A phone was ringing. It was a small, painfully neat cubby hole of an office. A small desk and two chairs occupied most of the floor space, a pair of file cabinets and a bookcase consumed the rest. The bookcase was filled with medical texts and journals
and a small coffeemaker cowered between precisely organized magazines. On the desk, the phone rang, it's red light blinking it's impatience to be answered.
The door opened and a short, raven haired woman strode to the desk. Her manner indicated her irritation at being interrupted. She ran the fingers of her left hand over her bound up hair as she answered the phone.
“Pathology, Dr. Drake speaking.” Her voice was educated and intellectual, calm but with a hint of the annoyance suggested by her mannerism.
“Emma, its Jeb” a cool, masculine voice replied over the line.
“Oh, hi Jeb, what can I do for you?” her voice took on mixed tones, as someone speaking to a friend, but concerned that they might have unpleasant news.
“Did you get your pager message a little while ago?” There was a slight hesitation before and emphasis on the word ‘pager’.
Dr. Drake’s concerned look turned to an outright grimace. “Yeah, but I was up to my elbows in someone’s chest and I didn’t have time to answer it”
“Emma…” Jeb’s voice held a hint of exasperation. “I know you hate to be interrupted, and sometimes you can’t check messages right away, but it is important that you check messages as soon as possible. They can be urgent life or death warnings”
“I know, I’ll try harder.”
“Well, that doesn’t matter right now, go ahead and check it.”
Emma sighed and pulled a large pocket pager from her belt under the lab coat. She sat at her desk and pressed her thumb to a recessed spot on it's side, and the pager split in half to reveal an incredibly sophisticated palmtop. It was one of the most advanced and compact terrestrial computers on the planet, linked by the most secure encrypted links to the secret computers of AEGIS.
Emma’s pale face tightened in unpleasant anticipation as she tapped a command on the miniature keyboard with a stylus. Her eyes narrowed at the short message displayed.
“Jeb, I can’t go to New York now, I’m in the middle of a murder investigation! I need time to get my work finished and type up my reports for the Delaware State Attorney’s office. There is no way, no…way…that I can leave now.” Dr. Drake’s irritation had come fully to the surface and her brown eyes flashed with anger.
“I know, I know, just relax” Jeb consoled. “Look, they said ‘as soon as possible’, not ‘right now’. How long would it take to finish your work to your satisfaction?”
Emma sighed and closed her eyes in thought. “At least another six hours” she finally admitted.
“Okay, it’s about 10:30, I’ll see if I can get us a flight out tonight, say after 7:00. I’ll call you at six and see if you’re ready. Do you have a travel bag there?”
Emma glanced at a large overnight bag tucked discretely into a corner. “Yes, I’ve got it.”
“Okay, make arrangements for one of your lab geeks to take care of your kitty and I’ll pick you up at the Quantico main gate once you’re ready.”
“Thanks, Jeb. I appreciate you making accommodations for me” Emma’s voice was quietly appreciative as her hand caressed the only personal touch in the office: a framed picture of a glossy black cat on her desk.
“Hey, it's no problem, it doesn’t sound like an emergency. But, you know I could use a favor…”
Emma sat up straight in her chair. “What?” she asked, her voice full of all her previous suspicion.
“Hey, it’s nothing like that. I’m going to be traveling under civilian ID, so I need a little help transporting a few items. Could you prepare an official FBI evidence bag, documented to contain an MP-5 submachine gun and half dozen magazines?” Jeb’s voice trailed off in an inquiring, hopeful tone, at odds with his usual cool, commanding manner.
“Boys and their toys” Emma sighed. “I’ll have it set.”
“Great, I’ll call you later!”
“OK, Jeb, I have to get back to work. Goodbye.”
Dr. Drake sighed and replaced the handset on the receiver. “Things were simpler before” she muttered to the picture on the desk. She stood and pulled a fresh pair of gloves from her pocket, and returned to her investigation.

