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Authors: Jayne Castle

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BOOK: Ghost Hunter
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The office filled with a heavy silence.

“Mind if I ask why you're so certain that Frazier couldn't have convinced you to marry him?” Cooper finally asked in
an eerily neutral tone. “Given that he was never late for a date and all?”

Because I had just met you, and after that there was no one else,
she thought. But damned if she would say those words aloud now that she knew the truth about the duel.

“Certainly.” She rezzed her brightest smile. “I'll be happy to tell you why I never wanted to marry Palmer Frazier. The reason is that I did not love him. What's more, I was pretty sure I would never be able to learn to love him. And you know what, guys? This may come as something of a surprise, but I wouldn't think of marrying a man who was only interested in using me to achieve his objectives in Guild politics.”

Wariness flickered in Cooper's eyes.

John stared at her, astonished. “Now, hold on here, what is that supposed to mean?”

“I think we all know what it means, Dad.” She gave her full attention to Cooper. “Talk about life's little ironies. I was never at risk of marrying Palmer Frazier, so that duel you two fought was all for nothing. But upon reflection, I realize that I owe you my sincere gratitude for getting involved in that challenge.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Because if the duel had not taken place, and if I had not found out about it today, I probably would have continued to allow myself to be convinced that everything that was wrong between us would have been magically fixed after we got married. Talk about naive.”

Cooper did not move. “What was wrong between us?”

“You're serious, aren't you? You really don't know how I've made excuses for you every time you were late for a date because of Guild business. You want to talk denial? I even went so far as to let Mom convince me that the fact that you've never shown any interest in doing anything
more than kiss me good night very politely at the door was just your quaint way of demonstrating respect for my clan and the old courtship traditions. But that's not true, is it?”

“What are you implying?” Cooper asked without inflection.

“I'm not implying anything. I'm
saying
that your reasons for wanting to marry me are the same as Palmer Frazier's. You think I would make an excellent Mrs. Guild Boss. And, by golly, you're right. Not only can I bring you top-of-the-line family connections within the Guild, but I've got one foot in the mainstream world as well because of my academic career.”

“Elly,” John snapped. “That's enough.”

“You liked the fact that I was involved in the world outside the Guild, didn't you, Cooper?” she said. “Because the status of the Guilds has been slipping for years, and that's a real problem.”

“Elly,” John repeated, sounding a little desperate this time.

“More and more people are coming to the conclusion that the Guilds are relics of another era,” she continued tightly. “That they no longer serve any real purpose aside from supplying guys who can fry ghosts. Folks are asking themselves if that rather limited job description really warrants the kind of power and influence that the Guilds have acquired through the years. It's safe to say that if the organizations don't find a way to become a part of mainstream society soon, they are going to become anachronisms.”

“The city-states will never forget that it was the ghost hunters who saved the colonies during the Era of Discord,” John declared in ringing accents.

“Old news, Dad. Sure, there's still some macho glamour left, but let's face it, most educated, well-informed people view hunters as so much hired muscle. More and more
young hunters are leaving the Guilds early. They join up just long enough to make some good money, and then they move on to more respectable professions in mainstream society. If the Guilds don't remake themselves and learn to operate like modern business corporations instead of closed, secretive societies, they're going to get left in the dust of history.”

She broke off, exasperated.

Neither Cooper nor Elly's father said a word. They just looked at her as if she was one of the long-gone aliens who had returned unexpectedly to demand the return of the Guild boss's big quartz desk.

“Believe it or not, I didn't come here to debate the future of the Guilds,” she said quietly.

“You wanted answers to your questions about the duel,” Cooper said. “You got them. Now what?”

She started tugging on the spectacular amber and gold ring that she wore on her left hand. “Now that I know the real reason you fought that duel, I have no choice but to end our engagement.”

“Elly,” John was clearly stunned. “What do you think you're doing?”

“Giving Cooper back his ring.”

She walked across the vast chamber and put the ring down on the quartz desk. It made a small, final-sounding little clink as it settled on the hard stone.

Cooper watched her, saying nothing.

“Keep your Guild secrets and your Guild traditions.” She went toward the door. “And keep the ring until you find the right woman to be your wife.”

“We'll talk later when you've had a chance to calm down,” Cooper said.

“I'm afraid that won't be possible,” she said. “I'm going to be very busy for the next couple of days, cleaning out my office and packing up my things.”

John bristled. “The Academic Council has asked you to leave already? You said the rumors had just begun to circulate around the campus. There hasn't been time for anyone to call a meeting. They have to give you a chance to defend yourself.”

“Relax, I haven't been fired, Dad. I'm going to turn in my resignation to the head of the Department of Botany as soon as I get back to the campus. After that I will be making plans to leave town. I'm moving on with my life.”

“This is crazy.” John rounded on Cooper. “You're the Guild boss, damn it, do something.”

Cooper did not do anything. He looked at the ring on his desk and then he looked at Elly as though he was suddenly seeing her in a strange, new light.

“There is nothing Cooper or anyone else can do, Dad,” Elly said from the door.

“I'll have your mother talk to you,” John vowed, falling back on the threat of last resort.

“Mom will understand.” Elly put her hand on the massive doorknob.

“I have one question,” Cooper said softly.

She chilled. It took every ounce of will she possessed not to yank open the door and flee the room. Instead she made herself look back over her shoulder.

“What is it?” she asked.

“What did you mean a moment ago when you said that now that you knew the real reason behind the duel, you had no choice but to end the engagement? I got the impression that I gave the wrong answer.”

“You did.”

“I'm a student of history. I like to learn from it when I can. Was there a right answer?”

“To be honest, no.” She tightened her grip on the knob. “Settling matters with a duel is a particularly appalling example of the worst and most benighted traditions of the Guild.
But I grew up in a Guild family. I understand how tenacious tradition can be. I would not have ended our engagement solely because you engaged in a duel.”

“Why are you ending our engagement, then?”

“Because of the reason you fought it.”

“I don't understand.”

“I know,” she said.

She opened the door and walked out of the historic chamber. She would not collapse in a puddle of tears, she vowed. Not yet, at any rate.

She had a new life to plan. One thing was clear; she had to put some distance between herself and Cooper Boone. This town wasn't big enough for both of them.

Chapter 1

Six Months Later in the Catacombs Beneath Cadence City . . .

SHE KNEW AN ILLEGAL DRUG LAB SETUP WHEN SHE SAW
one.

Bertha Newell brought the aging utility sled to a halt near the vaulted entrance of the underground chamber. She was an old ruin rat who had been excavating the alien catacombs most of her life. She figured she had spent more time underground than all of the members of the faculty of para-archaeology up at the university combined. This wasn't the first time she had come across evidence of illegal activity in the ancient tunnels.

Ever since the founding of the colonies, the maze of glowing green quartz tunnels had offered a refuge, albeit a dangerous one, to an endless assortment of thieves, murderers, escaped prisoners, drug dealers, cult leaders, and others who did not want their activities exposed to the light of day.

Down here in the endless network of mostly uncharted passageways there was always someplace to hide, provided
you were willing to take the risks. One bad mistake in the catacombs could easily result in a death sentence or worse.

She hesitated, trying to decide how to handle the situation. Ruin rats, by and large, were a live-and-let-live bunch. They tended to be obsessive about their privacy and secretive by nature. Most were ephemeral-energy para-resonators, otherwise known as tanglers, who, for various reasons, had never been accepted into the elite Society of Para-Archaeologists.

Tanglers were the only para-resonators who could de-rez the dangerous illusion traps that guarded many of the chambers inside the catacombs. They were as necessary to exploration and excavation teams as ghost hunters. But unlike the hunters, who had organized in tough, secretive guilds, tanglers had early on developed a strong academic tradition.

Today, a tangler who hoped to work on a reputable, licensed research team was expected to have several degrees and be a member in good standing with the Society of Para-Archaeologists.

Tanglers like Bertha who had never had the opportunity to attend college, let alone get into the Society, often took up a career on the shady side of the ruin trade. They made their livings by slipping in and out of the tunnels through hidden holes-in-the-walls and staking out their territories in uncharted areas of the catacombs. They cleared the illusion traps on their own and did their best to avoid the occasional ghosts, all in hopes of finding a few relics and artifacts that could be sold to private collectors.

Ruin rats as a rule preferred to avoid contact with others in the catacombs. Bertha was no exception. She was willing to overlook the occasional stash of loot that had been hidden by a burglar. When she had come across a bag of stolen credit cards last month she had quietly disposed of
them without going to the trouble of reporting the incident to the authorities. The last thing she wanted was a bunch of cops running around the sector of the catacombs that she considered her private preserve.

But she had a particular dislike of those who dealt in illegal pharmaceuticals. Years ago she had nearly lost her daughter to an overdose. Sandra had eventually recovered, gone into therapy, and was now leading a normal life. But the memory of that terrible time still haunted Bertha's dreams.

She got out of the sled, checking the dimly glowing corridor in both directions to be sure there was no sign of the lab's owner. She also listened hard for the soft whine of a sled motor or voices, although she knew better than to depend on her hearing down here in the catacombs. The green quartz that the aliens had used to construct the vast network of tunnels and rooms underground possessed a number of odd properties, one of which was that it distorted sound waves.

Satisfied that there was no one around, she went to stand at the entrance of the green chamber. The interior was lit, like every other room and corridor underground, by the pale, eerie glow of the luminous quartz that the aliens had used to construct their surviving structures and artifacts.

The lab was furnished with a variety of what looked like commercial-grade chemistry apparatus. Glassware, a series of stills and burners, and an assortment of implements littered the surfaces of two collapsible stainless steel workbenches.

