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Authors: Jayne Castle

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BOOK: Ghost Hunter
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Chapter 10

WITHIN TEN MINUTES A DARK COASTER WITH HEAVILY
tinted windows pulled into the alley behind St. Clair's Herbal Emporium.

Cooper made another phone call to check the IDs of the two hunters inside and then bundled Bertha into the backseat.

“You'll be okay at the Guild safe house, Bertha,” he said. “I'll let you know as soon as we've got this thing under control.”

She nodded brusquely. “I appreciate this, Mr. Boone.”

“Trust me, you're doing the Guild a favor by cooperating,” he said.

“Yeah?” Bertha smiled slightly. “They say the Guild never forgets a favor.”

“That's true. I don't want you making any phone calls, but if you remember anything that might be useful, let one of these gentlemen know. They can get the message to me.”

“Sure, but I wouldn't be too hopeful, if I were you.”
Bertha heaved a sigh. “I'm not likely to ever remember what happened in the few minutes before the burn.”

“You never know.” Cooper stepped back and motioned to the driver. “Take good care of her,” he said to the man. “Ms. Newell is a friend of the Guild.”

“Yes, sir, we'll make sure she doesn't come to any harm.” The man behind the wheel inclined his head. “By the way, Mr. Wyatt said to tell you welcome to Cadence.”

“Thanks.”

He waited until the big car had turned the corner at the end of the alley and vanished into the fog. Then he went back upstairs to Elly's small apartment and stopped in the kitchen doorway.

“Bertha's off to the safe house,” he said. “She'll be fine.”

“That's a relief.” Elly paused in the act of squeezing an orange. “It's obvious she stumbled into something very nasty last night.”

“I think so. By the way, I didn't see any other vehicles parked in the alley. Where's your car?”

“In a private garage at the end of this block. Those of us who have shops and apartments on Ruin Lane rent space there.”

“I see. Think there's any room for the Spectrum?”

“No. There's a waiting list.”

“Guess I'll just keep hanging ghosts on the license plate, in that case.”

She searched his face. “You must be half starved. Hurry up and shower. I'll have breakfast waiting when you get out.”

He nodded, started to turn, and then hesitated.

“Everything okay with you?” he asked, feeling his way.

“Certainly,” she said, very brisk and matter-of-fact. “Why wouldn't it be?”

“Well,” he said, “neither one of us is a teenager, anymore. Car sex can be strenuous for adults.”

Her cheeks turned a hot shade of pink. She stopped
squeezing the orange and faced him with both hands on her hips.

“I think you'd better take that shower,” she said. “Right now.”

“You thought I wouldn't remember, didn't you?” He studied her flushed cheeks. “No, you
hoped
I wouldn't remember.”

She cleared her throat, picked up another orange, and got very busy with it. “What occurred in your car last night was an aberration. A complete anomaly. An abnormal reaction to a highly unusual and extremely stressful situation. I think it would be best if we both pretend it didn't happen, don't you?”

“Aberration? Anomaly? Abnormal?” He straightened out of the doorway and started toward her. “We're talking about the hottest sex I can recall having in years, probably in my whole life.”

The stain in her cheeks deepened. “Really, Cooper?”

“Yes, really, Elly.” He kept moving toward her. “You know, I promised myself I'd be a gentleman this morning. It occurred to me that you would probably be feeling a little shy after what happened between us. I wanted to demonstrate some respect for your delicate feelings. Didn't want you to think I was some kind of low-life hunter who got over-rezzed melting amber and used the most convenient female at hand to satisfy himself.”

“I never thought that,” she said quickly, taking a step back.

“You're sure?”

“I'm positive.” She fluttered her hands at him in a warding-off gesture. “Look, there's no need to get upset about this. What happened last night was just one of those things. No harm, no foul.”

“To you, maybe, but not to me.” He closed the distance between them.

She took another step back, but the small space offered little room for retreat. She came up hard against the wall. “We can talk about this after you come out of the shower.”

He leaned in close and flattened both hands on the wall on either side of her head, caging her.

“We're going to talk about it now,” he said.

“There's nothing to discuss,” she said, a little breathless. “I mean, car sex is all very nice, of course, but—”

“Very nice? That's all you can say about what went on downstairs in my car last night?”

