The dust bunny was back.
Sedona heard the soft, muffled chortle and rushed to the barred door of the small, windowless chamber. The lab was deserted for the night but there was ample illumination. The Aliens had vanished a few thousand years ago but they had built their maze of underworld catacombs to last. And they had left the lights on. The quartz walls of the small cell and the chamber that housed Dr. Blankenship’s research equipment glowed with an acid-green radiance.
Because of the constant light it was impossible to tell whether it was day or night up on the surface, but she was pretty sure it was night because Blankenship’s two seriously bulked-up assistants had left a while ago, talking about dinner. The pair had names but she had privately decided to call the one with the short, razor-cut hair Buzzkill. The other man had completely shaved his head. She had nicknamed him Hulk.
They wore a lot of khaki and leather, but even without the clothing cues she would have known that they were ghost hunters. She had worked with Guild men often enough to recognize them when she saw them. One big clue was that they were obsessive about their amber. They wore amber in every conceivable way—in their belt buckles, in their earring studs, in the hilts of their knives. She knew they probably carried more amber as backup in their boots. No self-respecting Guild man ever went down into the catacombs without plenty of amber, and all of it was tuned. Good amber set to the correct frequencies was the only way to navigate in the heavy currents of senses-distorting psi that flooded the Alien tunnels. Lose your amber and you were lost forever.
She heard another muffled chortle. This time it came from beneath one of the lab workbenches. There was a flash of motion near the floor. The dust bunny scurried out from under the bench and fluttered across the room to the door of the cell. He looked like a large ball of fuzzy dryer lint studded with a pair of baby blue eyes. There were six paws and a couple of ears but they were nearly invisible in the fluff of his fur.
At some point she had decided to call him Lyle. She wasn’t sure why. The name just seemed to fit, and giving the dust bunny a name served to make him seem more real. She needed all the solid, tangible links to reality that she could get. Last night when Lyle had first appeared she had still been fighting her way up through the thick layers of the drugs that Blankenship used to keep her heavily sedated in a waking dreamstate. She had no idea how long she had been held prisoner. Her days and nights were filled with nightmares and disturbing visions.
At first she had assumed that the dust bunny was just one more hallucination, albeit a comforting one. She had wondered if it was a sign that Blankenship’s experiments had finally pushed her over the precarious border between sanity and chaos.
Lyle had appeared thrilled with the energy bar that she had given him from the stash in the cell. He had squeezed easily through the bars in the door and hopped up onto the cot. He had chattered at her with increasing urgency until she finally realized that he was trying to get her to leave.
“I can’t go anywhere,” she had explained. “The door’s locked.”
She had sat beside him for a long time, taking comfort from him. He had departed shortly before Buzzkill and Hulk returned. There had followed another horrible day of Blankenship’s experiments. It had taken every ounce of willpower she had to fake the waking dreamstate. What she really wanted to do was scream her rage and claw Blankenship’s eyes out of his head.
That night she had despaired of ever seeing Lyle again. But he was here. Her spirits soared.
“Hi,” she whispered. She crouched and reached through the bars to pat Lyle. “Good to see you again, buddy.”
Lyle rumbled. He had a small, shiny metallic object about an inch and a half long clutched in one paw. He fluttered through the bars, bounced up onto the cot, and waved the bright thing at her.
“A gift in exchange for the energy bar?” she said. “Thank you.”
When she took the present she saw that it was a small emergency firestarter. They were known as flickers and they were standard-issue emergency equipment for Guild men. Fire was one of the few useful sources of energy that worked in heavy psi environments because it could be made to burn across the spectrum from the normal into the paranormal. Sophisticated, high-tech gear like guns or computers either failed to function at all or else exploded in your hands.
She considered the little flicker. A plan quickly formed in her head. It wasn’t much of a plan but when you were desperate, any sort of plan held a certain appeal. At most the flicker would generate only a spark of a flame. Still, that might be enough for her purposes.
Lyle muttered impatiently and bounced some more.
“Yes, I know,” she said. “Time to get out of here. I don’t think I can get through another day pretending to be in a dreamstate.”
When she had finally begun to drag herself out of the oppressive nightmare landscape she had intuitively known that she had to conceal her recovery. If Dr. Blankenship realized that she had awakened, he would very likely double the dose of whatever hallucinogen he was using on her.
