On the walk to Frank Bannister's house, Dammers went over his plan detail by detail, his anxiety increasing with every step forward. He tried to convince himself that his apprehension was unfounded; all he had to do was tell Frank a little lie, and Dammers considered himself to be a pretty good liar. He had, after all, been an undercover agent for twenty years, and if the government couldn't teach you to lie, who the hell could?
Upon reaching the Bannister home, Dammers was relieved to see Frank sitting outside on the porch. He had been dreading the possibility of having to knock, afraid it would arouse suspicion. On the heels of his relief, however, came a flash of panic when he saw Lucy come out of the house and take a seat on the steps beside Frank. Dammers quickly ducked behind a tree and tried to settle his nerves. He had managed to convince himself on the walk over that Frank would have no reason to think he was anything more than a simple ghost, but now doubt screamed through his entire body again. He felt sure that Bannister would notice he wasn't transparent any longer, and his ghostly blue radiance had faded to a barely visible aura. Taking a deep breath, he reminded himself not to give Frank the chance to notice or question these facts.
Understanding that he was wasting time, Dammers swallowed the bile in his throat and emerged from behind the tree, running the rest of the way to the front porch. Halting at the foot of the steps, he looked up into the surprised faces of Frank and Lucy Bannister and assumed a frantic expression. With his nerves being what they were at the moment, the panicked look came easily. "Bannister! You have to help me! Oh, god, something terrible is going on."
"Dammers?" Frank exclaimed incredulously. "What are you doing here? I thought - -" he suddenly broke off and pointed to something behind Dammers. "What the hell is that?" he asked softly.
Yeah, like I'm going to fall for that, Dammers thought sarcastically. Nevertheless, he slowly turned and saw a cylindrical shaft of red light shooting up from a point in the woods. Choking back a small laugh, he thought, Well, Sarah certainly wasn't kidding when she said I'd be able to find her. Whirling around to face Bannister, his eyes fell upon Lucy first. She was regarding him with obvious suspicion and loathing, but it wasn't the look in her eyes that he noticed. What momentarily froze him was the fact that she was hugely pregnant. Breeders, he thought disdainfully, trying to avoid rolling his eyes. "That," he jerked his thumb over his shoulder, "is the reason I'm here, Bannister. Do you want to know what that light is? It's a cult of ghosts performing human sacrifices for the ninth night in a row. I can't stop them alone; I need your help."
Bannister thought for a second. "So, these murders around town lately, they're being committed by some sort of ghost cult?"
Master of the obvious. Biting back several caustic remarks, he simply nodded. Bannister nodded back and turned to Lucy as Dammers walked over to the driveway. Even from that vantage point, it was clear that Lucy didn't want her husband traipsing off into the woods with this particular ghost. After several minutes of heated debate, Frank emerged the apparent victor. He met Dammers by his old Volvo and unlocked the door. "Come on, then. We'll get there quicker if we drive. When we get back, though, we'll have plenty of explaining to do to Lucy."
Well, that was certainly easier than I expected, Dammers thought, climbing into the car. "You're still driving this piece of shit?" he muttered. Frank shot him an irritated glare but said nothing. After several minutes of silence spent watching scenery fly by, Dammers glanced sideways at Bannister. "So, Frank. Any suggestions on how to handle this situation?"
Frank's surprised gaze flickered to the passenger seat. "You're asking my opinion?" He shook his head and squinted out the windshield, wiping his sleeve across the dirty glass. "What I want to know at the moment is where the hell that light is coming from. I need to know exactly where I'm heading."
"The light is coming from somewhere in the woods by Holloway Road. You remember Holloway Road, don't you, Frank?" Dammers immediately wished he could call the words back. Confirming his error in judgment, the car swerved to the side of the road and came to an abrupt stop on the shoulder. Frank pulled the keys from the ignition and turned to face Dammers.
"Why did you come to me, Dammers?" he demanded angrily. "Have you forgotten our history? Ihaven't. We aren't exactly the best of friends. So why ask me to help you?"
Sensing his goal slipping away, Dammers slammed his fist into the side of the door, momentarily startled at the shock of pain that ran up his arm. Mind racing furiously, he finally cried, "Because there was no one else! Who else could I possibly go to, Frank? Think about it, for christsake," he growled impatiently. "You're the only person around here who, first of all, can see the perpetrators, and second, has some experience in this area. Now, the longer we sit here arguing, the better the chances become that someone else is going to die tonight. Do you really want to be responsible for that?"
