Authors: Jayne Castle
“Got a problem,” Cooper said softly, looking into the tunnel.
She reached the circular intersection and turned to see whatever it was that had riveted him.
She sensed the new psi energy before she saw the source.
For a few seconds the only thing that registered was the
wrongness of the light flooding the passageway. Cooper and Rose were bathed in the odd, pulsating glow. It wasn't the familiar acid green that she associated with ghost energy and the quartz walls. Instead it was an eerie, unnatural blue that produced a deeply disturbing effect on her senses.
Was this what vertigo felt like? she wondered.
She was looking into a whirling vortex of energy. It was like gazing into the heart of a tornado or a water spout.
The vortex appeared to have opened in the floor. It spiraled downward to an invisible vanishing point. Lightning sparked. The angry, seething light swirled in a wide pool of dissonance energy waves that completely covered the floor of the wide tunnel, wall to wall.
Aside from the occasional crackle of the miniature lightning strikes, the blue tornado made no audible sound. But Elly's psi senses were rattling and shaking like windowpanes in a violent storm.
“What's wrong with the floor?” she asked, dumbfounded.
“Blue ghost,” Cooper said.
“No.” She shook her head, uncomprehending. “It can't be. There is no such thing. Blue ghosts are just old hunters' tales. Everyone knows that.”
But it was definitely a form of dissonance energy, she thought. There was no mistaking the wild, flaring power.
“Is that your friend's sled?” Cooper asked.
She managed to jerk her gaze off the vortex and spotted the familiar shape of Bertha's aging utility sled. It was perched on the far rim of the pulsing, rippling vortex. The energy storm lapped at one rear wheel, as though trying to suck it down into the heart of the whirlwind.
There was no sign of Bertha.
“Dear heaven,” Elly whispered. Horror threatened to close her throat. “That ghost got her. No one could survive a close brush with that thing. But where's the body?
There's no body.
COOPER LOOKED AT ELLY'S HORRIFIED FACE. IN THE
pulsing blue light she looked a little like a ghost, herself, the old-fashioned, supernatural kind.
“Don't panic on me,” he said, automatically falling back on the tone of icy command that he had learned to use in the days when he had worked the catacombs as a hunter. “Save the hysterics for later. We don't have time for them now.”
“I am not panicking,” she snapped, irritated. “I'm worried sick about what has happened to Bertha. There's a difference.”
The cold anger in her voice reassured him. “Good to know. All right, there's not much option here. I'm going to de-rez this thing. Then we'll look for Bertha.”
Elly's eyes widened. “You can handle this monster?”
“Wow. Okay, I'm impressed, Mr. Guild Boss.”
He was privately amazed that she had accepted his
statement as fact. In her shoes, a lot of people would have refused to believe his claim.
He studied the blue ghost, probing carefully for the patterns. “Yeah?”
“Do youÂ .Â .Â . do you think that blue UDEM somehow swallowed up Bertha andÂ .Â .Â . and
“Ghost energy doesn't burn hot enough to destroy flesh and bone. It can scorch and singe, but that's about the limit. Mostly it fries the psi senses. You know that as well as I do.”
“But this is a
ghost. No one knows much about them. They're not even supposed to exist.”
“Let me get rid of it, and then we'll see what we've got.” He lifted Rose down off his shoulder and handed the dust bunny to her. “Here, take gorgeous. Things might get a little tricky here. I don't want her to get caught in the backwash.”
“No.” She took Rose, cradling her protectively in her arms.
“Go stand in one of the other tunnels,” Cooper added. “It will give you some protection in case things get out of hand.”
She obeyed, retreating to the cover of a vaulted passageway.
When he decided she was safely out of the reach of the blue storm, he went to work, using his psi senses to snag ambient blue dissonance energy out of the air.
The stuff was invisible to the eye at first, but as he forced it to coalesce into a tight, flaring ball, it took on a blue hue.
He manipulated it into a vortex. For some reason, that was the way blue ghost fire came together most naturally. He adjusted the dissonance wave patterns, emphasizing those that resonated in opposition to the patterns of the one that swirled on the floor.