She considered her options. She had comprehended two facts yesterday during the course of the experiments. First, for whatever reason, Blankenship and his men were extremely wary around her. They evidently considered her dangerous. That was a good thing, she told herself, probably the only thing that had kept Buzzkill and Hulk from molesting her while she was in the dreamstate. But she dared not give them any reason to use physical restraints as well as medication to keep her under control.
The second discovery she had made was that the experiments Blankenship was conducting had something to do with her talent. She had no idea what had been done to her but she was sure she still had her ability to open and close the paranormal gates of the Underworld. Unfortunately her ability to work the energy gates was of no obvious use when it came to escaping the lab.
Lyle growled, impatient with her failure to get with the program.
“I would like to come with you,” she whispered. “But I can’t fit through the bars of this cell.”
She had been contemplating that problem since she had awakened. The first obstacle was the lock on the cell door. It was an old-fashioned padlock. A key was required to open it.
Buzzkill and Hulk had keys.
Even if she succeeded in escaping the cell and getting past the two bulked-up assistants, she would still face the challenge of getting out of the tunnels. Without tuned amber she would never find her way back to the surface.
There was plenty of amber embedded in the lab apparatus but it was all tuned to operate the simple instruments that were designed to function in the heavy psi atmosphere—not for navigation.
Lyle rumbled softly again. She could feel his small frame vibrating with a sense of urgency.
“We need a distraction,” she said. “I’ve got a sort of plan but it’s one of those ideas that had better work the first time because I’ll only get one shot at it.”
If she failed, Blankenship would overwhelm her with his ghastly dreamstate drugs.
“Here goes nothing, Lyle.”
He blinked and sleeked out, his tatty fur plastering against his little body. He opened his second set of eyes, the ones he used for hunting. They burned molten amber. He vaulted up onto her shoulder.
“Right,” she said. “Let’s do this.”
She took a deep breath, rezzed the little flicker, and touched the small spark to the edge of the pillow.
That was when she found out what Blankenship had done to her para-senses.
With a terrifying whoosh of energy, the tiny flicker spark literally exploded into a firestorm, engulfing the cot in seconds.
“Crap,” she whispered. She stared at the raging fire, too stunned to comprehend for a few seconds.
Smoke was not a problem in the heavy psi environment. It dissipated quickly in the atmosphere, but the fire she had inadvertently started was something else again.
In her panic she intuitively rezzed her senses to the max.
And discovered to her amazement that she could control the flames.
“Impossible,” she gasped.
But she was doing it. Frantically she reached out with her talent, struggling to control the currents of the fire. It took a moment or two but in the end she realized it was not all that different from working gate energy. She beat the wall of flames down until only the bed was burning.
Fascinated, she concentrated harder and generated more energy. The tide of flames surged and ebbed at her command.
Satisfied she had the fire under control, she opened her mouth and screamed.
There was no need to fake genuine fear. She was committed now.
Lyle growled. The claws of his small paws sank through the fabric of her shirt. He could have escaped the cell but he made it clear he wasn’t leaving without her.
Two figures appeared in the doorway of the lab. Sedona screamed louder, flattening herself against one wall of the cell as if trying to avoid the flames.
“Shit,” Hulk said. “The crazy bitch is awake. She set a fire. How in green hell did she do that?”
Buzzkill started forward, dragging a key out of one pocket. “We’ll figure that part out later. Right now we’ve got to get her out of there. Blankenship will be pissed if he loses his precious research subject.”
“Yeah, well, he’s not the only one who will have a reason to be pissed. In case you haven’t been paying attention, we need that little witch.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Buzzkill said. “I told you the woman was going to be trouble. She gives me the creeps the way she looks at us with those weird eyes.”
“What the hell is that thing on her shoulder?” Hulk said. “Don’t tell me she’s got a rat.”
“I think it’s a dust bunny,” Buzz said.
Sedona screamed again.
“Shut up, already,” Buzzkill growled.
He stabbed the key into the lock and swung the door wide.
“Come on,” he snapped. “Get out of there.” He glanced back at Hulk. “Be ready to grab her. Give her a shot of the sedative to keep her quiet while we put out this fire.”
“It’ll be a pleasure,” Hulk said. He reached into the pocket of his leather vest for a small syringe case.