Not entirely convinced by Dammers' pep talk, Frank thought about it for a moment. He had no idea what Dammers expected him to do about it, but since he did feel an obligation to stop any more killings, he reluctantly restarted the car and continued on course to the woods. He did have to wonder at Dammers' motives, though. Careening around a curve, he decided that the man must also feel some sort of obligation, probably to his former FBI career. It was the only thing Frank considered a likely reason.
Breaking into his musings a moment later, Dammers pointed out the window and commanded, "Pull over. We'll have to walk from here."
Trekking through the woods, doubt resurfaced in Frank's mind. Before he left the house, Lucy had also questioned the ghost's motives for bringing him into this situation. One of the points she had raised was that maybe there was no cult; maybe he just wanted revenge. After all, she reasoned, he probably blamed them for his death. Frank had to admit (although not to his wife) that the thought had leaped into his mind the second he had seen the dead agent. For the moment, however, he decided to take Dammers' story at face value and just remain on alert should any malevolent intentions surface. Somehow, he just couldn't imagine the man going through such a charade simply for revenge. He'd always assumed Dammers' method of retribution would be much more straightforward.
A mile into the woods, the two men suddenly came upon the clearing in the trees from where the light originated. The shaft of red light shone out of the ground in a pattern that was only obvious from such close proximity: five concentric circles burned into the earth. Inside the innermost circle glowed a strange symbol resembling a tic-tac-toe diagram with a few extra squiggly lines. To Frank's disgust, eight hearts were arranged in a pattern within the four outer circles. What was currently turning his stomach was the fact that all eight hearts were beating steadily and glistening with fresh blood.
"I see you found the place all right."
Frank tore his eyes from the hearts and saw a young woman step out from behind a gnarled old tree. She was obviously addressing Dammers, who nodded. Alarmed, Frank turned to run but was blocked by the ghost. Only now did he take the time to notice that Dammers was far more solid than any ghost he'd encountered before. What the hell is going on? Backing away a few steps, he struggled to sound nonchalant. "I don't suppose you're about to tell me I'm on Candid Camera, are you?"
Dammers was clearly not amused, but Sarah laughed as she picked up a nearby tree limb. "That's right, Frank. Smile," she told him, swinging the branch at his head. He tried to duck away, but she quickly adjusted her swing downward, striking him squarely on the head and knocking him to the forest floor. She dropped the limb and glanced at Dammers, who seemed a bit stunned. Reaching behind the tree, she produced a set of shackles and tossed them to him. "Here. Put these on our little friend there before he comes to."
Already Frank was beginning to stir. Dammers quickly shackled his hands behind his back and pulled the man to his feet. At Sarah's indication, he maneuvered Frank to the inner circle and forced him to his knees. As Dammers exited the circles, a new worry occurred to him and he walked over to where Sarah stood intently paging through her black ritual book. "What if his spirit tries to stop us after we kill him? Or what if he decides to haunt me? I could be in real danger from him," he said softly, stealing an uneasy glance over his shoulder.
Sarah shook her head and patted him on the back, not at all surprised when he pulled away. "I wouldn't worry about it too much. See, when a ritual of this manner is performed, the victim's soul becomes trapped. There will be no haunting by his unrestful spirit. Didn't they teach you anything in the FBI?" She shook her head and pulled the silver dagger from a sheath strapped to her leg. "Here, take this. Stand in the circle with Bannister, but don't do anything until I tell you to."
Although dazed, when Frank spotted Dammers coming toward him with the dagger, he struggled to his feet. Attempting to exit the circle, however, became a comedy of errors. When he reached the circle's perimeter, he was met with a resistance that bounced him off, making him feel like a damn cartoon character. Trapped, he had no choice but to watch as Dammers entered the circle and shoved him to his knees once again. "Look, Dammers, I don't know what you have in mind," a lie, of course; it was painfully obvious what the plan was. "-but you don't have to do this."
"Oh, shut up." Dammers deftly flipped the dagger in his hand and struck Frank in the temple with the hilt. He fell forward and lie still, unconscious.