The level of psi power in the confined space rose swiftly. He had to concentrate harder and harder to keep it contained. If it escaped his control, the fierce waves of energy would swamp not only his senses but possibly reach as far as where Elly waited, partially sheltered.
When he had achieved the shade and patterns that he needed, he began the process of merging his ghost with the blue vortex that blocked the corridor.
This was the most dangerous part of the process. The idea was to use his ghost to cancel out the energy patterns of the one on the floor. A mistake could easily result in an explosion that would send violent waves of psi power splashing outward, swamping his senses.
There was so much flaring light in the passage now that it was difficult to see. He squinted against the glare.
Should have brought along a pair of dark glasses,
he thought. He'd have to remember that the next time he went out on a date with Elly. His new motto was
The two ghosts came together in a senses-jarring flare of light and energy.
The flames winked out with a suddenness that was disorienting.
“It's gone,” Elly whispered. “That was absolutely amazing.”
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yes. Rose and I are fine.” She moved quickly toward him. “What about you?”
“I'm all right.”
For a while,
And then I'm going to be in real trouble. Got to get out of here before the burn-and-crash hits me.
He did another quick frequency check. “According to this, we're almost on top of your friend.”
“But she's nowhere in sight. There's only the sled.”
“At least we now know why its frequency didn't resonate on the locator. The blue ghost fried it.” He looked
around. “We've got fifteen minutes, no longer. After that, we have to start back toward our entry point.”
Elly looked at him with sudden concern. “You melted amber to deal with that blue ghost?”
Tuned amber didn't physically melt when you pushed an unusual amount of power through it, but if it was overworked, the stuff lost much of its ability to sustain an intense, highly concentrated psi focus.
He went forward quickly, watching the readout on the locator. When he passed a narrow doorway he got a sharp ping.
He stopped and looked into the room. Like all of the myriad rooms that branched off the endless corridors, the proportions felt a little off, not quite human. This particular chamber was too high and too narrow. The angles where the walls met didn't look right.
The motionless figure of a woman lay sprawled on the glowing floor. She was somewhat past middle age, dressed in a long-sleeved sweater, overalls, and sturdy boots. She had a stocking cap pulled down over her short, gray hair.
“Here she is,” he said. He went into the room and crouched beside the still form to check for a pulse. “She's alive.”
“Thank God.” Elly rushed across the room.
She went down on her knees. “She's unconscious.”
“Not surprising. Probably got brushed by that blue before she made it into this room. Lucky the burn didn't kill her.”
“She didn't get fried, or at least that wasn't her only problem.” Elly gently touched the stocking cap that covered Bertha's head. “Look. It's wet with blood. She must have hit her head when she fell. We've got to get her out of here.”
He checked his watch. Time was slipping away fast.
“We'll use her sled,” he said. He paused at the doorway and met her eyes. “One more thing. Very important.”
“When she wakes up, she probably won't have any clear memory of what happened just before she hit her head. And if she did get brushed by that ghost, it's a sure bet she'll have a case of amnesia that will wipe out the events of the past several hours.”
“I know. So?”
“So we're going to tell her that she had an encounter with a ghost. But we're not going to tell her it was a blue. Let her think it was a routine UDEM.”
Elly got slowly to her feet. “She probably wouldn't believe she ran into a blue, anyway.”
“Something else,” he added quietly.
“It's okay to tell her that I'm from Aurora Springs, but I don't want her to know about my connection to the Aurora Springs Guild.”
Elly wrinkled her nose. “It's not just a connection. You're the Guild boss.”
“I don't want her or anyone else here in town to know who I am. From now on, I'm Cooper Jones.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Let me guess,” she said. “Guild business?”
“Gosh, what a stunning surprise.”
He ignored that and went out into the hallway to get the utility vehicle. The blue was more than just routine Guild business. It was a potential public relations disaster, one that could threaten the future of all of the Guild organizations.