Somehow, trapped as she was between him and the wall, she still managed to bristle. Her fine, lilting brows snapped together in a glowering frown.

“Well, it doesn't exactly imply a deep, meaningful relationship, now does it?” she said very evenly. “Especially when we both know that the impulse was artificially generated because you melted amber.”

“Oh, no, you don't.” He leaned closer. “You're not blaming this on me. What happened in that alley was not my fault. I tried to leave before things went too far. But you wouldn't let me go, remember? You wouldn't even let me have some privacy so that I could sleep off the afterburn in my own car.”

“I was worried you might get mugged down in that alley.”

“Guess what? I'm starting to think maybe I did get mugged. By an innocent-looking little herbalist who wanted to find out what it was like to have hot sex with a hunter after he'd melted amber.”

“That's not true.” She stared at him, appalled. “You know it isn't.”

“You sure about that?”

“Of course, I'm sure.” She folded her arms and narrowed her eyes. “I was there, if you will recall.”

“Huh.”

“And just what is that supposed to mean?” she demanded.

“If you didn't take advantage of me in my ghost-burned condition, are you, by any chance, implying that I took advantage of you?”

Her mouth tightened. “I never said that.”

“Good. We've established that the encounter was consensual.”

She cleared her throat. “I never said otherwise.”

“Moving right along, let's go back to your earlier comment, the one about how our episode of hot car sex did not imply a meaningful relationship.”

“I think you've pushed this far enough.”

“Honey, I haven't even begun to push. What I want to know is, didn't last night mean anything at all to you?”

She got a haunted look. “I'm warning you . . .”

“Or is having car sex with ghost-burned hunters a casual, sophisticated form of entertainment for you now that you've moved to the big city?”

“You know damn well that isn't true!”

“So we can now state unequivocally that last night did have some meaning for you.”

He knew he'd gone too far an instant before the outrage flashed across her face.

“Son of a bitch,” she shrieked.

She moved so fast that he didn't even realize her intention until she had ducked under his left arm. By then it was too late. She had the pitcher of freshly squeezed orange juice in one hand and was upending it over his head.

He winced as the sticky juice drenched his face and chest and splashed onto the floor.

A shocked silence descended.

“Sorry,” he said, wiping his face on the sleeve of his shirt. “You were right. I did push it a little too far.”

“Why did you do it?” she whispered.

“Because last night meant something to me, and I didn't want to think that it had been completely meaningless to
you. You hurt my feelings, if you want to know the truth.” He shrugged. “Go figure.”

“I hurt your feelings?”

“Guild bosses have feelings, too.”

She blinked. And then she started to giggle. The giggles turned into laughter. He watched, fascinated, as she wrapped her arms around herself and doubled over with the force of her mirth.

It had been over six months since he'd heard her laugh, he thought. He knew he'd missed it. He just hadn't realized how much until now.

“I don't believe it,” she finally managed to get out.

“What? About Guild bosses having feelings?” he asked.

“No, that you managed to make me laugh about last night.” She shook her head, smiling wryly as the laughter subsided. “Go take your shower, Guild Boss.”

He looked down at the orange juice that saturated front of his shirt. “That would probably be a good idea. Too bad I don't have a change of clothes in my kit bag. Most of the stuff I brought with me is back in my hotel room.”

He started toward the kitchen door.

“One question,” she said a little too smoothly.

He paused and looked back at her. “Yeah?”

“Where did you learn to argue like that? You sounded a lot like a lawyer cross-examining a witness.”

“I took some law classes when I attended Resonance City University.”

She tilted her head slightly, letting him know he had surprised her.

“You wanted to be a lawyer?” she asked.

“No,” he said, “I had other career plans. Figured some background in law would be good preparation.”

“Really?” Curiosity lit her face. “Did you want to go into business or one of the professions? So few dissonance-energy para-rezzes ever look beyond ghost-hunting as a
career. It's such a narrow field. No intellectual stimulation at all, really, and most hunters have to retire early when they start losing their edge. A lot of middle-aged hunters end up just sitting around the Guild Hall all day, collecting their pensions and swapping ghost stories.”

“The profession has its moments.”

“Why the law classes?”

“Like I said, figured it was good background for my future career.”

“But you were a Guild archivist before you became a Guild boss.”

“The history and information retrieval studies were part of the preparation, too.”

