrs. Marshall said, looking up at Peter and nodding.

"I think we should go now," Mr. Marshall whispered to his wife.

"So soon?" she asked, but then nodded. "Yes, of course, you're right." She pulled Emma's hand gently to her lips and kissed it. "We'll always think of you as a part of our family, too, Emma. If you ever need us, we'll be here for you."

Emma didn't reply, but when Mrs. Marshall released her hand, she stepped back and took Peter's hand.

"Thank you, Dr. Venkman, for seeing us and for letting us see Emma."

"You're welcome, Mr. Marshall. We'll see you out."

Marshall shook his head. "There's no need. We can find our way." He touched Emma's hair, then turned back for his wife.

"Goodbye, Emma," she said to the child.

"Goodbye," Emma replied.

They could hear Mrs. Marshall crying as they made their way down the stairs.

"You were right, they are very sad," Emma told him.

Peter knelt down beside her. "I'm glad you talked to them."

"I didn't say much," she admitted.

"But you said enough for now. It will help them to know you aren't so afraid of them. I think they really do care about you, Peaches."

"Can I go back and read some more before dinner?" she asked.

"Sure," Peter replied.

Emma turned to Peter and gave him a kiss on his cheek, then quickly disappeared out the door.

Peter slowly got to his feet and walked the short distance to the sofa where he sank down, staring off into space, and never hearing the approaching footsteps.

"Peter?" Egon's voice brought him back to reality. "Are you all right?" the older man asked.

"I'm fine, Egon," Peter said very softly.

Egon sank down next to him, his face filled with worry, and caught hold of Peter's arm. "Peter, do you know you're crying?"

"What?" Peter asked in surprise, then brushed at the moisture on his face. "Hey, I guess I am."

"Why are you crying?" Egon asked.

"Egon, she called me her dad. She was talking to the Marshalls, but she called me her dad. And just now, just before she went back to her room," he looked at Egon, a smile spreading across his face, "she kissed me."

Egon returned the smile. "The first of many," he told his friend.

"Yeah," Peter sighed in utter contentment.

***

The next week was a blur of activity. Peter enrolled Emma in school and they set about getting into a routine. For the first time in all the years they'd known him, Peter started getting up early on a regular basis. He still wasn't quite human until he got his first cup of coffee in him, but he was fully awake in time to drive Emma to school. They had briefly talked about checking into some private schools, but Emma wanted to try the public school. Peter was still a little reluctant about it, what with the violence and drug problems so often reported on the news, but he finally agreed to give it at least a chance, so long as he, one of the guys or Janine was always able to drop her off and pick her up at school.

The calls for the Ghostbusters' services picked up, too, necessitating some creative scheduling to manage the daily pickups. Often, Janine ended up leaving her desk for the time it took to pick Emma up, but she admitted to Egon, she really didn't mind. It gave her a break and she truly enjoyed the girl's company. Peter thought it was ideal for Emma to have a woman to spend time with since most of her at home time was spent with four men.

There were still some problems. Emma was adjusting pretty well, but once in a while something would unexpectedly remind her of her mother. On these occasions, she tended to get quiet. Peter was beginning to be able to pick up on these moods and always tried to draw her out. Once or twice, Emma had gotten upset with him and refused to talk. Usually, though, she seemed to come round.

They were getting used to each other's moods, each other's habits. With a little encouragement from the entire household, Emma had ventured out of her shell and by the end of the week, she had begun to take part in the dinnertime conversation. A new part of the evening revolved around helping her with her homework. Not that she needed much help, but somehow, they all seemed to enjoy sharing even those times with each other.

Sometimes, they seemed to be having too much fun. Peter, who seemed to be falling more easily into his role as a father, often had to argue with his friends over his daughter's bedtime.

All week long, Peter had been hinting that if everyone behaved themselves, he had a surprise for them on Saturday. When that morning arrived, he was, amazingly, the first one up and already had breakfast going when the others began to venture into the kitchen.

"Mor-ning!" he sang cheerfully as Egon, the last one to snag the shower, came through the door.

Immediately, the physicist pulled out his PKE meter and trained it at Venkman as he flipped pancakes in the air.

"What is it, Egon?" Ray asked.

"I thought I'd better check to make sure some specter hadn't possessed Peter, or worse, kidnaped him and assumed his form. This early morning activity is certainly enough out of character to arouse suspicion."

"Watch it, Spengler, or I'll drop your pancakes," Peter warned, then turned back to his griddle.

"Anybody have a clue what this big surprise is?" Winston asked.

"Not a one," Ray admitted. "How about you, Em? Has he spilled to you?"

"Zip city," she replied. "The only thing he'd tell me was to dress in jeans and a tee shirt."

"Well, that's more than we got."

"Everybody up?" came Janine's voice coming up the stairs.

"Janine?" Egon asked, rising from the table to meet her at the kitchen door. "What are you doing here?"

"Peter said my presence was required. I just hope he intends to pay me overtime."

"No overtime," Peter informed her. "This is not work, this is fun time!" He finished with the last of the pancakes and brought them to the table which was already set with platters of sausage and eggs.

"Okay, enough!" Winston cried as Peter took his seat. "You've kept us in the dark all week. It's Saturday morning, so where are we going?"

"Don't you want to wait until after breakfast to find out?" Peter asked.

"No," came the unanimous reply.

"Okay, okay!" he waived them off. Reaching in his pocket, he made a show out of clearing his throat. "Ladies and Gentlemen, children of all ages..." He whipped an envelope out of his pocket and waived it in front of them. "Ghostbusters proudly presents..." Reaching into the envelope, he brought out a handful of tickets and tossed them up in the air.

"The circus!" Ray cried as he snagged one of the tickets as it drifted in front of him. "Ringling Brothers!"

"Madison Square Garden!" Janine squealed. "Oh, I haven't been to the circus in ages!"

"Hey, and they got that new lion tamer, too," Winston added enthusiastically.

Even Egon caught the enthusiasm. "Actually, I just read an article about the new high wire act from France."

"Okay, then, let's eat and then we'll..." Peter suddenly lost track of what he was saying as his eyes fell on Emma. She sat quite still, staring at the ticket in her hand with a look on her face that Peter couldn't decipher. "Is everything okay, Peaches?" he asked. She looked up at him, an almost stunned expression on her face, but still didn't say anything to him.

Carefully, Peter reached out and rested his hand on her shoulder. "It's okay if you don't want to go, Em," he whispered. "I guess I should have asked you if you even liked the circus."

"No," she whispered. "I want to go." She looked up at Peter with a look of amazement in her eyes. "I-I've always wanted to go to the circus, but Mom... she was afraid of the animals so she wouldn't take me."

"You're not afraid of them, are you?" he asked.

"Are you kidding!" she replied, her green eyes beginning to sparkle. "The elephants and the lions and tigers and the horses, I want to see all of them. I..."

Suddenly she threw her arms around Peter's neck and hugged him as hard as she could. "Oh, thank you, thank you. This is the best surprise I've ever had!"

Peter looked up at his friends, grinning from ear to ear.

"Oh, great!" Winston cried. "Now you've done it, Em. Now he'll be insufferable for days, maybe weeks!"

"I don't care!" she proclaimed.

"Okay, then, boys and girls, let's get a move on!"

In record time, they had finished their breakfast, even washed the dishes, and were all waiting for Ray to find his camera before piling into Ecto-1 for the trip to Madison Square Garden, when the phone rang.

"Uh-oh," Winston shook his head.

Janine frowned as she hesitantly answered the phone. "Ghostbusters. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Oh, my gosh! Yes, just a minute." She covered the mouthpiece with her hand.

"Egon, it's the mayor's office. There's something going on down at the waterfront and it sounds really bad. People have been hurt."