As far as the public was concerned, blues did not exist, and neither did hunters like him, who could de-rez them. Ever since their founding, the Guilds had gone to
extraordinary lengths to keep the secrets of the blues buried deep in the archives. The effort had paid off. Over the years, the unusual blue ghosts and those who could summon them had receded into the realm of myth and legend.
There was a good reason for concealing the truth, he thought. People were inclined to get nervous when myths and legends came to life.
BERTHA STIRRED AND OPENED HER EYES. ELLY EXHALED A
sigh of relief.
“Bertha, it's me, Elly. You're safe.”
“Elly?” Bertha's voice was hoarse. Her gray eyes were dazed. “What are you doing here?”
“My friend, Cooper, and Rose and I came looking for you. You're okay. You had a brush with a ghost, and you must have hit your head when you went unconscious.”
Bertha screwed up her face. “Can't rememberÂ .Â .Â .”
“Don't worry about it.” Elly patted her shoulder. “You know how it is after an encounter. You'll be all right in a day or so. That's all that matters.”
Cooper de-rezzed the engine and got off the vehicle. His face was hard and taut. “Let's get her into the sled.”
“No problem,” Bertha said, sitting up cautiously. She put a hand to her head. “Got a headache, but that's all that's wrong. Be right as tuned amber tomorrow.”
Cooper helped her to her feet.
“I think you should go to the emergency room,” Elly said.
“No,” Bertha replied. “No doctors. I'm okay, I tell you. Got some supplies in the sled. Just need to clean up the mess and put a bandage on my head.”
They got Bertha into the back of the sled. Elly climbed in beside her and opened the first-aid kit. She was relieved to see that Bertha's wound, although bloody, was not as bad as she had feared.
Cooper started to get into the driver's seat. She saw him hesitate, and then step down from the vehicle.
He walked swiftly to where the blue vortex had been whirling a few minutes earlier. She watched him lean down to pick up a small, narrow object that was lying on the floor. Sliding it into a pocket, he loped back to the sled.
Before she could ask him what he had found, he was rezzing the engine.
She could question him about whatever it was he had picked up some other time, she thought. Right now she had to focus on cleaning Bertha's wound.
TEN MINUTES LATER, SPORTING THE BANDAGE THAT ELLY
had applied over the disinfected wound, Bertha managed to stagger up out of the cellar and into the darkened back room of her shop. She swayed a little, but she stayed on her feet.
“Need to sleep it off,” she mumbled, rubbing her temples with her thumbs.
“If you won't go to the ER, you're going to come home with me,” Elly said firmly. “I'm not leaving you here by yourself tonight.”
For a few seconds she thought Bertha would refuse.
“Okay, okay,” Bertha finally grumbled.
Cooper rechecked his watch and then draped one of Bertha's arms over his shoulders.
“Let's go,” he ordered, obviously still in full hunter-in-charge mode.
“Whatever,” Bertha said groggily. “Just need some sleep.”
“You and me, both,” Cooper added.
Elly watched him with growing concern as he maneuvered Bertha outside into the alley and eased her into the front seat of the Spectrum. Elly had not one but two people who were in imminent danger of collapsing on her, she thought. She had to get them both back to her apartment as quickly as possible.
“I'll drive.” She held out her hand, palm up.
“Not necessary,” Cooper growled.
“You are in no shape, and you know it.”
“Your shop's in the next block, right?”
“The keys, Cooper.”
He looked annoyed, but displaying the decisive thinking that had no doubt been responsible for taking him all the way to the top of the Aurora Springs Guild, he handed her the keys.
“Be careful,” he warned. “The car belongs to a known Guild boss who won't be happy if it gets dinged up.”
“Yeah, I've heard those guys can be real touchy,” Elly said.
She tossed the Spectrum keys into the air. Was she nonchalant in the face of danger, or what?
Unfortunately she missed the catch. The keys clanged on the paving stones.
“Oops,” she mumbled.
Cooper watched her scoop up the keys.
“This will probably be interesting,” he said.
She drove the powerful car very gingerly through the
alley. The headlights penetrated only a few feet into the heavy fog. Every trash can was a major hazard.
She made it across the narrow street that separated the blocks and drove cautiously into the alley that ran behind her own shop.
She was sure she heard a deep sigh of relief when she stopped at the rear door of St. Clair's Herbal Emporium and de-rezzed the ignition.
“See?” she said, handing Cooper the keys. “No problem.”
He pocketed the keys without comment. With Rose hunched on his shoulder, he climbed out of the backseat, opened the passenger door, and reached down to assist Bertha.
Elly de-rezzed the heavy new lock that she had recently installed and opened the back door of the shop. The familiar scents and a pleasant trickle of psi energy wafted over her, soothing and comforting all of her senses.
She rezzed the lights, revealing the ranks of herbs and flowers that hung upside down from the ceiling and filled an array of baskets.
“My apartment is on the floor above the shop,” she said. “We need to get Bertha up those stairs.”
Bertha grunted. “I'm not a total invalid here.”
She grasped the handrail and trudged up the steps.
Elly left Cooper standing at the foot of the stairs while she piloted Bertha down a short hall into the darkened bedroom.
Bertha balked in the doorway, scowling ferociously at the neatly made bed.
“This is your room,” she complained.
“Don't worry, I'll sleep on the sofa.”
“Can't take your only bed.”
“Yes, you can and you will,” Elly said. “Please, Bertha, don't go into stubborn mode on me tonight.”
“Can't.” Bertha lurched into the room and collapsed on
top of the bed, eyes closing. “Feel like a building fell on top of me.”
“I don't doubt it.” Elly tugged off Bertha's heavy boots. “Do you remember anything at all about what happened?”
“Not much.” Bertha rubbed the nape of her neck. “Can't think. Maybe in the morning.”
“Do you feel nauseated?”
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
Bertha peered at her hand. “One. G'night.”
She started snoring.
Elly covered her with a spare blanket and left the bedroom, closing the door behind her. Patient number one was under control, she thought. Now to deal with patient number two.
Rose tumbled up the stairs and drifted into the kitchen in search of her food dish.
Elly went to the landing and looked down. Cooper was still standing at the foot of the staircase. It seemed to her that he was gripping the end of the banister much too tightly.
He watched her with stark, hot eyes. An unfamiliar tension radiated from him.
A chill of awareness swept through her.
“Remember, don't tell her who I am.”
“Yes, I know.” She wrinkled her nose. “Guild business.”
“Yeah, and it just got a lot more complicated.”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
“I'll explain in the morning.” The words sounded ragged around the edges. “Just wanted to make sure you understood how important it is that you don't tell her about the blue.”
“I need to get out of here.” He shoved himself away from the banister and started toward the door.
“I don't think so.” She hurried down the stairs. “You're not in any shape to drive, especially given the fog. You'll have to stay here tonight.”
“Bad idea. I'll be back in the morning.”
“I'm not going to let you leave.”
“Be okay.” He kept walking toward the door.
“Like heck you will.” She rushed past him and flung herself in front of the door, barring his path. “Stop right where you are. I mean it. You cannot possibly intend to drive that Spectrum anywhere tonight. You're a danger to yourself and others.”
He blinked a couple of times and then nodded, reluctantly acknowledging the obvious.
“You're right. I'll sleep in it, instead,” he said.
“You will do no such thing. This isn't the most dangerous neighborhood in the Old Quarter, but it isn't exactly Ruin View Drive with lots of private security patrols, either. One of the shops in this very block was broken into just a few days ago. Trust me, you do not want to sleep in the back of a car in that alley. That would be asking for trouble.”
He shook his head. “Can't stay here.”
“Look, we both know that you're going to crash big time after that energy burn. I've got a perfectly good sofa upstairs. Why not use it?”
His eyes went very, very blue. “Because even though I'm going to crash in a little while, right now I'm burning up, that's why.”
“You've got a fever?” Alarmed, she stepped forward and put her palm on his forehead. “Oh, dear, you do feel warm.”
“Not that kind of fever. Get out of my way, Elly, I'm warning you.”
He jerked away from her hand, moved around her, and yanked open the door.
“Warning me about what?” she asked, following him out onto the small back stoop.
He circled the Spectrum to open the door on the driver's side and paused to look at her over the roof of the vehicle. In the dim glow of the light above the doorway his face was an implacable mask.
“Remember what I told you earlier after I summoned that small ghost to take care of that mugger we ran into?” he said evenly. “About how I could handle the rush before the crash?”
“Well, that was true for routine ghosts. But this one was a blue.”
“And you melted amber to deal with it,” she whispered, comprehending at last. He was in a state of intense lust. And he was trying to protect her from himself.
He scrubbed his face with one hand. “As much as I hate to ruin my macho Guild boss image, I gotta tell you, it has been a very long eight months and five days. Not that I'm counting.”
He slid into the driver's seat.
Eight months and five days. He
counting, Elly thought.
She felt her heart rate escalate.
She went down the steps, yanked open the passenger side door, got in beside him, and slammed the door shut.
“Cooper, are you saying you haven't dated anyone since I left Aurora Springs?”
He gazed straight ahead through the windshield. “Get out of the car, Elly, for both our sakes.”
“Not until I know why you haven't slept with anyone in the past eight months and five days.”
He turned, one arm stretching along the back of the seat of the car.
“I haven't wanted anyone else,” he said. “Just you.”
The fog closed in around the Spectrum. The close confines of the interior of the front seat seemed almost unbearably intimate.
you're over-rezzed yourself tonight. All that adrenaline earlier and now the man who has been invading your dreams for the past few months is telling you he wants you.
And you want him. You've wanted him from day one. That's why you seized the excuse of knowing he was in town tonight to track him down to ask for his help.
“Get out of the car.”
She ignored that. “I didn't think you felt that way about me.”
“You were wrong. Now, please, get the hell out of the damn car.”
Her blood fizzed in her veins. She felt light-headed. Anticipation heated her insides. She touched the side of his stone-hard face.
“I'd rather kiss you,” she said, feeling more daring than she had ever felt in her entire life.
“Bad idea. If you kiss me, I can't promise that I'll be able to stop.”
“Who said anything about stopping?”
She leaned toward him and kissed him lightly on the mouth.
For a fraction of an instant, Cooper went utterly still. In the next heartbeat, he claimed the kiss with a rough groan, crushing her against the back of the passenger seat. His mouth was fierce and hot and ruthless.
Energyâsexual, not psiâflashed inside the front seat of the Spectrum, engulfing her senses.
Cooper moved closer, pushing hard against her. Heat came off of his body in waves. His mouth shifted to her
throat. She felt his hand glide up under her sweater. Somehow he got her bra undone. She could feel his fingers shaking a little. Or maybe she was the one who was trembling.
The next thing she knew, his thumb was scraping lightly over her nipple. She almost screamed at his touch. Her skin had never felt so incredibly sensitive.
He raised his head to look down at her. He was breathing heavily.
“Did I hurt you?”
Her head tipped back against the seat. She braced herself against the onslaught by clamping her hands on either side of his lean, solid chest. He was hot, so hot. And so was she.
He grabbed a fistful of her skirt and shoved the garment up to her waist. Her panties vanished in the next instant.
He propped her right foot on the dash, opening her. His fingers stroked deep. She was suddenly aware that she was already very damp.
“Talk about melting amber,” he whispered.
He moved in the shadows, turning them both so that he was the one sitting in the passenger seat. Somehow she was astride him.
She could no longer see anything at all through the Spectrum's windows. It wasn't just the thick mist outside that limited the view. The glass itself was seriously fogged on the inside.
So much heat.
Exhilaration and urgency made her shiver in Cooper's arms.
His hand moved between her thighs. Everything inside her was growing tighter.
She reached down and unfastened his trousers. His rigid erection surged into her hand.
He gripped her hips, cupping her buttocks in the palms
of his hands. Positioning her where he wanted her, he slowly, carefully eased her downward.