Later that evening, Dr. Drake walked out the main gate of the FBI’s Quantico facility. Waiting for her was an undistinguished Army official car. The car’s driver was behind the wheel, a young blonde corporal reading a magazine, while waiting for her second passenger. Her first passenger leaned against the side of the car, watching the sunset.
Dressed in a dark blue suit, former Sergeant Jebediah Gerling looked uncomfortable in his civilian attire. A veteran of the US Army’s Recon teams, he held a degree in Aerospace Engineering and a Minor in Metallurgy. The tall, blond soldier had been on a night exercise when he had a “close encounter” with a robot belonging to the Greys, the true alien abductors behind the stories that fed modern UFO pop culture. His encounter brought him to the attention of AEGIS and they recruited him for Project: MOONDUST, the secret group in charge of studying alien technology and sanitizing alien crash sites… and their survivors. A warm and caring person, his justifiable fears of alien intentions made him implacable in applying his military skills against the Enemy, whoever, wherever, WHATever they were. AEGIS had arranged for his ‘death’ in a training accident and Captain John Heckler, US Army Intelligence attached to National Air Intelligence Center in Texas was born. ‘Captain Heckler’ was temporarily assigned to Washington, D.C. where most of the cell was based, so he could watch the new recruit, Dr. Emma Drake.
Jeb straightened and nodded a greeting to Dr. Drake, a welcoming smile on his tanned face as he held open the car door for her. Sunlight glinted from his lapel pin, bearing the logo of Army Intelligence. Further disguised as an FBI agent courtesy of yet another false ID, Jeb retained his military background, including a tattoo of a black sword on the back of his right shoulder.
Dr. Drake, even to an associate, was cool and composed. If Jeb’s warm expression and tanned skin were summer, her pale skin and dark eyes were winter. Long, long raven hair hung almost to the small of her back and it's fine stands blew gently in the evening breeze.
“Emma” Jeb nodded a greeting and reached to take her bag. Clued by his dress, Dr. Drake responded with a cool “Good evening John, are we ready?”
Jeb put her bag in the trunk and got in back beside her. “All set. Corporal Hollands, Dulles Departures, please.”
“Yes sir” the young woman replied, and put the car in gear and eased into the light traffic heading away from Quantico.
Emma quirked an eyebrow at Jeb “Well, I hoped for more detail than ‘all set’.”
Jeb chuckled in reply and pulled an airline envelope from his coat pocket. “Here you go; we’re booked for the 8:00 puddle jumper out of Dulles, we’ll get into La Guardia around 9:45. It’s up to you whether you make a preliminary exam tonight or wait for the morning.”
“Well, if I can catch a nap on the plane, I suppose I could take a quick look tonight.” Emma looked resigned to long day and a longer evening.
“I may be able to provide some information for you to help make your decision.” Jeb reached down and pulled a laptop from its case at his feet.
“While you were finishing up, I sent in a request for more information.” Jeb opened the laptop and turned it so Emma could see the screen and brought up a file that AEGIS had downloaded to his HERMES compatible secured laptop. Emma leaned closer, pushing the scent of her luxurious hair to Jeb’s attention. He took himself firmly to task, reminding himself that some people’s lives had been much rougher than his own. Intimacy had no place in some relationships.
Emma took no notice of his distraction; her attention was fully focused on the slideshow of images on the screen. Each showed a different picture of some…creature. It lay on a medical examining table and was mildly horrific in any detail.
It was a male human, but with pale, discolored skin, mottled with skin discolorations. The torso and limbs had several bullet entry wounds, but blood had been washed from the subject. The head was intact, but had a lengthened, protruding jaw. The hands appeared clawed, the back hunched and the feet were strangely deformed, almost hoof like.
Dr. Drake’s head jerked back as the montage ended.
“Well, not at all what I was expecting” said Jeb. He turned to look at Emma. She was totally focused on the screen, her nostrils flared with each breath and her cheekbones stood out beneath her pale skin.
“Emma?” Jeb touched the back of her hand lightly and she jumped, eyes blinking furiously as she reconnected with the here and now.