Lyle growled. Sedona clutched the flicker very tightly in one hand and fled from the cell.
Buzzkill did not try to stop her. He left that job to Hulk, who was already moving to intercept her. One big fist reached out to close around her arm.
The instant he made physical contact with her she rezzed her new talent, clicked the flicker again, and set fire to his shirt.
Hulk yelled. The expression on his face was a mix of astonishment and panic. He released her and staggered back, batting wildly at the flames that were leaping from his shirtsleeve.
“What in green hell?” Buzzkill paused in the act of trying to beat out the flames and turned to stare at Hulk.
“The bitch set my shirt on fire.” Hulk clawed at his vest and T-shirt, ripping the clothes off his massive chest and shoulders. “It’s the heavy doses of the formula that Blankenship has been giving her. If she wasn’t crazy before he started his experiments, she sure is now.”
“Stop her.” Buzzkill charged out of the cell. “Pull a ghost. Hurry, man. She’s getting away.”
Sedona ran for the door. Lyle clung to her shoulder and urged her on with small hissing noises.
She was only a few steps from the arched doorway of the lab when a ball of hot green psi-fire coalesced in front of her, blocking her path. She slammed to a halt, nearly dislodging Lyle. He recovered his balance and snarled at the violent energy ghost that Hulk had generated.
The technical name for the dangerous ball of psi was UDEM—Unstable Dissonance Energy Manifestation. There was nothing of a supernatural nature about ghosts. They were composed of specific frequencies of Alien psi that those with a special talent could work.
Pulling unstable dissonance energy out of the invisible currents of psi that flowed throughout the Underworld was, in Sedona’s opinion, the only thing Guild men were really good at. There was no doubt but that Hulk was a very powerful hunter. The seething ghost in front of her was the largest she had ever seen. The currents pouring off of it lifted her hair and raised goose bumps on her arms. A cold sensation shivered through her. A ghost this large could be deadly.
“Got her,” Hulk said. He started toward Sedona, rage burning in his eyes. “You’re going to pay for that little fire trick.”
“Be careful,” Buzzkill warned. “She already set fire to you once. She’s a gatekeeper. Everyone knows they’re weird to begin with. No telling what she is now that Blankenship’s been using the drugs and radiation on her. Knock her out with the ghost.”
Hulk halted, clearly torn. But in the end self-preservation won out over damaged pride and anger.
“Yeah,” he said. “The ghost will work just fine.”
The ball of green energy started to drift toward Sedona. In another moment it would come close enough to burn her senses. She had some natural immunity because of her gatekeeping talent, but no one could withstand the full onslaught of a powerful ghost. The best she could hope for was that the unstable energy manifestation would merely render her unconscious. The worst-case scenario was that it would kill her.
No, she thought, death wasn’t the worst possibility. She had already sustained one bad psi-burn in the Underworld. Another severe burn might send her into a permanent dreamstate. She would spend the rest of her life here in Blankenship’s lab or some low-rent para-psych ward. No question about it—death would be a better outcome.
“This could go real bad,” Sedona said to Lyle. “Better run while you still can. Go on. Shoo. Get out of here.”
She tried to pluck him off her shoulder and send him toward the door. But Lyle just growled and dug in his claws.
“Okay,” she said. Her pulse pounded in her veins. “Looks like we’re a team. Neither of us leaves the other one behind, right?”
“Unlike some Guild bosses I could mention,” she added.
The green ghost was drifting closer now, forcing Sedona to edge backward until she came up hard against an unyielding block of green quartz.
Buzzkill and Hulk stood still, breathing hard, and waited for the green ghost to come into contact with Sedona’s aura.
“Better not let it kill her,” Buzzkill said. “Remember, we need her.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Hulk said.
But Sedona could see the feverish excitement in his eyes and hear it in his voice. He was at the edge of his control. That was never a good thing but it was always really bad when it happened with a ghost hunter. A Guild man who couldn’t control his talent was liable to do a lot of damage, especially down in the Underworld where there was so much energy.
She took a deep breath, rezzed the flicker, and simultaneously pulled hard on her senses.
Flames exploded in the atmosphere between her and the ghost. She fought to control the stormy currents of fire. This time it was easier. She had more control. Power swept through her. The flames obeyed her every command.