Finding her place in the ritual book, Sarah entered the circle pattern and stopped at the innermost circle where Dammers stood waiting. After reading a few words from the book, she stepped into the circle and faced him. Passing the black tome to him, she pointed to a short passage halfway down the page. "Read that."
Feeling vaguely ridiculous, Dammers accepted the volume and scanned the appropriate paragraph. While most of it was English, it was interspersed with nearly unpronounceable words - names, he assumed. Taking a deep breath, he read from the book:
"Blantlunau, Xtalu, open the portal to thee. Burn the fabric separating worlds. Tzulnhu, the sacrifice is at hand. Spilt blood awaits the coming of Suydam. As darkness be the companion of death, shall night be the revelation of life. Rulers of the moon, take this sacrifice. By the rite of Eschereheye."
As the last syllable left his mouth, the ground shook and the world outside the inner circle ceased to exist. All that remained outside the circle was a mist of swirling colors and dark furtive shapes. One of the dark objects resembled a small dragon. It swooped toward the circle, causing Dammers to flinch and drop the book and dagger. Several other dark shapes seemed to be hidden in the mist, only coming into view as the shimmering fog abated enough to catch uncertain glimpses deeper into the ether. There appeared to be creatures flying, like the dragon-creature, and some crawling. The most disturbing of these had no obvious limbs; they seemed to pour themselves forth. The sight of these last creatures was enough to hurt Dammers' mind, and he found himself almost envying Bannister's unconsciousness.
"Don't worry, they can't get out." Sarah was unruffled as she retrieved the book from the ground. She reached toward the mist and was stopped by the same resistance that had halted Frank. A shimmering handprint momentarily appeared against the mist. "See?"
Before Dammers could do more than nod in reply, Frank moaned and rolled onto his side, staring in disbelief at what lay beyond the circle. When he realized what he was seeing, his eyes popped open wide and he gasped. "Holy shit! What the hell is going on?" Once again, though, he was afraid it was obvious what was going on. Although he'd never witnessed anything like this before, it was quite clear that Dammers' intention was to sacrifice him to those . . . things. Frank looked up at him desperately and exclaimed, "Dammit, don't do this! Whatever reasons you think you have, there's no reason to hate me this much. Dammers, please. I've got a baby on the way, for godsakes!"
Smiling bitterly, Dammers grabbed him by the hair and hauled him to his knees. "That was a very moving plea, Frank. However, your mistake was in assuming I give a shit. I don't. I couldn't possibly care less about you or your spawn if I tried. Now shut the fuck up." He turned to Sarah, who was watching the exchange with interest. "What's next?"
And finally the bloodlust presents itself, she thought in amusement. Opening the book, she slid her finger down the page before landing on the correct passage. Over Bannister's protestations, she pronounced a few lines and kicked the dagger to Dammers. "Now you take his heart," she told him solemnly.
Frank immediately fell silent at the girl's words. To his dismay, all his panicked mind could think of was the chorus to the Janice Joplin song, 'Piece of My Heart'. Wondering if this was what hysteria felt like, he couldn't help but laugh out loud at the trick his unhelpful mind was playing on him. Suddenly brought back to the seriousness of the situation, he tried to get away from Dammers. It was a futile effort; with the diameter of the circle being no more than fifteen feet, there was really no place to escape to. After a few moments of fruitless evasion and fighting, the girl became exasperated and carefully set the book on the ground. Walking up to him, she quickly forced Frank to his knees and held him there. Unable to move, he found himself amazed at her strength and speed. So this is how it ends, he thought, hanging his head in misery.
With the blade only inches from Frank's chest, Dammers hesitated. Now that the moment was truly upon him, his nerves were threatening to shake his whole trembling body apart, but whether with excitement or trepidation, he wasn't sure. Not giving himself the chance to think about it any further, he steadied his hand and plunged the dagger into Frank's chest, pulling the blade down the length of his sternum. Arms soaked in blood, Dammers managed to remove the heart after some tribulation. Sarah immediately took it from him and motioned him to the glowing symbol in the center of the circle.
As he kneeled on the symbol, Sarah squeezed blood from the still-beating heart over his head while reciting a few words she seemed to know from memory. Dammers risked a glance up when the shower of blood ended, but before he could raise his head more than a fraction, he felt an impact to his chest and fell to the ground, momentarily blinded by a brilliant flash of white light. The mist was now shot through with faint red streaks, and the dark creatures eagerly clambered toward the circle's edge.