“Sorry Jeb, I was seeing and old memory which I had never really understood, but now I think I’ve finally put it in its place.” She sighed, a long tension relieving breath. All traces of irritation had disappeared from her expression and not a little fear lurked in the backs of her eyes. She swallowed and banished the images from the screen and opened a simple notepad file instead.
Do you know what that was? she typed.
No, Jeb replied, laying his fingers to the keys. You’re the expert on things that go bump in the night, referring to her knowledge and unfortunate experiences with the occult and supernatural.
She gave him a stern expression and a muttered “This is no time for jokes.” Taking a deep breath, Emma typed out a single word: GHOULS.
Jeb sat up with a “Huh” and shook his head. Then he cleared the screen and switched to an AEGIS search routine and typed in: Ghouls, Summary.

GHOULS, qv GHASTS, WRAITHS, GHULS and others: Ghouls are a class of Incarnate Predators (qv) who have been corrupted by supernatural forces. Limited evidence shows that Ghouls live in groups under cities and cemeteries stealing bodies and eating the dead. Unlike most Incarnate Predators, they are reclusive and do not seek confrontation. They are very long lived, despite their apparently debilitating conditions and mutations. They do not seem to actively attack victims to increase their numbers, but victims may be Corrupted as part of an attack in self defense by the Ghoul.
1,672 specific matches on file.

“I think I would like to try and relax a little before the flight. I’m sure I’m too tensed up now to sleep, but just some quiet so I can regain my composure would be a good idea.” With that, she settled back into the cushions and turned her face away from Jeb.
Jeb continued to look at her for a moment, concern heavy on his face. Finally he turned back to his laptop.


The rest of the drive was quiet and the car pulled into the departure terminal without fuss. When Jeb got out to get their bags, he paused and turned to Emma.
“Do you have the evidence bag I asked for?”
Still somewhat subdued, she pulled a large plastic bag with an attached tag from her pocket. He opened an attaché case in the trunk and produced a Heckler & Koch MP-5 submachine gun and six loaded magazines and slipped it all into the bag. Emma leaned over and filled out the rest of the information on the card and put it back into the case.
Jeb took their overnight bags, the attaché case and the laptop before closing the trunk. He sent the driver back to base and led Dr. Drake off to the gates.
At the security checkpoint, they both presented their IDs and were waved through without having to submit to the metal detectors. Emma and Jeb moved through the crowds and proceeded to their gate. There, they again presented their identification before boarding the flight. Emma was still quiet and withdrawn, but Jeb thought it would pass. It usually did.

The flight into La Guardia was uneventful and they were met at the gate by a junior agent from the local field office. Emma and Jeb were escorted to a waiting car and driven off to their destination, a city morgue on Terrance St. An autopsy room had been reserved for the examination and the body sealed into a refrigerated drawer pending Dr. Drake’s arrival.
Jeb was less than thrilled with what would come next. He was a strong willed man, and no stranger to death. He had killed men and less identifiable creatures, and recovered remains from crash sites, all part of his career. But, there were a few things he would just as soon avoid. Considering the nature of the subject, AEGIS would undoubtedly like to keep things as quiet as possible. The local police had almost certainly been fed some story, probably with a few veiled threats to keep quiet. That same need for secrecy prevented them from borrowing local trained help, so Emma would have to do it all, with a little help from him.
Emma walked to the prep room in one corner and hung up her coat. Their luggage had been taken to the hotel, but Jeb still had his laptop and case with the MP-5. Emma washed up and put on protective apron, gloves, goggles and mask. She pulled a personal recorder from her pocket and walked back into the main room.
“Well, let’s at least take a quick look at what we have here” she said, tossing Jeb a pair of gloves, lab coat and mask. “Give me a hand getting it on the table.”
Jeb had known this was coming and considering the disruption to her schedule, figured fair was fair. Taking off his suit jacket, he put on the protective clothing and walked up to stand beside her as she broke the seals and pulled the drawer out from the wall.