A heady sensation threatened to overwhelm her. She was strong—stronger than she had ever been in her entire life.
She marveled at her own creation. She’d possessed plenty of talent before that last job in the Underworld, but she’d never been able to do anything like this.
“Wow, Lyle. Very high-rez, huh?”
Lyle chortled and bounced a little on her shoulder.
“What’s she doing?” Buzzkill whispered hoarsely.
“Shit.” Hulk was clearly stunned. “She’s some kind of fire talent now. Everyone knows they’re psycho. I told you, she’s a total whackjob.”
“A whackjob with nothing left to lose,” Sedona warned. A terrible excitement was flaring inside her. “Watch and learn, gentlemen. Watch and learn.”
The firestorm she had created was in the direct path of the oncoming energy ghost. At any second the two would collide.
“Oh, man, this is not good,” Buzzkill said. “I can feel the energy levels rising in here. There’s going to be an explosion. Stop her, damn it.”
“I can’t stop her,” Hulk said. There was a panicky tightness in his voice. “That’s the biggest ghost I can pull. If you think you can do something, be my guest.”
“We’ve got to get out of here.” Buzzkill sprinted toward the door. “This place is going to blow.”
“What about the woman? You said yourself, we can’t lose her.”
“There’s nothing more we can do,” Buzzkill yelled. He did not pause on his charge toward the door. “Blankenship can find himself another research subject. Stay here if you want. I’m leaving.”
Sedona concluded that nothing left to lose had become her personal motto. She pulled more power. The firestorm surged.
“You stupid, crazy bitch,” Hulk shouted. “You’re going to die if you don’t shut down that storm.”
“Those damn experiments turned you into a real freak,” Hulk gasped.
He gave up trying to control the ball of hot energy that he had generated. As soon as he stopped channeling his talent, the ghost fizzled and winked out of existence.
Sedona sent the leaping flames of her firestorm toward Hulk. But he was already on the run, pounding toward the doorway. He followed Buzzkill out into the glowing green hall and was gone.
Sedona waited a moment or two, savoring the exhilaration that had ignited her blood. She could have stood there for a long time, admiring the storm she had created. But Lyle chortled and reality slammed back.
Reluctantly, she lowered her senses. The firestorm dissipated. An eerie silence descended on the lab.
“Okay, that was a real rush,” she said softly.
Lyle chortled. He was once again fully fluffed but all four eyes were still open.
She opened her hand and stared at the shiny flicker. A shiver of dread replaced the fading euphoria.
“What did Blankenship do to me?” she whispered.
Lyle muttered, displaying some impatience.
“Right.” Sedona steadied herself. “I can worry about the details later. Time to vacate the premises.”
She crossed the room to the storage chest that held the few things she’d had on her when she was kidnapped. She found her pack. There wasn’t much inside it, just the usual emergency essentials that she always carried when she went down below into the tunnels on a job. There was also a cell phone but she knew it would not work until she got aboveground.
Two items were missing.
“They took my locator and my backup tuned amber,” she said to Lyle. “Bastards.”
She looked at Lyle.
“I’ll bet you know the way to the surface, don’t you?”
Lyle gave no indication that he understood the question but it was obvious that he was eager to leave. He bounced some more on her shoulder and made encouraging noises.
“Okay, buddy, I’m depending on you. Anything is better than hanging around here waiting for Dr. Blankenship and his pals to come back.”
She slipped the strap of the pack over one shoulder and started toward the doorway.
The sight of the glass-and-steel strongbox sitting on a workbench stopped her. She shuddered, nightmarish memories slithering and coiling through her mind.
“Hang on,” she said. “Something I want to do before we leave.”
She went down an aisle formed by two long, steel lab benches to the strongbox. For a moment she studied the container, wondering if there was any way to destroy it and the contents. The thick glass glinted malevolently in the paranormal light. The steel was heavy gauge. The whole thing probably weighed nearly a hundred pounds.
There was a lock on the strongbox, but, like the lock on the cell door, it was a simple, old-fashioned padlock. She could not open it without a key. Not that she wanted to even touch the contents, let alone steal them. But she did not want Blankenship using the serum on some other hapless research subject. The crystal seemed to be important to the drug-making process.