Peter frowned as Egon took the phone and spent several minutes in conversation getting the details. When he hung up the phone and looked back at the others, his expression was grim.

"Well, there goes the circus," Winston sighed.

"What is it, Egon?" Peter asked.

"It sounds like a class six. It appeared in the form of a huge bear-like creature and has been on a rampage through a warehouse and industrial area. The mayor's assistant says it's heading in the general direction of the Waterfront Mall, which on a Saturday, will be full of people."

"Gosh, we'd better get down there right away!" Ray exclaimed.

"But what about the circus?" Emma cried, looking at Peter with pleading eyes.

Peter sank down in front of her. "I'm sorry, Peaches, but we can't ignore this call. It's an emergency. A lot of people could really get hurt if we don't go." She hung her head. "We'll make it to the circus, I promise," he told her. "I can probably exchange the tickets for next weekend."

"But I was all excited about the animals," she cried.

"I know you were, but.."

"I'll never get to go to the circus!" she said moving away from him. "You don't really care!" she yelled as she bolted up the stairs.

"Emma!" Peter called and started after her, but Egon caught his arm.

"Peter, I know she's upset and you want to talk to her, but it will have to wait. We simply don't have time to waste."

Clearly torn, Peter hesitated, looking up the stairs after his daughter for another minute before nodding his understanding. "I know."

"I'll talk to her, Peter," Janine promised. "She's be all right."

"Try and make her understand, Janine. I hate disappointing her like this."

"It can't be helped, brother," Winston said, patting him on the back. "Come on, let's get suited up."

As Ecto-1 pulled out of the garage, Peter looked up at the second floor window and saw Emma looking out. He waived, but she had already pulled the curtains closed. He leaned back against the seat with a sigh. It was amazing how important Emma had become to him, and in such a short period of time. What amazed him most was the power she had over his emotions. All she had to do was smile at him and suddenly, he felt like he was ready to take on the world, but, conversely, when she had looked at him in disappointment, it was as if he'd been dropped into a deep, dark hole.

"Try not to worry too much about Emma," Egon told him, having obviously been watching him closely since they'd left Central. "She doesn't understand yet how erratic the job is. She's disappointed right now, but you'll be able to make it up to her."

"I hope so," Peter replied.

"She's really got you hooked, hasn't she?" Egon smiled.

"Completely," Peter admitted. "I never knew this was what being a parent was like."

"You're still new at it," Egon reminded him. "Give yourselves a little time and I think things will smooth out a bit."

"I hope you're right."

Egon gave him a superior look. "Of course I'm right."

Peter laughed and clapped his friend on the shoulder.

***

"Ray! He's headed in your direction!" Peter cried into his radio as he and Egon cut through an alley between an imports company warehouse and the Shibata Chemicals factory. By the time they had made it to the scene, the huge bear-like creature had demolished his way through several blocks of waterfront warehouses with seemingly mindless fury. The area was like a maze, with alleys and streets running at odd angles and unexpected directions around the closely packed conglomeration of buildings, most of which, luckily, had been sparsely occupied storage facilities. Still, several people had been hurt, some seriously enough to require transport to the nearest hospital.

The creature itself stood about half again as tall as Egon, with an arm span out of proportion to its size. Upon first sight, Ray had speculated it could be some kind of Native American spirit since it looked very much like a grizzly bear, with a few obvious differences. First, it seemed to be able to move right through objects as if its body wasn't as solid as it looked. However, from the way its claws and teeth connected with anything that got in its way, it obviously had the ability to phase from physical form to nonphysical.

In the close proximity of the tightly-packed buildings, it had proven impossible for the Ghostbusters to surround the creature, and they had already determined that two beams couldn't hold it when it broke away from Ray and Winston before Peter and Egon could reach them. So they had split up, each flanking the creature's path in the hopes of finding an open area sufficiently large to get all four beams in place. For the past half hour they had been attempting to herd it toward docks before it reached the mall. The police were only a few blocks ahead trying to warn and evacuate anyone in those buildings to be threatened next, but the ghostly carnivore was moving fast.

"Peter, we've got a large parking lot behind the chemical plant," Ray's voice came over the radio. "Winston and I are going to try and get in front of him and turn him that way."

"Be careful!" Peter cried, motioning to Egon as they came out of the alley and into the loading dock area of the chemical plant. "It's a dead end. We'll have to cut through the building."

They were still trying to navigate their way through the abandoned factory when Winston's voice sounded over the radio. "Pete, Egon, hurry! It's got us pinned down!"

"Shit!" Peter exclaimed, vaulting over a half-sized partition to get to a set of glass doors. "We've gotta find out way outta here quick!"

"Peter! Look!" Egon pointed at a sign above the glass doors with an arrow that pointed to "Employees' Parking". Peter bounded through the doors and started running full out down the hallway that led to the exit.

Just before he reached the door, it seemed to explode inward toward him.

"Duck!" he screamed at Egon as he dropped to the floor. Egon pulled up short, taking refuge in a side corridor until the flying debris landed.

"Peter!" he cried.

"I'm okay," Venkman replied, sliding into an open doorway as he pulled out his radio. "Guys, we got him after us in the chemical plant near the employees' entrance. Where are you?"

After a moment, Ray's voice came over the speaker. "Right behind him! We'll try to attract his attention."

At that moment, the creature appeared in the demolished doorway, passing through the piled debris as if it weren't even there.

"Peter! Get back!" Egon cried when he saw how close the doorway where Venkman had taken refuge was from the rampaging beast. Not a moment too soon, Peter retreated further into the room as the bear-like ghost headed in his direction. "He's still after you!" Egon cried, quickly raising his thrower and firing at the huge bulk. The animal spirit roared against the force of the proton stream, but continued on its predetermined course.

Inside the room, Peter quickly attempted to take stock of his surroundings. The only windows in the room were high, almost at ceiling level, with no visible means of access. The room itself appeared to be some sort of storage facility, although a small one. Across the back wall were a series of tanks labeled cryptically with only numbers. On the near side of the room was the setup of a small lab. There was only one other door into the room aside from the one the creature was beginning to demolish. Peter made for it as a huge crash sounded behind him. The next growl came right behind him as he flung open the door, only to discover it led into a small closet.

"Oh, shit!" he exclaimed, whirling around to see the ghost moving right through the lab counters and tables and headed for the row of tanks. Without a moment to lose, Peter jumped into the closet and pulled the door closed behind him. He could hear the roars and the sound of furniture and fixtures being ripped apart. A sudden series of clangs and the sound of rolling metal cylinders told him the ghost had reached the tanks. The door before him shook with the impact as several of them rolled up against it and the wall just outside the closet. He breathed a sigh of relief that the small enclosure still held firm, but that relief quickly gave way to another fear when he heard the sound of escaping gas.

In the darkness of the closet, he couldn't see anything, but a bitter odor had suddenly begun to seep into his small enclosure and the fumes began to burn at his nose and mouth. Quickly he threw his arm over his face and tried to breath through his sleeve, but it offered little protection.

He willed himself to remain calm and he listened for the sounds outside. He could hear the roar of the creature, but it seemed to be coming from further away, so he quickly made the decision that outside would probably be safer than remaining in the closet full of noxious fumes. He pushed on the door, but it would barely move a fraction of an inch. He would need help if he was to escape.

Reaching for his belt, he suddenly realized his radio was gone. Frantically, he dropped to his knees and felt all around the floor of the closet, but the radio wasn't to be found. He must have lost it before his dive for sanctuary. Once more he tried the door, pushing against it with all his might, but it was no use.

"Egon!" he cried. "Egon! Can you hear me! I'm trapped." He listened for a moment, but there was no reply. "EGON!" he screamed at the top of his lungs, but the exertion only succeeded in filling his lungs with the fumes causing him to cough violently. He could feel himself becoming dizzy. In a last effort to force the door open, he stood back and pounded it with a series of fierce kicks. On the second blow, it gave another inch, giving him the encouragement he needed to keep trying. But he had begun to cough harder and it was becoming harder to breathe. Peter knew it was only a question of which would give in first, the door or him.

***

Egon kept firing at the back of the bear-ghost as it followed Peter. As it disappeared into the room, Egon started after it, only to be forced to retreat again when it pulled down half the ceiling, effectively blocking the doorway with a mountain of wreckage.

"Peter!" he screamed, but there was no answer, and he realized Peter was either much to busy to answer or was forced to remain silent to keep from giving away a hiding place. At least those are the only reasons Egon was ready to accept. Reshipping his thrower, he started grabbing hands full of wood and ceiling tiles, broken pieces of plastic and metal in an effort to clear a path through the doorway. Despite the seemingly impossible task, he was actually beginning to make some headway when he heard another loud crash on the other side of the barricade.

"Egon! Peter!" Winston's voice cried. "He's breaking out the wall out here! Get out here, we need help!"

Spengler hesitated for a moment, torn between two conflicting priorities, but the sounds of his friends' particle accelerators firing tipped the scales. Half climbing, half crawling, he made it though the debris in the hallway and out the opening that had been the employees' entrance and found himself in the parking lot Ray had told them about. Rounding the corner, he saw the ghost advancing steadily on Ray and Winston.

Moving with the speed of urgent necessity, he positioned himself behind the creature and let fly with his own stream. As soon as Egon's beam struck, Ray and Winston edged around until they had the ghost from three directions. Marshaling his strength, it pulled against the hold of the streams, but could not generate enough force to break free.

"Trap out!" Winston cried as he hurled the small containment box at the feet of the bear-ghost.

"Do it!" Ray yelled, and Zeddemore slammed his foot on the trigger, sending a wedge of ultra-white light to envelope the rampaging spirit. With one final roar, he was sucked down into the trap, vanishing along with the brightness as the doors snapped shut.

"Oh, man, that was a hard one to bring down!" Winston sighed, wiping at his sweat-drenched forehead with his sleeve.

"Hurry!" Egon cried with no further explanation as he immediately spun around and headed for the breach in the wall made by the ghost. Ray and Winston took only a second to put their friend's frantic haste together with the absence of their fourth partner and realize Peter was in trouble.

Egon tore his way through the rubble, calling Peter's name the whole time. He had only just made it inside when he smelled the gas. "Peter!" he cried, "Peter, answer me this minute." He froze when he heard something, so faint he wasn't sure if it was a voice or just the creaking of the remaining ceiling. "Peter?" he called again, holding out his hand toward Ray and Winston to still their movement for a moment. This time, he knew the sound was a voice... Peter's voice. Turning in the apparent direction, he saw the door pinned half shut by a stack of silver metal tanks. There was something in the opening that he realized was a hand, grasping the metal jamb.

"There!" he cried, then launched himself into the ruins until he reached the door.

"Egon, there's some kind of gas in here," Ray warned, but Egon wasted no time in acknowledging him. Grasping the first tank, he heaved it away and immediately went for the next. Winston already had a grip on it and the two of them tossed it aside just as quickly.

"Be careful," Ray warned again. "We don't know what's in these things. They could be volatile. At least one of them is leaking."

"This one," Winston cried as he uncovered the last tank, lying at the bottom with a small rupture in the nozzle that had been pointed directly at the bottom of the door. Ray was the closest, so he grabbed the other end and he and Winston very carefully lifted it and set it aside. As soon as they had cleared the door, Egon snatched it open. A semiconscious Peter fell out into his arms.

"Peter!" he cried. "Peter, can you hear me?"