“For what?” she asked blankly.

“From the time I was nine years old, the only thing I wanted to be when I grew up was boss of the Aurora Springs Guild.”

She stood, unmoving. The last of the laughter faded from her expressive face.

“Good grief,” she said, clearly stunned. “Most of the men who make it to the top of the Guilds rely on their natural para-rez talents, family connections, and a very wide streak of ruthless ambition. I've never heard of one actually
studying
to prepare himself for the job.”

He gripped the edge of the doorway. “Something you should understand about me, Elly. Almost every move I've made and almost every step I've taken in my life has been designed with two goals in mind: to become a Guild boss and to keep the job for as long as I wanted it.”

She tapped one crimson fingernail against the countertop. “I always knew the position was important to you. I just didn't realize how important.”

“Something else you should know. I said
almost
every move and every step was designed to achieve those objectives. But there have been a couple of notable exceptions,
one of which was what happened in the front seat of the Spectrum last night.”

Her eyes widened.

He pushed himself out of the doorway before she could get her mouth closed and went down the hall to take a shower.

Chapter 11

ELLY TOSSED THE BEATEN EGGS INTO THE PAN WHEN SHE
heard the door of the bathroom open. She was okay now, she assured herself. In the length of time it had taken him to shower and shave, she had cleaned up the spilled orange juice, organized breakfast, and gotten her emotions back under control.

His booted footsteps sounded softly in the hall. She was unable to suppress the little chill of excitement that swept through her. She was about to serve breakfast to Cooper Boone after a night of wild sexual abandon in his arms.

Don't get carried away here,
she told herself, sprinkling fresh herbs onto the eggs,
that little scene in the Spectrum lasted just long enough for him to get your clothes off. We're talking at most maybe fifteen minutes, after which he went right to sleep. We are not talking about an entire night of passionate sexual abandon.

In addition she must not forget that the fact that he had wanted to have hot sex with her while he was in the midst
of a major burn-and-crash was not exactly a ringing testimonial to her seductive powers. Any man who had melted amber would have been in the mood for sex.

Cooper walked into the kitchen. She blinked.

“What now?” he asked.

“Your shirt.”

“What about it?”

She cleared her throat. “You forgot to put it on.”

He looked down at his naked chest. “It was soaked with orange juice, remember?”

“Oh. Right.” She concentrated on stirring the eggs and tried not to think about the fact that she was going to serve breakfast to Cooper Boone and that he was naked from the waist up.

Rose chortled cheerfully, tumbled off the windowsill, and drifted across the floor to greet Cooper for the second time that morning.

“Hello, gorgeous.” Cooper scooped her up and held her in one hand. “You'd think I'd been away for a week.”

Elly moved the eggs off the heat. “Ready to eat?”

“Oh, yeah. I'm hungry enough to chew green quartz.”

His body needed fuel after the heavy psi drain last night, she told herself. Good thing she had scrambled every last egg left in the carton.

“Back to your windowsill, gorgeous.” Cooper set Rose down next to the vase and flower. He took a closer look at the green blossom. “Never saw a flower like this before,” he remarked. “What's it called?”

She watched him covertly. Cooper was nothing if not a very powerful para-resonator. Was he picking up any trace of the psi buzz?

“I don't know,” she admitted. “Rose started bringing them to me shortly after she moved in. I hunted through my reference books, but I couldn't find any flower matching its
description. A few weeks ago I finally showed one to Stuart Griggs.”

“Who is Griggs?”

“The florist who has the shop next to Bertha's place. I would have gone to him sooner, but he's not very friendly. Honestly, given his general attitude, I don't know how he manages to stay in business. At any rate, he said he didn't recognize the species, either. He suggested that it was probably an orchid hybrid of some kind.”

“Odd shade of green,” Cooper observed. “At first I thought it was an artificial flower carved out of imitation alien quartz.”

He hadn't felt a thing, she thought, not even a tingle.

“No, it's a real flower,” she said. “It will wither in a few days, just like the others. They seem to last a little longer if I keep them in that green quartz vase.”

“So where is Rose getting them?”

“I've got a nasty feeling that she is filching them from someone's private hothouse. They're probably a local orchid grower's pride and joy. Those guys can be obsessive.”

“Yeah?”

“Trust me, you don't want to mess with an orchid person. My biggest concern is that the grower might catch Rose in the act of swiping the flowers and take after her with a rake. You know, like in that children's story,
The Tale of Dickie Dust Bunny
?”

“Never read it.”

“You can't have missed that one, too. Think back, Cooper. Little Dickie Dust Bunny's mother tells him that he mustn't go into Mr. McAmber's garden because his father had an accident there and ended up in a pie. But, naturally, little Dickie can't resist the idea, so he disobeys and goes into the garden.”

“What happens?”

“He has all sorts of adventures, nearly gets caught, and barely makes it out alive. There are some very charming illustrations that accompany the story.” She paused. “Does that resonate at all?”

He reflected briefly. “I remember Mom and Dad giving me an illustrated copy of Littleton's
Founders of the Harmonic Colonies
when I turned five. Does that count?”

She sighed. “Never mind.”

Cooper scratched Rose in the general vicinity of her ears. “I wouldn't worry about Rose getting caught, if I were you. Got a hunch she's way too smart for that. Besides, who would want to eat dust bunny pie?”

Elly glared. “You know, you have a tendency to interpret things a bit too literally at times.”

“I prefer to deal with facts, if that's what you mean,” Cooper said. He lost interest in the flower and sat down at the table. “Speaking of which, we need to talk about this blue ghost situation.”

“Right.” She poured him a mug of her specially blended rez-root tea and carried it to the table. “We're talking Guild secrets here, aren't we?”

He took the mug from her hand. “Afraid so.”

“Sheesh. And the Guilds wonder why they make mainstream society so nervous.”

“The existence of blue ghosts has historically been one of the most closely guarded of all Guild secrets.”

“Why?” She went back to the stove and spooned the creamy scrambled eggs onto a plate. “I admit it looked awfully scary, but you de-rezzed it successfully.”

“The reason the Guilds don't want to go public with the truth about the blues is because they're not part of the natural landscape down in the catacombs.”

“What do you mean?” She added toast to the plate and went back to the table. “I saw it, myself. It was a highly unusual ghost, but it was definitely a ghost.”

“No wild blues have ever been encountered floating randomly through the tunnels. As far as anyone knows, it takes a human to pull blue ghost light.” He took a swallow of the tea and lowered the mug. “Someone like me, for instance.”

“That monster vortex was rezzed up by a person? A hunter?”

“Yes.”

“You're sure of that?”

“Trust me.” He picked up a fork and started in on the eggs with enthusiasm. “I'm sure.”

She grappled briefly with that. “But we didn't see anyone else down there. Hunters, even strong ones, can't summon ghosts from any great distance. Besides, large, human-generated ghosts disintegrate very quickly once the hunter stops feeding it psi power through amber. Dissonance energy is inherently unstable.”

“Some hunters can make ghosts hang around for quite a while, even after the hunter himself has left the scene.”

“Oh, sure, small, simple ghosts, maybe, like the ones that you attach to your license plate to protect your car. But that's not what we're talking about here. That blue firestorm wasn't some uncomplicated little UDEM. It was very complex.”

“How do you think I do that trick with the ghosts and the license plates?”

She shrugged. “I just assumed you could do it because you're a very strong para-rez. It's not that unusual. My dad and my brothers can pull off the same stunt.”

“No hunter, not even a strong one, can make any kind of ghost stick unless he has a chunk of amber to anchor it.”

She frowned. “So how do you attach one to your license plate?”

He smiled slightly. “I'll let you in on an old hunter secret. You install a chunk of amber behind the plate or under the fender of the vehicle. Once that's in place, any
hunter who is strong enough can get a ghost to stick for a while.”

She groaned. “To think that all these years I let my brothers convince me they were super macho para-rezzes because they could make dumb little ghosts stick to things like license plates or the canopy of my bed.”

He paused, the fork halfway to his mouth. “They attached ghosts to your bed?”

“It only happened once. One night when I was nine I woke up and found a little UDEM hovering over my bed. Scared the you-know-what out of me. I was afraid to move. But I screamed bloody murder. Mom and Dad came running in, and Dad zapped the ghost.”

“What about your brothers?”