There was no way to destroy the box or the strange gem inside. She did not have the time or the upper-body strength required to carry the container away from the lab and conceal it somewhere in the catacombs. The only option she had was to lock the strongbox so tightly that no one else could ever unlock it.
Setting a small gate lock on the box was easy enough. Setting one that no other gatekeeper could unlock took some concentration but the job was done in a matter of minutes. When she was finished there was a fine, eerie radiance around the strongbox. Anyone who touched it would get a scorching psi-burn. Anyone foolish enough to try to open her lock would trigger an explosion that would likely prove fatal to whoever was in the vicinity. With luck such an explosion would be strong enough to destroy the jewel.
“Done,” she announced to Lyle. “Now we can leave. I’ll lock the door on the way out.”
She was halfway back down the aisle of lab benches when a gleaming steel test tube holder caught her eye. There were six glass tubes filled with the serum set in the holder.
Another wave of anger washed through her. She reached out and swept the metal holder to the floor. The glass test tubes shattered, spilling the contents across the green quartz.
She was about to move on when she noticed a small plate bolted to the test tube rack. She paused and took a closer look at the lettering.PROPERTY OF AMBER CREST HOSPITAL.
She glanced at the other instruments on the bench. The little amber burner and the microscope bore the same label.
There was no time to dwell on the implications. She kept moving.
Outside in the gently illuminated hallway she paused again to rez her senses. In an instant, hot energy blazed in the vaulted doorway. She created a gate and then wove an intricate lock into the oscillating currents.
When she was satisfied that no other gatekeeper could unlock the gate, she stepped back and studied her surroundings.
She was in a vast green quartz rotunda that must have been at least three stories high. A dozen arched doorways opened off the circular chamber, all of them glowing with psi.
“Okay, Lyle, it’s up to you now. Take me back to the surface, pal. If you don’t, I’m going to die trying to find my way out.”
Lyle chortled, unconcerned, and peeled the wrapper off the energy bar he had acquired along the way.
Tentatively she started toward one of the tunnels. Lyle didn’t stop munching but he made a rumbling sound that she took for disapproval. She changed direction and went toward another arched doorway. Lyle took another bite and rumbled again.
Then, evidently concluding she was no good at navigation, he finished the energy bar and bounded down to the floor. He trotted off toward a third hallway.
Sedona followed him into the maze. Nothing left to lose.
Ten steps later she glanced back over her shoulder. She could no longer see the rotunda. She was well and truly lost.
She followed Lyle through the sense-dazzling catacombs, questions circling endlessly in her mind.
If she did survive she would have to confront the reality of her new talent. Individuals with more than one kind of talent were extremely rare. Everyone knew they were inherently unstable. The experts had determined that the human mind simply could not handle the heightened level of stimulation that occurred when a second or third talent developed. Multi-talents almost always went mad. If they did not die young, they ended up in locked para-psych wards and were kept under heavy sedation.
Her life had taken a very weird turn.
She had no idea how much time passed before Lyle led her up an ancient green-quartz staircase and out into the ruins of an Alien outpost. It was nighttime. The strange, ethereal towers of the dead town glowed with luminous energy. The windowless structures had been abandoned centuries earlier but they showed no evidence of weathering.
When she went through the gate of the high quartz wall that surrounded the ruins she discovered that they were in a stand of trees. She could hear the sounds of traffic in the distance.
“Thanks, Lyle,” she said. “You are hereby designated my best friend in the whole world.”
Lyle chortled and bounded up onto her shoulder.
She took her phone out of her pack and was not surprised to see that there was no charge left on the amber battery.
“Probably couldn’t get a signal out here, anyway,” she said to Lyle. “So much for calling Brock to let him know I’m okay. He must be worried sick. Probably has a privately financed search-and-rescue team combing the Underworld, looking for me.”
The thought that her new husband was searching for her night and day warmed her as nothing else could have done. She had to let him know as soon as possible that she was alive and well. Okay, maybe not entirely well, but definitely alive.
She followed the sound of traffic to a road. A short time later a trucker stopped for her. She climbed up into the cab and sat down with Lyle in her lap.
“I really appreciate this,” she said.
“Sure.” The trucker eyed Lyle. “Is that a dust bunny?”
“Yes.” She patted Lyle. “He’s sort of adopted me.”