The first thing they both noticed was a faint but awful stench. Emma wrinkled her face, but Jeb was more expressive.
“Woo, smells like something died in here, if you’ll pardon the pun.”
“Only your humor could be more rank” Dr. Drake replied in a squelching tone. “I thought mudboys like you were used to smelling bad.”
“Hey, hey, we enlightened troops prefer to be called ‘grunts’, thank you very much. I thought the point of refrigeration was to slow decomposition. This thing smells like an armadillo on a Texas highway.”
“You’re right, the stench is particularly pronounced. Maybe they didn’t get it in here soon enough. Either way, could you put it on the table, please? If your done with your critique of its aroma?”
“Yes doctor” Jeb moved forward and lifted the bagged corpse from the storage unit. He grunted as he took the thing’s weight and carried it to the examining table, setting it down with more eagerness than care.
“Well, let’s see what we have here.” Emma stepped up to the table and unzipped the body bag. A fresh, strong puff of stench slapped them as she pulled the bag’s folds away from their contents.
“Oh…my…God” muttered Emma. Her dark eyes were wide and her normally pale skin was the white of fresh snow. Jeb too was disturbed, but Dr. Drake reasserted her control and flipped on her pocket recorder.
“Examination of unknown…subject, May 7th 1997, 11:27pm. Subject was killed in an attack on NYC police officers. Initial visual examination shows six bullet entry wounds, four on torso, one in left bicep and another in the left upper thigh. Cause of death was probably shock and blood loss with the gunshot wound to the left of the sternum as the most severe injury.
“Subject displays several abnormalities to cursory visual examination. The lower jaw is lengthened and…” Emma paused to open the mouth, “teeth are very large and noticeably sharper than normal, suggesting adaptation to a primarily carnivorous diet.
“The skin overall is pale, probably a positive indicator that the subject lived underground with very little exposure to sunlight. The skin is also marked by multiple outbreaks of some dermatitis, most likely fungal infections.”
Dr. Drake moved down the table and lifted a forearm to examine the right hand, turning it in the light. “The hands seem shortened, the fingers shorter and thickened with a pronounced claw-like growth of the fingernails. I think the hands show evidence of being particularly stronger and tougher than the human norm.
“The feet are even more abnormal, they are shorter and thickened, and the soles are heavily callused, no…” Dr. Drake picked up a scalpel from the instrument tray and tapped at the bottom of the foot. “The foot is not callused; it appears to be a bone outgrowth. Surgical examination will be required or perhaps x-rays, yes x-rays followed by a standard autopsy.” Emma turned to Jeb “could you get me some coffee, please?” and returned to her work, moving a portable x-ray machine into position.
“Sure “said Jeb as he headed out. “Maybe a preliminary exam” he muttered in the hall.
When Jeb returned, Dr. Drake had finished a few x-rays and was marking a Y incision to open the cadaver’s chest. He set the coffee a safe distance from her and retreated to a desk in the corner.
The next seven hours were filled with grisly sounds and grislier commentary. Several times, Jeb brought fresh coffee, but each cup went cold and untouched as Emma lost herself in her work. Occasional comments came to Jeb as he held his distance, frequently escaping to the hall outside when the sounds and stench were too much. Some of Dr. Drake’s descriptions stuck with him.
“The internal organs appear slightly diseased and unhealthy, though obviously functional. The liver has multiple flukes.
“The tendons in the hands and major joints are visibly stronger and larger, giving increased leverage and strength.
“The bones of the feet have grown solidly and overgrown to the point that the foot is almost hoof like. The toes are shrunken and atrophied and I would not be surprised if they would have continued doing so, to the point of dropping off.
“The jaw muscles are stronger also; all primary cutting teeth are larger and sharper.
“What the…the eyes appear to have an inner reflective layer like a cat’s, presumably giving enhanced night vision.
“The brain is riddled with a spongiform growth which reminds me of Crutsfield-Jakob disease. But I don’t see how the subject could have functioned at even an animal level.
“Various parts of the brain appear abnormal, even allowing for the previously mentioned growth. In particular, the olfactory area is enlarged and more convoluted than normal.
“In conclusion, the subject’s abnormalities are likely the result of occult contamination; I see no purely scientific explanation for the body’s condition nor its apparent strength and vitality according to eyewitness reports.”
Emma cleaned up and unbraided her hair, letting it swing free. She took a sip of her coffee and smiled at its freshness. The smile stayed as she walked over to Jeb who had finally passed out a short time before. She looked down at him fondly before banishing her smile. Bending over to touch his shoulder, she shook him awake “On your feet, soldier!”
Jeb cracked an eye, then yawned and stretched. “Hello, doctor. Did the patient make it?”
“Very funny. Come on, time to get some sleep” she said, gathering up the last of her belongings.
“I thought I was sleeping. Oh, well. That’s the Army for you.” He glanced around the room. “Where’s our stinky friend?”
“I packed the assorted bits up to be sent to my lab at Quantico. They’ll send him out in the morning.”
Jeb straightened in his chair and woke up a bit more. “We should probably have the body sent to one of AEGIS’ facilities. I can send a message requesting they intercept and reroute it.”
“I’m ahead of you; I already put in the request to AEGIS”
“Very good, Emma, We’ll make a spook of you yet!” Jeb gathered his equipment too, and they left the morgue to find a ride to their hotel.

Almost an hour later, Jeb stepped out of the shower, a thick towel wrapped around him. Boy, I thought I’d never get that smell off me! He grabbed a pair of jockeys and a GI t-shirt and headed for his bed. Ah, to sleep and perchance to dream…No, scratch that. Today, like many in my new life has been the stuff of nightmares.
He turned off the light and lay down on the bed. His hand slid under the pillow to check that his issue Beretta 9mm was in place. Jeb took a deep, cleansing breath and settled in to sleep…
And jerked upright in bed, cocked pistol in his hand. Every muscle was tense as he fought to hear what had alerted him.
There! He leapt from the bed and rushed to the connecting door to Dr. Drake’s room. He leaned his head against the door and listened.
A muffled cry or scream came from Emma’s room.
“Emma?!” He pounded on the door, then tried the knob. Locked. The sound came again and Jeb made his decision.
He backed away from the door, took a deep breath, closed his eyes and found his center as his sensei had taught him. Then his eyes snapped open and his foot crashed out in a perfect kick. The door splintered next to the lock panel. A shoulder smash to the door and Jeb was through, weapon up and searching as his eyes swept the room, ready for who knows what.
The room was dark and empty. The only sound and movement came from Emma, wrapped in twisted sheets, as she cried in pain or utter terror. Jeb crossed the room and turned on the light. Her face was as pale as that afternoon; blood had run down her cheek from where she had bitten her lip. He leaned down and placed his hand on her shoulder and shook her gently. “Emma.”
Her reaction was to lunge up from the bed, eyes wide and staring, and gasped for air. Sweat had plastered her hair to her head and her silk night shirt to her breasts. She stared about her wildly before burying her face in Jeb’s shoulder and crying. She clung to his arm as she fought to control her breathing.
Jeb hesitantly patted her shoulder and inanely muttered “There, there. You’re fine, nothing to worry about.”
Emma finally stopped her gasping sobs and nodded.
“Why don’t you take a shower and try to get back to sleep?”
“Okay” Emma grabbed a bathrobe and headed for the shower, walking drunkenly as she recovered from her ordeal. As soon as she closed the door, Jeb buried his face in his hands. What a day.
There was a knock at his door.
“Shit” Jeb jumped up and went to his room, grabbed the wallet with his FBI ID and went to his door. He opened it and saw two men whose bearing screamed “Security!” to him.
“Can I help you, gentlemen?” he said, producing his FBI identification.
“Agent Heckler? We’re with hotel security. We got reports of a…disturbance.”
“Yes, I’m sorry to say it’s our fault. We are investigating a particularly heinous murder, and it gave my partner a screaming nightmare.” Jeb tried to project a front of calm and a hint of move along, nothing to see.
“We also got a report of what sounded like a door breaking,” put in the second, scrutinizing Jeb’s ID.
“Yes, well, that was my fault. I was so concerned that I tried to get to my partner’s room, but the connecting door was locked. If you send up the night manager, I’ll be more than happy to sign for the damages, whatever it is.”
“Well…” the first looked at the second. “Okay, you can sign for the damages when you check out.”
“Thank you, gentleman, I’m sure the rest of the night will be quieter” I hope.
The two security men headed back down the hall to the elevator, reporting in to the manager by walkie-talkie. Jeb went into his room and shut the door. He crossed the room and tossed his wallet and weapon on the bed. Taking a deep breath, he stepped through to Emma’s room. There was no sign of her, but the shower had stopped, so he sat at the small table to wait.
The door opened and Emma emerged slowly, a trace of nightmare lingering as she looked around cautiously before walking to the table and taking a seat across from Jeb.
“Feeling better?” he asked, trying to make his tone light and comforting. She nodded once, but didn’t seem ready to speak.
“Do you want to go back to bed yet?” Emma shook her head once, convulsively and some of her tension returned.
Jeb sat back in his chair and tried to relax, pulling on the patience his drill instructors in recon had instilled in him. He would wait for her decision, whatever it would be.
Almost fifteen minutes passed, Jeb slouched in his chair, watching her through half closed eyes. She spent the time staring at the table top, only little movements of her hands and eyes showed that she was conscious, and not in some trance state. Finally, she swallowed and looked up to meet his eyes. “I think I’ll try to get some sleep now, thank you Jeb.”
“No problem” he rose and walked to the door “goodnight.” Jeb pulled the remainder of the panel shut as best he could. He cleared his stuff from the bed and returned the pistol to its hiding place and tossed the wallet back onto the chair. He had just pulled up the sheets when the ruined door creaked open. He paused, one hand stretched out to the lamp as Emma crept into the in her bathrobe, a blanket from her bed bundled in her arms. She lay down on top of the sheets next to Jeb and curled into a ball, swaddled in her blanket.
A whispered “Goodnight, Jeb” came from beneath the blanket. He turned out the light “Goodnight, Emma.”

When Jeb woke up around noon, Emma was gone. Jeb rubbed the sleep from his eyes and looked around the room. Propped on the table was a small card: ‘Went for breakfast, be back soon, Emma. PS- Thanks’
Jeb went about his morning routine and was just finishing when he heard the door to Emma’s room open. Footsteps crossed the room to the connecting door. “Jeb?”
“In here, Emma.” Jeb washed the last of the shave cream from his face and walked out, barefoot in t-shirt and dress pants. Emma stood in the doorway, looking as cool and poised ever. No signs of her nightmares showed on her. She held up a small bag and a couple of cups of coffee. “Breakfast?”
Jeb nodded and ducked back into the bathroom. He came out with a shirt and tie that he began to put on. “How are you this morning?”
“As well as can be expected” she replied, setting breakfast on the table. And with that, the night’s events were quietly set aside. They sat at the table and shared Emma’s spoils. Halfway through, Jeb asked, “And what’s the next step in our investigation, Dr. Drake?”
Emma set down her cup. “I received confirmation that the body had been intercepted and moved to a secure facility. I fired back a list of questions and tests for them to perform on various samples. Hopefully, we’ll have those answers before nightfall. What do you think?”
Jeb pondered a moment before swallowing his last bite and answering. “In milspeak, what we need is a reconnaissance of the enemy’s area of operations. In coptalk, investigate the scene of the crime. Didn’t the police report mention an abandoned subway station?”
“Yes, on 123rd. You think we should investigate it?”
“Most certainly. I did a little reading while you were filleting our friend. Reports suggest that ghouls congregate in packs in a single lair or a series of close, interconnected ones. A city has an amazing multilevel maze of current and old subways, sewer systems, utility tunnels, etc. It's possible that the abandoned subway station is an opening onto one of these subterranean communities. I suppose we can examine it for leads.”
“Very good. I’ll contact the local office and arrange for a car while you finish up. Then we can check out the area of the shooting.”
“Ask them for a couple of flak jackets and maybe helmets. Oh, and some heavy duty hand lights.”
“Aren’t you being overly paranoid?” Emma asked with her usual, disapproving frown.
“One,” Jeb began “There’s no such thing as being too safe or prepared. Two, that’s my job.”
A few calls made the arrangements, and a car with the requested equipment was dropped off at the hotel. The two made their way across the busy streets of New York until they reached the subway station. Jeb covered the flak jackets and MP-5 with a blanket from the car and they stepped over the police tape and went downstairs. They paused in the lobby to put on the body armor. Jeb slung the submachine gun over his shoulder and stuffed spare magazines in his pockets. Dr. Drake frowned as she looked on, before grabbing her hand light and continuing down to the subway platform.
The entire complex was littered by trash and graffiti, dim columns of light shone down from sidewalk grates. The scene of the fight was easily found, marked pools of dried blood and the traditional tape marker.
“A little paint, some wallpaper and a bit of napalm and this place has some real potential” Jeb joked as he swept the area with his light and MP-5.
“Ha, ha. The police report said the attacker came from over here” Emma gestured with her light towards the tunnel. “Let’s go.”
The two climbed down and walked along the tracks into the tunnel. Less than a hundred feet in they came to a wall put up when the tunnel was rebuilt and shifted. A rumble came and went as a train passed somewhere on the other side of the wall.
“Okay, obviously we’re missing something.” Jeb turned in place and swept his light around.
“We’ll just have to check out this tunnel. There may be something the police missed.”
The two began moving slowly up and down the tunnel, checking first the floor, then one wall and the other. On their fourth pass, Emma spotted something.
“Look here Jeb” Her hand light illuminated a ventilation shaft’s grate.
“Yes, it’s a grate.”
“Look at the edges, it’s not rusted in place, and the hinges look clear too. And there are scratches on the wall, maybe from climbing.”
“Well, we’ll have to find a ladder, or something to climb on.”
“It’s only about eight feet, can you lift me up?”
Jeb looked down at Emma’s skirt and shoes. “I don’t think you are dressed appropriately to be a tunnel rat.”
“I just want a quick look. I can already see this is going to be very dirty.”
Jeb set down his hand light so it was aimed at the grate and resettled his weapon. Emma stood under the grate and Jeb squatted in front of her. She rested one hand on his shoulder as he wrapped his arms around her thighs and held tight. “On three, 1, 2, 3.”
Jeb stood straight up, holding Emma as tightly as possible, face turned and blushing with one cheek pressed into the kevlar over her belly.
“Much better” Dr. Drake reached up with one hand and pulled on the grating. It swung open easily with very little noise. “See? This is too well maintained and…” Emma had swung the light into the shaft. She recoiled with a scream as the light shined into the redly reflecting eyes of the ghoul crouched inside.
Emma’s sudden movement threw Jeb off balance and they toppled painfully to the concrete. Jeb landed in the shadows, but Emma lay slightly dazed in the beam from her dropped hand light. A scrambling noise came from above as the ghoul leapt on Emma. Its weight crushed the breath from her, and its claws ripped gashes in the covering of the flak jacket.
Jeb exploded from the darkness, a flying kick knocked the creature off Emma. Jeb stood protectively in front of her as the ghoul rolled away and tried to recover. As it regained its feet, Jeb brought his MP-5 around. The tunnel thundered with the roar of automatic fire as the bullets smashed the creature against the tunnel wall. Jeb poured most of a magazine into the ghoul and flesh, blood, concrete bits and sparks flew from the creature and wall behind it.