When Dammers regained his bearings, he realized that the impact he'd felt had been the result of Sarah thrusting Bannister's heart into him. "You forgot to mention that part," he muttered breathlessly, carefully climbing to his feet. Surprisingly, he found himself dry, no longer drenched in blood.
Sarah grinned. "Welcome back to life, Dammers."
"Is that all?" Somehow, he'd expected more. He had trouble believing it was all over.
Shaking her head, she gestured to the spot where Bannister lay. "No, not quite all."
To Dammers' astonishment, Frank was still breathing, his mangled chest moving in and out with every tortured attempt of breath. His eyelids fluttered and he moved his lips, obviously trying to speak. All satisfaction at being alive drained away as Dammers watched in disgust. "Why is he doing that? I thought he was dead."
"Physically, he is. But his spirit is trapped in the body. It happens more often than you might think." Sarah nodded toward Bannister. "Now all that remains is to give him to them - " she waved her hand in the direction of the mist "- and the portal will be sealed. Then we can leave."
More unnerved by the twitching body than he wanted to admit, Dammers forced himself to drag it to the edge of the circle. This time there was no resistance as he carefully slid Frank into the mist. As suddenly as it had sprung into existence, the mist and the creatures within it disappeared. He was once again looking at the dark forest, and upon glancing down, he saw that the pattern of circles and the light shining from them had also vanished without a trace. Dammers could only assume that the body and hearts had been taken by the creatures back to their hellish realm.
Now that the ritual was complete, Sarah shuffled her feet uncertainly. "So," she began, almost shyly, "have you given any thought to where you're going to go now?"
Distracted by the feel of the warm night breeze against his new skin, Dammers almost laughed out loud. The near-giddiness he was feeling was certainly out of character, but at the moment, he really didn't care how silly he appeared. It had been too long since he'd felt anything even resembling this type of happiness. "Uh, New York. I was considering New York. Buffalo, to be precise." Coming to a final decision on the matter, he regarded Sarah soberly, hoping he wouldn't come to regret what he was about to do. "How do you feel about New York? What I mean is, um . . . Do you . . . " he gritted his teeth in frustration and finally asked hurriedly, "Are you going to come with me?"
She raised her eyebrows, surprised that he'd come this close to admitting he wanted her with him. "You actually want me to go with you?" she asked, amused.
Dammers shrugged, avoiding her eyes. She won't be happy until she makes me say it, he thought. "Don't rub it in," he grumbled. Taking a deep breath, he amended, "If you want to come, then yes, I want you to."
Sarah busied herself with gathering up the ritual book and dagger, considering the offer. She'd never actually expected him to ask her to go with him. Not that she hadn't thought about it, but she hadn't figured he'd be able to suck it up and ask. Hell, it wasn't like there was anything tying her to Fairwater. . . . "New York, huh?" She smiled. "When do we leave?"
A sense of relief washed over Dammers, catching him off-guard. He hoped to hell that he wasn't making a mistake by letting her know he wanted her. But, he figured, what the hell? He had a new lease on life, so why not live a little? "Soon. We'll leave soon. And, uh, why don't we take the plane? I feel good about the plane."
* * *
ONE MONTH LATER
Frank Bannister wasn't sure how long he'd been floating in the mist. Time didn't apply here. He'd been everywhere in the universe in the blink of an eye, and yet he was trapped in one spot. The contradictions in this realm were endless. He could detect no physical aspect of himself, therefore he thought perhaps he was existing as pure consciousness.
After an undetermined amount of time, he began to move through no effort of his own. In the distance ahead of him was a tunnel of light unlike any he remembered previously encountering. Without any warning he was pushed forward, entering the tunnel. Beyond it, he thought he heard voices. As he neared the end of the tunnel, the voices became clearer, and he thought at one point that Lucy's was among them. But no, surely that was just his imagination, he thought.
As he exited the tunnel, he cautiously opened his eyes and gazed about, finding himself in what he assumed was a hospital room. When his vision cleared, he saw that he hadn't imagined Lucy's voice: he was staring up at her, his precious Lucy. He opened his mouth, preparing to tell her all that he'd been through, and needing to tell her how much he loved her, but all he was able to voice was: