Authors: Jayne Castle
He took another look at Rose. Her baby-blue eyes were wide open, but she was fully fluffed and munching contentedly on the last bit of fry.
Cooper dug a flashlight out of one of the flapped pockets of his trousers and gave it a little pulse of psi energy to switch it on.
Elly muttered something he didn't quite catch. She sounded disgusted.
“What's wrong?” he asked.
“These shoes are going to be ruined,” she said.
“They're athletic shoes. They're made for getting dirty.”
“That's beside the point. Do you have any idea how much they cost? I paid a fortune for them, and I never intended to wear them through whatever was in that slimy puddle back there.”
“Now, see, if you were wearing a pair of sturdy hunter boots made out of genuine chroma-snakeskin, you wouldn't
have to worry about the contents of alley puddles or anything else you happened to step in. Good boots will go anywhere, I always say.”
She turned her head slightly to look at him. He could not see her expression in the shadows, but he got the feeling that he had surprised her.
“I'll keep that tip in mind next time I shop for shoes,” she said without inflection.
He was brooding on the fact that Elly seemed nonplussed by the possibility that he might have a sense of humor when he noticed the outline of Rose's small body change abruptly.
In the blink of an eye, the shapeless ball of fur thinned into a sleek, taut shadow. The dust bunny opened a second set of eyes and turned to look at one of the doors in the alley wall.
“Damn,” Cooper said softly.
The heavy door crashed open. Cooper caught the unmistakable whiff of ghost energy. He reacted without even thinking about it, halting and spinning on his heel to face the threat. Simultaneously he used his grip on Elly's wrist to whip her to safety behind him. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Rose cling to Elly's shoulder with all six legs.
The ghost materialized swiftly, a small inferno of swirling, seething energy that flared and pulsed. It moved closer, forcing Cooper, Elly, and Rose into a corner formed by a large, rusted-out trash container and the brick wall.
“Big,” was all Elly said.
She was right, Cooper thought, the sucker was large for a ghost generated outside the catacombs. But it was not a very powerful UDEM. Showy, but no real strength at the core.
He studied the fiery green mass for a couple of seconds, probing for the pattern with his psi senses. The waves of dissonance energy in the UDEM were only marginally under
control. The hunter who had created this ghost was either rezzed on drugs or a little crazy. It was fortunate that the guy wasn't powerful enough to summon more energy, Cooper thought.
The UDEM drifted closer. Even when they were summoned and manipulated by a skilled dissonance-energy para-rez, standard-issue ghosts were never fast-moving. Top speed was usually somewhere in the neighborhood of a rapid walking pace. But the hunter operating this one knew what he was doing. It probably wasn't the first time he had used a ghost to trap his victims between the trash container and the wall.
This was a classic back-alley mugging.
A skeletal figure loomed in the opening, its bony frame dimly outlined in the weak glow of the light burning behind him.
“Anyone moves, and you're all fried.” The mugger's voice was frayed at the edges. “I'm not warnin' you twice.”
Definitely a crazy, or an over-rezzed doper, Cooper thought. Sanity had probably become a somewhat remote concept for him.
“Take it easy,” Cooper said quietly. “Nobody's moving.”
The jittery mugger made his way slowly down the two steps to the pavement. He was so unsteady on his feet that he had to brace himself against the brick wall. In the backwash of the light cast by his ghost, his skull-like features were etched in sickly green.
“Your wallet, rings, amber, watch, anything you got on you,” he muttered. “I need it all. You hear me? I need money for the chant.”
“No problem,” Cooper said. He sent psi energy through the amber he carried on the end of his watch chain. “Okay if I reach for my wallet?”
“Do it slow.”
“Sure.” Cooper reached one hand toward his back pocket.
Generally speaking, you fought ghost fire with ghost fire. The problem here, he decided, was that if the mugger realized that a second UDEM was being formed in the vicinity, he was likely to lash out with his own ghost before the new one could be used against him.
One brush of ghost light rezzed all of the victim's senses to the point of extreme psychic pain. That phase was followed by a period of unconsciousness that could last for hours.
He needed a distraction, Cooper thought.
He was about to create one when the agitated robber switched his attention to Elly. In the green glare Cooper saw the skull-like face scrunch up with confusion. A sheen of sweat coated his face.
“What in green hell? You got a rat on your shoulder, lady?”
“Rose is not a rat,” Elly said. “She's a dust bunny, and you're scaring her with your ghost. Please don't hurt her.”
Elly's voice was gentle and calming. She understood that they were dealing with a dangerous, unpredictable doper, Cooper thought. And whatever else she was, Rose sure wasn't scared. In the pulsing light he could see the dust bunny's teeth; a lot of them.
“I don't give a damn about the varmint.” The mugger used the back of his sleeve to wipe his mouth. “Drop the big purse, lady.”
“Whatever you say,” Elly agreed. She slowly lowered the tote, taking her time about it. “I have to put it down carefully, though. There's a very expensive relic inside.”
The man's eyes widened with feverish excitement. “Alien or Early Colonial?”
The guy might be a crazed dope fiend, Cooper thought, but he knew his antiquities. Probably a Guild man who had spent time underground before he had fallen into the clutches of the drug.
“Alien,” Elly assured him briskly with the air of a professional saleswoman about to display an expensive item to a customer. “Would you like to see it?”
“Take it out. Real slow.”
“Of course.” She reached down into the tote. “It's a very fine piece.”
The jittery mugger watched her with a desperate air of anticipation. He was so focused on visions of the pharmaceuticals he planned to buy that he never noticed the small ball of ghost fire Cooper summoned behind him.
The little UDEM drifted toward the back of the mugger's head. Cooper was well aware that what he intended had to be done carefully. He did not want to kill the doper, just knock him out for a while.
Elly started to remove something from the tote.
“Let me see that,” the man said, taking a step closer. “Throw it over here.”
Cooper let the leading edge of the small ghost brush ever so gently against the mugger's head.
The skeletal figure stiffened abruptly, arms jangling, mouth opening on a silent scream. He jerked violently a second time and then collapsed to the ground, unconscious.
The mugger's ghost winked out instantly as the psi energy abruptly ceased. Underground, the UDEMs were fueled by the ambient power of the catacombs. Aboveground, however, it took a trained hunter to keep one together.
Cooper dissolved his own UDEM. The last of the green light disappeared, leaving only the thin beam of the flashlight.
“Nicely done,” Elly said. She dropped the high-heeled sandal she had partially removed back into the tote and surveyed the fallen man with a slight frown. “I hope you didn't use too much energy on him, though.”
Cooper crouched beside the unconscious man and checked for a pulse. He found it immediately.
“He'll wake up in a few hours with a bad headache and no clear memory of what happened.” Cooper rose and urged her toward the mouth of the alley. “Are you okay?”
“For heaven's sake, I was raised in a hunter family, remember? It isn't the first time I've seen ghosts.”
“Just checking. Thanks for distracting that SOB with the story about having an alien artifact in your bag, by the way. He never even realized that I was working ghost light behind him.”
“You're good, aren't you?” she said, giving him a thoughtful, sidelong glance. “That little ghost was very intricate, very efficient, very tightly constructed. Not many hunters could have generated one like that.”
“I've had a fair amount of experience,” he said.
“You've got more than experience. You've obviously got both a lot of raw power and a high degree of control.”
“Yeah, well, I'm a Guild boss, remember?” he said, trying to keep things light. “I'm supposed to be good.”
She fell silent beside him. Probably not a good sign, he thought.
At the mouth of the alley, he turned right, steering Elly and Rose toward the intersection. At the corner they all paused and looked back up the street toward the Trap Door. The bar was in the middle of the adjacent block. Directly in front three police cruisers had come to a halt, lights flashing. He could see some cops going through the door. A crowd was coalescing to watch the excitement.
“We're in the clear,” he said. “My Spectrum is at this end of the street. Everyone is looking the other way. If we're careful, no one will notice us. From here on we walk, we do not run. People tend to notice folks who are moving too fast.”
“Understood. But I suggest we walk at a very brisk pace, if you don't mind.”
“Fine by me.”
They were only a few steps away from the Spectrum
when a patrol car glided up beside them. The hard-eyed officer behind the wheel nailed them in the beam of his flashlight.
“Where are you two going?” he asked, most of his attention on Cooper.
“Home,” Elly said before Cooper could respond. “As quickly as possible.”
“Not from around here, huh?”
“My friend is from out of town. I brought him down to the Old Quarter to show him the sights. We just finished dinner at a charmingly quaint little cafÃ© up the street and were walking back to the car when all of a sudden there were police cars everywhere.”
The officer switched the beam to Elly's face. “What's the name of the cafÃ© where you had dinner?”
“The Emerald Wall,” she said without missing a beat. She produced a card from the pocket of her coat. “My name is Elly St. Clair. I own St. Clair's Herbal Emporium. I specialize in custom-blended tisanes, teas, and tonics. If you ever need anything in that line, be sure to stop in at my shop. I know police work is very stressful. I have a special moonseed tisane that can do wonders.”
The officer scowled at the card and then looked at Cooper. “Where are you from?”
“Aurora Springs,” Cooper said.
The officer looked amused. “Come to the big city to visit the lady and see the bright lights, huh?”
“That was the idea,” Cooper said.
The officer switched off the flashlight. “All right, you two, go on, get out of here.” He gave Elly one last glance. “Is that a dust bunny on your shoulder?”
“Yes,” she said. “Her name is Rose.”
Cooper noticed that Rose had gone back to doing a good imitation of something that had rolled out from under a bed. Only her innocent blue eyes were showing.
“Heard they can be dangerous,” the officer said, playing the light on Rose, who appeared not to notice.
“That's a silly urban legend,” Elly said. “The most she might do is nip a finger, and she would only do that if she was seriously provoked.”
“If you say so. Go on, you two. You don't want to hang around this neighborhood.” He gave Elly a stern look. “Next time you want to show a visitor a good time, I suggest you take 'em to a better part of town. Don't want to give tourists a bad impression of Cadence.”
“Thank you for the advice,” she said.
The officer drove off down the street.
“You heard the man,” Cooper said, opening the Spectrum's passenger door. “We don't want to hang around here. This is a bad neighborhood. Surprised you'd bring an innocent tourist like me to a place like this.”
“Thought it might give you something to talk about when you went back to Aurora Springs. Not like there's much else of interest going on back there.”
“Not since you left town,” he said.
SHE GAVE HIM A QUICK, STARTLED LOOK AND THEN,
evidently choosing to let the remark go, she slipped into the front seat. She moved quickly and gracefully, but he nevertheless got a tantalizing glimpse of the inside of one softly rounded thigh. He felt his blood heat.
Definitely a dangerous neighborhood.
He went to the other side of the car, got in beside her, and rezzed the ignition. Flash rock melted, and the powerful engine purred. He pulled slowly, sedately away from the curb.
“What's the address of your friend's place?” he asked.
“Number Twenty-six Ruin Lane. Not far from my shop. Turn right at the next corner.”
Rose hopped from Elly's shoulder onto the back of the seat and sat up to take in the view of the night-shrouded streets.
Cooper drove to the corner and turned down another narrow street lined with the dark, gloomy, old-fashioned
buildings the First Generation colonists had erected two hundred years earlier.
The newer sections of Cadence were optimistic and energetic in style. But here in the Old Quarter, the structures fashioned by the settlers reflected a grim determination to survive. The buildings hunkered down like gargoyles, creating a maze of narrow streets, crooked lanes, and dark alleys.
was about the only positive word that could be used to describe this part of town.
The dark, brooding structures of the Old Quarter stood in stark contrast to the elegant, airy, alien towers and spires that rose inside the massive green quartz walls. Cadence, like the other three major city-states on Harmony, had been established around the ruins of one of the four major ancient dead cities that had been discovered shortly after colonization. Although the mysterious aliens who had originally settled the planet had vanished thousands of years ago, their strangely ethereal urban landscape and the dangerous labyrinth of underground tunnels they had built de-fied time and the elements. Cooper sometimes wondered if the human cities would last as long.
On the other side of the car Elly cleared her throat.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Why wouldn't I be okay?”
“Just wondering,” she said a little too lightly. “That was a very tightly wound ghost you used against that mugger.”
It hit him that this was the first time she had actually seen him work ghost energy. He tightened his grip on the wheel.
“What's the matter? Are you afraid I'm going to turn into a raging sex fiend?” he asked politely. “Don't worry. I usually save that for a full moon.”
She wrapped her arms very tightly around herself and angled her chin. “Don't be ridiculous.”
“Look, Elly, I'm sure you're well aware that every hunter
rezzes ghost light a little differently. No two do it quite the same way. My patterns have always been complex. It's the way my psi energy resonates.” He didn't even pause as he gave his standard explanation. He'd been using the line for years, ever since it had become obvious in his teens that his para-senses were not the same as those of other hunters. “Doesn't mean I exerted an unusual amount of power. I didn't melt amber.”
“Right.” She shot him a quick, assessing look and then turned back to stare fixedly ahead at the street scene. “Nevertheless, everyone knows that working a ghost, even a small one, has a certain, uh, pronounced effect on a hunter. Turn left here.”
The conversation was going downhill fast. “Don't tell me that you actually believe all that garbage about ghost hunters becoming sex-crazed after they work ghost light.”
“No offense, but I've got three brothers, remember? They can't wait to find a date after a day spent working ghost light down in the catacombs.”
“Most guys your brothers' ages, ghost hunters, or not, are seriously interested in sex. Goes with the territory of being male.”
To his surprise, her mouth curved a little at that. “But men like you who are older and wiser are no longer at the mercy of their hormones, is that it?”
Was she teasing him? “Relax, I'm no more of a threat to your virtue now than I was before I rezzed that damned ghost back there in the alley.”
“I see,” she said, perfectly neutral.
That hadn't come out quite right, he reflected. The unfortunate fact was that he was semiaroused, and she had obviously sensed it. What she did not know was that the ghost work had little to do with his current condition. He'd been feeling this way since she'd walked into the Trap Door.
“Look, I'm not saying that summoning ghosts doesn't have some side effects,” he plowed on, going for reasonable. “But as you get older, you learn how to handle the rush. I'm not going to throw you over my shoulder and haul you off to the nearest bed.”
She tilted her head slightly. “You're starting to sound a little testy. That's part of the syndrome.”
“Short tempered, irritable. You know,
I've noticed that ghost hunters often get that way after they've fried a ghost.”
“Is that so?” he said, very polite, but through his teeth.
“If they don't get rid of the adrenaline overload in some other way, that is. When they can't get a date, my brothers go to the gym, instead.”
“You really know how to rez a man's amber, don't you?”
“Like I said, three brothers. I've had oodles of experience.”
He got a cold feeling. No doubt about it, leaving her alone here in Cadence for the past six months was proving to be one of the biggest miscalculations of his life. He didn't make many mistakes, but when he made them, they tended to really resonate.
“What have you been doing for fun here in Cadence?” he asked, determined to change the subject.
“I've been pretty busy.” She patted Rose again. “You'd be amazed at how much work it takes to open up a small business and get it running at a profit.”
“As a matter of fact, I'm not the least bit surprised,” he said, putting a not-so-subtle emphasis into the words. “I run the Aurora Springs Guild, remember? It's a very
business. Requires even more work and time than a small business.”
“Forget it, that logic isn't going to fly with me. There's
a vast difference between being interested in your work and being obsessed with it.”
“And you know where that line is?”
“Yes, I do.” She paused deliberately. “You know, in hindsight, you owe me, big time.”
“How do you figure that?”
“What if we had actually gone through with a Covenant Marriage? Just think how miserable you would have been by now. I'd be nagging you, rezzing your amber, as you put it, constantly, day in and day out. To escape, you'd be spending even more time at the office. What were you thinking, anyway, going straight for a full Covenant? If we were going to try any kind of relationship at all, we should have gone for a limited Marriage of Convenience.”
“Thought I knew what I was doing,” he said.
The marriage laws had been relaxed slightly in the past two centuries, Cooper reflected, but not a whole lot. The rigid rules had made sense two hundred years ago when the colonists had found themselves abandoned on Harmony.
The settlers' primary goal in those dangerous early years had been to establish a strong, cohesive social fabric. The personal happiness of individuals had been a distant second. The social scientists, philosophers, and elected leaders had known that the basic building block of any society was the family. They had concluded that if the small, fragile colonies were to stand any chance at all of survival, the social structure had to be founded on strong family units.
The desperate, determined Founders had drawn up a Constitution and a series of laws designed to ensure that families remained intact, regardless of the price that had to be paid. Hence, the institution of the Covenant Marriage, a bond which, generally speaking, could be severed only by death or an act of the Federation Council.
But the Founders had also understood the need to provide an alternative for those who were not ready to take the
big leap. The Marriage of Convenience was a legally recognized arrangement that had to be renewed regularly by both parties involved. It could be terminated at any point. There were pitfalls, however. Couples had to be particularly careful about birth control. The arrival of a baby automatically converted the short-term status of a Marriage of Convenience to that of a permanent Covenant Marriage.
Families encouraged their offspring to experiment with MCs while they were young and more at risk of being swept away by the glittering lures of romance, passion, and plain, old-fashioned lust.
Covenant Marriages were supposed to be carefully thought out business and social arrangements reserved for those who were more mature and ready to settle down.
Guys like him, Cooper thought. He'd had it all so carefully planned.
“Well, don't blame yourself too much.” She patted his shoulder in much the same way that she had just patted Rose. “After all, I accepted your proposal. I thought I knew what I was doing, too. And Guild tradition is a powerful force. Guess we both had a narrow escape.”
“Guess so.” Conjugal relations was the last subject he wanted to think about just now. But he couldn't seem to move on. “You ever tried an MC?”
“Who? Me? Nope. Left at the next corner.”
“Why not?” he asked, unable to stop himself.
“Let's just say that an MC is easier said than done in a small town where everyone knows that you're the daughter of one of the members of the Guild Council. I always had to worry about the real motives of the men who showed an interest in any sort of arrangement with me, short- or long-term.”
“Men like Palmer Frazier, do you mean?”
“I think we'd better avoid the topic of Palmer Frazier.” She paused. “What about you? Ever been in an MC?”
“Why not? Too busy working your way up through the Guild?”
He moved one hand slightly on the wheel. “That was one of the reasons.”
“Are there any others?”
“None that I'm prepared to discuss tonight.”
“Oh.” She sounded chagrined. “I don't have the right to ask those sorts of personal questions, do I? Turn right.”
He followed directions obediently. There was no reason to mention that he already knew how to get to Ruin Lane because he had cruised past St. Clair's Herbal Emporium earlier today, immediately after he had arrived in town.
As was the case with all of the other major city-states, Cadence had grown rapidly, pushing out into the surrounding countryside. Predictably, the Old Quarters had been treated with benign neglect. Over the years many of the neighborhoods near the great walls had became home to the down-and-out and those who lived on the margins of society, as well as a varied selection of nightclubs, bars, and taverns.
But due to their close proximity to the ancient alien metropolises, the Old Quarters all possessed one strong, vibrant, economic underpinning that kept them from sliding into complete decay: a lively trade in alien antiquities, both real and fake.
Interspersed with the cheap apartment houses, dives, and forlorn storefronts here in the cramped streets of Cadence's colonial neighborhoods, Cooper saw small shops purporting to offer relics from the Dead City and the Early Colonial era.
When he had made quiet inquiries a few months back to assure himself that Elly was not living in a dangerous neighborhood, he had been told that her shop was in one of the newer, recently gentrified sections of the Old Quarter. Today when he had driven slowly down Ruin Lane, he had
been relieved to find out that his information had been solid.
True, the area wasn't as neat and tidy as the street where she had lived back in Aurora Springs, but he didn't see conventions of drug dealers, cop cars, and prostitutes on the corners, either.
“There's Bertha's shop,” Elly stated. “Go around the corner. We'll park in the alley.”
“I seem to be spending a lot of time in alleys tonight.”
“They're considered a scenic attraction here in the Old Quarter. Very atmospheric.”
He eased the Spectrum slowly into the narrow service lane behind Newell's Relics, parked, and climbed out. The fog was getting thicker, he noticed.
Elly, with Rose on her shoulder, emerged from the front seat before he could get around to the passenger side.
She removed a key from the depths of her tote and went quickly toward the rear door of Newell's Relics.
“Hang on a second,” he said quietly. “I want to be sure the Spectrum is still here when we come back.”
He sent out a little pulse of psi power through his amber, using it to grab some of the ambient energy drifting through the night. Concentrating briefly, he formed a tiny ghost and anchored it to the rear license plate of the Spectrum. The little UDEM flared to life, illuminating the plate in a faint, green glow.
“That should do it,” Elly said dryly. “Can't imagine anyone dumb enough to steal that car now.”
He shrugged. “In my experience, it's excellent insurance against grand theft auto.”
Okay, so it was a little flashy, he conceded silently. Very few dissonance-energy para-rezzes were strong enough to anchor a ghost, even a small one, outside the catacombs. But replacing the Spectrum would be both expensive and inconvenient. The little UDEM sent an unmistakable message:
Touch this car, and the owner will hunt you down and fry your brains.
Elly opened the door of the darkened shop and switched on the lights.
He followed her inside and found himself in a back room filled with small green quartz artifacts. There was nothing that looked particularly valuable, as far as he could see. Most of the relics were the sort of simple tomb mirrors, undistinguished urns, and unexceptional vases that were found in low-end antiquities shops in every Old Quarter.
“Where's her rat hole?” he asked.