He walked over carefully, smoking muzzle tracking the body as he approached. He kicked it hard; the only really dead enemy is one you can stand on. As he turned from the body, Emma screamed behind him and fired her pistol. A second ghoul had jumped down from the grate while his back was turned. Emma fired into it, using all the skills Jeb had pounded into her after she joined AEGIS. Jeb spun and crouched and fired the last of his magazine at the beast as well.
Jeb stood and reloaded, moving closer to Emma, his eyes never left the open grate as his hands mechanically completed their task. Emma was pale and shaking, but she had reloaded her weapon as well.
“I think its time to retreat” he said as put a hand under her arm and helped her to her feet.
“Yes, I’ve had enough for today, too.” She recovered her light and they began backing away from the area. They didn’t turn their backs until they had reached the station. Jeb was sure he heard noises, but didn’t say anything. Police sirens could be heard approaching rapidly.
“Are you okay?” he asked as they reached the sunlit steps.
“Yes, I’ll be fine.” She was still pale and shaking a little, but managed to holster her pistol. Jeb returned his MP-5 and their armor to the car.
“Keep the locals out of the station while I send word to AEGIS. We’ve got to keep them away until we can get a retrieval team in here”
“Alright.” Dr. Drake straightened and some of her cool, superior demeanor resurfaced. “We were following up on the attack the other night and need to keep the area clear for FBI follow up, right”
“That’s right. Never let them forget this is a Federal case and we call the shots.”
While Jeb sent in a report and an urgent request for armed backup, Emma dealt with the police. In short, she shoved her FBI credentials in their face and bluffed. Jeb exchanged messages with the reinforcements that were already in the city from his last message and on their way now. He also requested AEGIS PRIME pull whatever strings had been yanked to get the first attack transferred to them. Jeb joined Emma above and the two stonewalled long enough for the local cops to be pulled off to other matters. In the meantime, their AEGIS reinforcements had arrived in what appeared to be a SWAT truck with a half dozen masked troopers. Jeb led them into the underground while Emma conferred with the ‘ambulance’ crew that accompanied them.
Thirty minutes later Jeb emerged from the subway shaking his head.
“They’re gone.”
“Yep, both bodies. And the tunnel has been filled in.”
“We crawled up that shaft, a little ways in was a tunnel dug from the side. It was filled with fresh, loose dirt and debris. Five feet we dug out before giving up.” He sat on the sidewalk and pulled off his armor and helmet again.
“Now what?” Dr. Drake asked.
“Now we turn this case over to another cell better equipped to handle it and go home to wait for the next call.” He said, nodding to the ‘ambulance attendants’.
They packed up and returned the car and equipment, then retrieved their bags at the hotel and headed for the airport to catch a flight back to Washington. They hardly exchanged a word other than for travel arrangements until he pulled the rental car up in front of her apartment.
“Jeb, what did we really accomplish?”
He paused reflectively before he answered. “We identified and provided information on an occult threat to innocent people. We eliminated two creatures of unnatural origin that do not belong in our world. We made the world a safer place.”
“Do you really believe that?” Emma’s voice was skeptical, but she looked at Jeb intently, truly wanting an answer.
He turned to face her. “I have to believe it. My life, our lives have become that struggle, the fight to save humanity from unnatural and otherworldly threats. And unlike people on TV, we know the truth. And the truth is that we are at war for our survival. I have never regretted the decision that brought me here. But I do miss some of the things a normal life lived in ignorance would have given me.”
“Would you go back, maybe have a family and a regular job?”
Jeb turned to look out the front windshield for a long time before he sighed “No.” Possibilities that never would be were reflected in his eyes.
“I didn’t think so.” She leaned over and kissed him gently on the cheek before getting out and walking to her door. Jeb pulled away from the curb and drove off into the gathering night.

Author’s note- If the ending seems forced, it is. After the firefight in the subway, I couldn’t come up with any other closure that didn’t involve doubling the length and going in depth into the underground hunt for more ghouls. And that wasn’t the focus.