“Heard they were dangerous. They say that by the time you see the teeth, it’s too late.”
“Lyle won’t hurt you, I promise.”
Lyle chortled and blinked his baby blues a couple of times.
The trucker smiled and pulled back onto the road. “He’s real cute. Where you two headed?”
“The nearest town.”
“First stop is Crystal City.”
Crystal City was the home of her father’s family. There would be no help for her there.
“Where do you go after Crystal?” she asked.
“Should be in Resonance City sometime before dawn.”
She brightened. “That works. That’s where I live. I’ve got some cash on me. I’ll buy you breakfast.”
“Fair enough.” The trucker gave her another searching glance and then concentrated on his driving.
“What day is this?” she asked after a moment.
“Wednesday,” the trucker said.
“No, I mean what is the date? I’ve lost track of time.”
The trucker glanced at her, brows elevated. “It’s the second of October.”
“Oh.” She swallowed hard.
“How long have you been gone?”
She nearly stopped breathing.
“Just a couple of days,” she lied.
She had left on the last contract assignment more than three weeks earlier. Brock would be beyond worried.
A short time later the lights of an isolated set of buildings glittered amid the trees at the end of a long, private drive. There was a gate and a guardhouse at the entrance. She caught a fleeting glimpse of a discreet sign at the junction of the road and the drive. AMBER CREST PARA-PSYCHIATRIC HOSPITAL.
“What is that place?” she whispered.
“Para-psych hospital,” the trucker said. “Run by the Gold Creek Guild. Supposedly it’s where they treat the really bad psi-burn cases. But rumor has it, that’s where the big Guilds house the worst of the worst—the monsters and freaks. It’s a high-security facility. Had to make a delivery there once. You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to go in and out. We’re talking armed guards, hot fences, and cameras everywhere.”
Sedona shuddered. Lyle cuddled closer, as if trying to reassure her. She patted his tatty fur and watched the darkened road come up in the truck’s headlights.
Amber Crest treated the monsters and freaks. What had she become?
They pulled off at a truck stop diner for breakfast at three in the morning. Sedona paid the tab. An hour before dawn the truck rolled into Resonance City.
“You can drop me anywhere,” Sedona said. “I’ve got enough money left for cab fare.”
“You sure you’re going to be okay?” the trucker asked.
“Oh, yeah. I’ve been looking after myself for quite a while now.”
“Not doing a real good job of that, if you ask me. Getting lost out there in the woods and all.”
“I’ll be okay,” she promised. “My husband will be waiting for me.”
The trucker got a troubled expression. “You’re married?”
“Yes,” she said.
There was no reason to add that her freshly minted marriage to Brock Prescott was only a Marriage of Convenience, not a true Covenant Marriage. MCs had some legal standing but the reality was that they could be cancelled by either party with no legal or financial hassles. A lot of people took an old-fashioned attitude toward MCs, deeming the institution a polite fiction designed to paper over an affair. That was true, Sedona thought. Nevertheless, it was a commitment of sorts.
She decided not to mention that Brock was probably the only one who would have been searching for her the past three weeks. She was the offspring of an illegitimate union. Her parents were dead and her blood relations on both sides had officially disowned her as soon as they were legally allowed to do so. She had gotten the papers informing her that she had no claim on either of her birth families the day she turned eighteen.
She climbed out of the truck at another all-night diner, intending to call Brock. It was four o’clock in the morning but he wouldn’t care about the time once he heard her voice.
The waitress allowed her to use the house phone but when she dialed Brock’s number she got tossed into voicemail. She called a cab instead.
A short time later she emerged from the cab in front of Brock’s elegant town house. She had moved in with him the week before her last assignment.
Rain was falling heavily. She hurried up the walk, but by the time she got to the front door she and Lyle were both drenched.
Clutching Lyle in the crook of her arm, she leaned on the doorbell.
“Home, at last,” she said to Lyle.
After a moment lights came on somewhere inside the town house. An almost overpowering sense of relief swept through Sedona. Soon she would be throwing herself into Brock’s arms.
“He’s going to be so surprised,” she said to Lyle.
The door opened. It wasn’t Brock who stood in the hall.
“Sedona?” Diana Easton, Brock’s administrative assistant, stared at Sedona in shock. “Good grief, you’re a mess. What in the world are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same question.” Sedona took in Diana’s dainty robe and filmy nightgown. “But I think I already know the answer.”