"Eg-" was all he managed to get out between wheezes as he struggled to draw in enough air.

"We've got to get him outside," Egon cried. "Winston, help me!"

Taking one of Venkman's arms over his shoulders while Winston took the other, they started toward the gap in the wall, with Ray in front of them shoving some of the larger obstacles out of their way. When they reached the wall, Winston took the entire burden while Egon climbed out, then the ex-soldier handed Peter through the opening and into Egon and Ray's arms. Not stopping until they had gotten well clear of spewing gas, they finally lowered Peter to the asphalt of the parking lot. Ray sank down with him, maneuvering the unresponsive man to where his head rested on the occultist's thigh.

"Over here!" Winston cried, having spotted one of the ambulances that had been called to the scene. "We need medical help fast!"

Egon sank down next to Peter, unzipping the front of his jumpsuit as the psychologist continued to struggle for air.

"It all right, Peter," he told him. "Help is on the way. Just hold on."

"Hurts... to... breathe," Peter panted, the words barely audible. He raised a trembling hand toward Spengler. Egon grabbed it and gave it what he hoped was a reassuring squeeze.

"I know, Peter. Just try and stay calm. The paramedics are right here."

"Can't... see you..." He shook his head from side to side.

Egon and Ray exchanged a worried glance as a new fear occurred to both of them at the same time. Although the gas hadn't seemed to affect their vision during the brief period they had been in the building, Peter had been exposed for much longer.

"Are your eyes burning, Peter?" he asked.

"N-No," he replied, "just so... dark..."

Just then, the paramedics arrived and pushed Egon aside, causing him to lose his grip on Peter's hand.

"E-Egon?" he called with a note of desperation in his voice.

"I'm right here, Peter," the older man assured him, reaching in to rest his hand on the top of Peter's head.

"He was exposed to some kind of gas. We don't know what it was, but he was in an enclosed area with a high concentration," Ray was explaining to the technicians.

"We need to find out what it was," one of them replied, turning to look back at a policeman who stood just behind him. "Is there anyone from this plant that you could find out from?"

"There was a number on the tank that was leaking," Winston told them. "It was 224601."

"I'm on it," the uniformed man replied as he wrote down the number then, pulling out his radio and spouting orders, he rushed away across the parking lot.

"He's having a lot of trouble breathing," Ray continued, "and he says he can't see. I don't know if that's from the fumes or..."

"We'll check it out," one of the men assured him. "Matt, let's get him on the gurney. I want to transport as soon as possible."

As they lifted him on the stretcher, Peter's hand flailed about frantically as he called Egon's name amid desperate gasps to fill his laboring lungs.

"I'm here, Peter," Spengler told him, grabbing the hand once more.

"Emma... take care..." There was one last pain filled choking gasp, then suddenly, the hand went limp.

"Let's move!" the first paramedic cried as they loaded Peter into the ambulance.

"Oh, my God," Egon breathed.

"Go with him, Egon," Ray urged. "We'll meet you at the hospital."

Egon nodded, then locked his eyes with Ray. "Call Janine," he instructed. "Tell her not to tell Emma about this until we know something."

"Oh, gosh, Emma!" Ray exclaimed, then he nodded at Egon. "I'll take care of it," he promised. "Go!"

Egon climbed into the back of the vehicle and they were immediately on their way. Wanting desperately to be in contact with his friend, Egon had to settle for close proximity as the paramedics, in radio contact with the hospital, administered oxygen to the unconscious psychologist. Egon picked up on one thing right away: until they could determine just what kind of gas Peter had been exposed to, they were severely limited in the treatment they could provide.

"Hold on, Peter," he whispered. "You've simply got to hold on. Emma needs you and so do we." Silently, he prayed that he wouldn't have to face the little girl to tell her she had lost another parent. How could he face her, when he wasn't sure how he would survive such a thing himself?

(Continued in Part 4)