Across the room there was another opening in the wall. She could see a portion of an antechamber.

Giving the corridor another quick survey, she went past the workbenches to peer into the second room.

A number of bulging burlap sacks were heaped inside. A strong, faintly medicinal aroma came from the sacks.
She did not recognize the smell, but it made her think of some of the scents that greeted her whenever she walked into Elly St. Clair's herb shop.

Bertha went to the nearest sack and quickly untied it. Inside was a large quantity of dried plant leaves. She scooped up a handful of the brittle material and sniffed cautiously. The acrid tang hit her nostrils with unexpected force. An instant later she felt a disturbing tingle through her paranormal senses. The chamber started to change shape.

Wrinkling her nose in distaste, she stepped back quickly and breathed deeply. The room returned to its former proportions.

When her head cleared, she took another breath, held it, and went back to the sack. Reaching inside, she grasped a small handful of the dried leaves and dropped them into one of the several pockets that decorated her trousers.

A strong sense of urgency enveloped her. Her years underground had taught her not to ignore that primal warning. Hastily she retied the sack.

She had the evidence she needed, she thought, patting the pocket that contained the leaves. She would lock the coordinates of the room into the amber-rez locator of the sled. When she returned to the surface, she would turn over the strange herbs along with the location of the chamber to the Cadence City cops, anonymously, of course. They could take it from there. Maybe that good-looking flashy dresser, Detective DeWitt, who was getting all the media attention these days, would handle the raid.

She sensed the presence in the doorway behind her and swung around, fighting a wave of raw panic.

But her fear metamorphosed into fury when she recognized the person hovering there.

“Well, shit,” she said. “Don't tell me this is
your
lab?”

“You shouldn't be here, Bertha.”

She stalked across the still room, waving a hand at the apparatus on the workbenches. “You're dealing drugs, aren't you? Is this that new crap I've been reading about in the papers? Enchantment dust, or whatever the hell they call it?”

“Stay away from me.” The figure in the doorway edged back nervously. “This is none of your business, Bertha.”

“People are dying from this stuff.”

“It's not my fault if the users fail to take the drug responsibly.”

“There is no responsible way to take it. They say it's hugely addictive.”

The figure retreated farther into the hallway. “I'm warning you, don't come any closer.”

“You're scum. Murdering, drug-dealing scum.” Memories of how close she had come to losing Sandra flashed through her brain, inciting a kind of fever. “People like you deserve to rot in green hell.”

With a low roar, she broke into a run, charging the rest of the way across the lab room. Hands made rough and powerful from years of tunnel work were outstretched in front of her.

“No.”
The figure in the doorway yelped in fear, turned, and fled down the hall to the left.

Bertha reached the opening and rushed out into the dimly glowing corridor. The drug maker had already vanished into the nearby six-way intersection.

Still in the grip of her fury, she ran several more feet before common sense returned.

She knew better than most just how futile it would be to search any farther without having a fix on the dealer's personal amber. The corridors that branched off in all directions were each lined with an endless array of chambers, antechambers, and connecting passageways. Her quarry could be hiding anywhere.

This wasn't her job, she reminded herself. Let the cops handle it.

Breathing heavily, she turned to trudge back toward the utility sled.

Perhaps it was because her heart was still pounding from rage and her recent exertion, or maybe because she was now obsessed with getting back to the sled so that she could contact the police. Whatever the reason, she did not hear the faint shuffle of footsteps on quartz behind her until it was too late.

She half turned, but the drug maker had already burst out of a nearby chamber. She caught a glimpse of the large chunk of green quartz that he clutched a fraction of an instant before the stone slammed against the side of her head.

Pain flooded her senses. And then she was falling through waves of darkness.

FOR A FEW SECONDS THE DRUG MAKER STOOD OVER THE
fallen woman, heart pounding. Bertha Newell was still breathing.

I should hit her again, just to be certain.
But the thought of inflicting another blow made him queasy. There was already so much blood on the floor.

It wasn't his job to take care of this kind of problem, he reminded himself. He was the chemist, not hired muscle. He had been given a number to call in the event of an emergency such as this.

Unfortunately, personal phones, like so many other high-tech devices such as guns, did not work properly down here in the catacombs. Something to do with the heavy psi energy that emanated from the green quartz.

He would have to go back to the surface to place the call.

He turned to make his way toward his secret hole-in-the-wall, but caution made him hesitate. He had a feeling that he should secure his victim in some fashion, just in case she recovered consciousness before security arrived. But he had nothing to use to tie her hands and feet.

He hurried to the utility vehicle and pawed through the assortment of tools and survival gear stored in it. He saw nothing that would serve the purpose, and he dared not waste any more time.

As a fallback measure, he jotted down the frequency of the sled's amber-rez locator. If she did come back to her senses and managed to take off on the vehicle while he was aboveground, she wouldn't get far. Security would be able to track her down.

BOOK: Ghost Hunter
11.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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