She grinned. “Dad took all three of them down into the catacombs the next morning. When Logan, Matt, and Sam returned, they looked as if they'd all seen
real
ghosts. I got deeply sincere apologies from each of them. Suffice it to say I didn't wake up to any more ghosts.” She returned to the counter and poured herself a mug of tea. “Let's get back to that blue vortex. How did the hunter who summoned it make it stick in the corridor? I didn't see any amber around it.”

“You're forgetting the amber-rez directional locator in the dash of Bertha's sled.”

“Oh, right.”

“I'm betting the hunter knew the frequency. That's probably how he was able to chase her through the catacombs.”

She sat down across from him and wrapped both hands around her mug. “He found the sled, but he didn't find Bertha.”

“Probably didn't have the frequency of her personal amber.”

“Thank goodness. She must have realized at some point that he was tracking her using the sled's amber. She
abandoned the sled and managed to hide in a chamber until he was gone.”

“I think so, yes.”

“But if that's the case, how did she get the ghost-burn?”

“Maybe she waited until the hunter left and then tried to retrieve the sled. Blues are more volatile than greens. All she had to do was get a little too close to that vortex, and she would have been singed.”

“After she got zapped she maintained consciousness long enough to crawl into the nearest chamber, and then she passed out.”

“That's my take on it, yeah.” Cooper munched some toast.

Elly exhaled deeply. “It fits with your theory that she stumbled into a drug-making operation.”

“That's sure how it looks to me.”

She leaned back in the chair and stretched her legs out under the table. “One thing I don't get here. Why have the Guilds been so anxious to keep the blues a secret all these years?”

He chased the last of the eggs around the plate with a piece of toast. “Two reasons. First, unlike greens, blues can be manipulated with far more precision and speed. Even a small one can be used to kill.”

“They can be turned into weapons more easily than greens?”

“Not only that, a hunter who knows what he's doing can convert a blue vortex into a sort of psi-seeking missile that will home in on a specific piece of tuned amber.”

“In other words, it combines the elements of a weapon with those of an amber-rez directional locator or a compass?”

He nodded. “You have to know the frequency of the target amber, but if you've got that—” He let the sentence end, unfinished.

“And last night, the amber in Bertha's sled was the target?”

“Looks like it.”

She shuddered. “Okay, I can see where that information would make the general population a bit more nervous about hunters.”

He drank some more tea and lowered the mug. “The good news is that blue energy is only effective underground in the catacombs. You can create some splashy fireworks with it aboveground if you're very strong and if you know what you're doing, but there's not enough of it up here to manipulate into a vortex, which is what's needed to turn it into a weapon.”

“What's the other reason the Guilds have tried to keep blues hushed up?”

“Does the name Donovan Cork resonate?”

“The serial killer?” Startled, she set her mug down hard on the table. “The guy who used to lure women down into the catacombs and murder them? He could rez blues?”

“Yes. That's how he killed his victims. Death by blue looks a lot like a heart attack.”

She frowned. “He murdered a number of prostitutes before they finally found his body in the tunnels. No one could figure out exactly how he had killed the women. They assumed it was some sort of fast-acting poison. As I recall, the authorities concluded that Cork, himself, had taken the poison when he feared that he was about to be arrested.”

Cooper watched her over the rim of the mug. “How about Stewart Picton? Ever heard of him?”

“Well, of course. He's in all the history books. Forty years ago he set out to blackmail several members of the Federation Council. If they didn't pay off, he murdered them and their spouses. He was finally stopped but not before he had killed at least four people.”

“J. Herbert Harris?”

“Another serial killer,” she said. “Very famous case a couple of years ago. There were several best-selling true crime books written about him.” She paused, frowning. “They found his body in the tunnels, too.”

“There have been others over the years.”

“Are you telling me that they were all hunters who could rez blue ghost energy?”

“Yes. Fortunately, most blue freaks are identified as problems early on and removed before they become notorious.”

A small chill slipped down her spine. “Blue freaks? Is that what they're called?”

His mouth tightened at the corners. “Yes.”

“So who removes these guys when they become problems?” she asked carefully.

“You know the old saying about how the Guild polices itself?”

She made a face. “Everyone knows that. Frankly, most people assume that's the Guild's way of avoiding having to deal with local law enforcement.”

“The Guilds don't mind letting local cops take care of the run-of-the-mill criminals in the ranks. For the most part it's good for the image. Says we don't consider ourselves above the law.”

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