Lyle growled at Diana.
“Is that a rat?” Diana asked.
Sedona ignored her.
Footsteps sounded on the stairs.
“Diana?” Brock called. “Who is it?”
His rich, well-modulated voice reflected his social status. Brock Singleton Prescott was wealthy, well-educated, and very well-connected. His family moved in the highest social circles of Crystal City. Two years ago he had become the CEO of the family empire, Prescott Industries.
“You’ll never guess,” Diana said a little too sweetly.
Lyle growled again.
Brock emerged into view, still tying the sash of his robe. He was tall, with chiseled features, a toned body, and an innate sense of style that enabled him to look just as good in a bathrobe as he did in one of his hand-tailored business suits. He stared at Sedona, stunned.
“The Gold Creek Guild authorities told us that you were lost and presumed missing,” Brock said, sputtering a little in shock.
“My life has gotten complicated,” Sedona said.
“Yeah, well, I, uh, filed the divorce papers two and a half weeks ago.”
So much for throwing herself into his arms, Sedona thought.
Lyle rumbled darkly.
“It’s okay,” she whispered to Lyle. “We’ll be fine.”
Brock frowned. “What the hell happened to you, Sedona?”
“Long story,” she said tightly. “What about my stuff?”
“It’s in storage,” Brock said, evidently trying to be helpful. “Isn’t that right, Diana?”
Diana smiled again. “Old Quarter Storage Facility. I’ll get the key.”
She vanished into the depths of the town house. Sedona was left looking at Brock.
“Just one question,” she said.
“What?” he asked uneasily.
“Did you ever look for me?”
“I told you, I was informed that you had gone missing on your last job and that you were in all probability dead.”
Sedona nodded. “So you didn’t even bother to search for me.”
“The Guild boss who hired you for that last mission assured me that a team had been sent out but that it found no trace.”
“Right. Here’s a tip going forward. Next time a Guild boss tells you something, don’t assume he’s giving you the truth. A Guild boss has no trouble lying through his teeth if it suits him.”
Diana reappeared with a key and a business card. “Here’s the address of the storage facility.”
Sedona took the key and the card. Without a word she turned and went down the front steps.
“Sedona?” Brock said behind her. “Do you need some money for a cab or a hotel?”
She stopped and turned around. Somehow she managed an ice-bright smile.
“Go to hell, Brock.”
She turned back, tucked Lyle more securely under her arm, and walked into the rainy night.
“Looks like it’s just you and me, Lyle,” she said.
“Nothing left to lose.”
“Yes, I do see your reservation here in the computer, Mr. Jones, but the only cottage that we have left is quite small.” Sedona put on her brightest innkeeper’s smile. “Number Thirteen, Graveyard Cottage. No view of the bay, I’m afraid. It looks out over the local cemetery.”
“Sounds like the place has a lot of atmosphere,” Cyrus Jones said.
She had overheard the hunters refer to him as Dead Zone Jones. She had no idea why they called him that, but she was very certain of one thing—there was nothing dead about him.
His voice—low, dark, and freighted with power that was both very masculine and very controlled—sent shivers through Sedona’s senses. She could have sworn that she heard wind chimes clashing softly in another dimension. She knew the eerie music was her intuition pinging her. It was a recently discovered and decidedly unsettling aspect of her new weirdness. She was still getting accustomed to the strange vibe. She didn’t always know how to interpret the chimes. But in this case she was pretty sure they signaled danger of a kind she had never before experienced.
Jones was the boss of the newly established Rainshadow Ghost-Hunters Guild. He had arrived, along with a gleaming black SUV and very little luggage, on a private charter ferry.
The October night had long since descended when the ferry docked in the Shadow Bay Marina, but Sedona had watched Jones’s arrival from the lobby window of Knox’s Resort & Tavern. She had not been alone. Most of the town had turned out to get a look at the island’s first Guild boss.
He’d received an unusually colorful welcome. Shadow Bay had never seen fit to invest in extensive streetlighting. But this was Halloween Week—a weeklong festival instituted by the new mayor as a way to promote tourism on Rainshadow. As a result, the town’s single shopping street was festooned with hundreds of orange and psi-green lanterns. The garish illumination extended from the Haunted Alien Catacombs attraction that had been set up in an old warehouse at the marina all the way to the town square. Most of the shops and eateries along the route were open and filled with visitors.
Jones had driven the SUV off the ferry and parked it in the marina lot. The shopkeepers and island residents who happened to be in town had watched him take a large black leather duffel bag out of the back of the vehicle. He had walked up the street, moving through the macabre glow of the Halloween lanterns with the ease of a man who owned the night.
In the course of his hike to the entrance of Knox’s Resort & Tavern he had stopped several times to speak with the people lined up on the sidewalks. He had shaken a great many hands before he came through the lobby door.
Now he was standing in front of Sedona and she didn’t need the chimes to warn her. Common sense was all it took to know that if she wasn’t very careful, Jones was going to screw up her carefully structured new life on Rainshadow Island.
Cyrus contemplated her across the width of the inn’s front desk. His gem-green eyes burned with a little heat. She was not an aura reader but a woman didn’t have to have that particular talent to register the heat in a man’s aura, not when the energy field was so strong.
“I don’t care about the view,” Cyrus said. “I won’t have a lot of time to admire it.” He glanced rather casually at her name tag. A faint smile edged his hard mouth. “I’m here to get a job done, Miss Snow.”
Chimes clashed softly, rattling her senses. She had no idea why he found her name amusing but the knowledge added to her unease. She did not doubt for a moment that the powerful members of the Guild Chamber—more formally known as the Joint Council of Dissonance Energy Para-Resonator Guilds—were well aware of what they were doing when they tasked Jones with establishing a new Guild territory on Rainshadow. If he set out to do a job, the job would get done.
It was just her luck that she was the new manager of Knox’s Resort & Tavern. Less than a month ago she had come to Rainshadow seeking a refuge; a place where misfits felt at home. The good people of Shadow Bay, long accustomed to dealing with the weird, had welcomed her, and Lyle, too, with open arms.
She had known, deep down, that it was probably all a little too good to be true. She was right. A week ago the town had been overrun with ghost hunters. Okay, maybe overrun was an exaggeration—the Rainshadow Guild was still a small operation, as Guilds went. But when you had a resort full of them, it certainly seemed as if they were on the island in vast numbers.
Housing a bunch of rowdy hunters was not her worst nightmare. She experienced more hellacious dreams on a nightly basis, thanks to Blankenship and his two assistants. And it was undeniably true that the Chamber was paying the outrageous prices she had demanded for the room-and-board arrangements for the men. Her boss, Knox—he only used his surname—was thrilled at the way the money was rolling in. The Guilds always pay their bills, he’d explained on several occasions.
At the moment Knox was behind the bar in the adjoining tavern, doing his best to lighten the wallets of half the hunters in town. Hot Rocks beer and Green Ruin whiskey were flowing freely.
It was bad enough having to house a lot of hunters for an indefinite period of time, Sedona thought. She really did not want to have to deal with the new boss of the Rainshadow Guild.
It was no secret that this was Jones’s first job as the CEO of a Guild. It was not entirely clear what his previous position had been, but she would have bet good amber that he had been promoted out of the ranks of the Chamber’s mysterious security division. They had fancy titles for the hunters who conducted Guild-sanctioned investigations—security specialists or something along those lines. But an enforcer was an enforcer, regardless of whether he worked for a mob boss or the Chamber.
Chamber enforcer to Guild boss was not a common path of advancement through the Guild hierarchy, but she had heard of other such instances. Adam Winters, the new Guild boss of Frequency City, was rumored to be a former enforcer. The Chamber probably assumed that if a man was tough enough to hunt the human monsters who possessed lethal amounts of paranormal talent, he was tough enough to control his own territory. She hadn’t met a lot of enforcers in the course of her work with the Guilds—they were a rare breed and they tended to keep low profiles. But those she had known all had an ice-cold edge.
Cyrus Jones had that edge and a lot more going on. Dark secrets whispered in the atmosphere around him. It wasn’t just raw power that she sensed. She was pretty sure she was picking up the vibes of the kind of mag-steel will that was required to handle a high-rez talent.
The edge was there, too, in the ruthless planes and angles of his hard face and his lean, rangy, broad-shouldered build. He was wearing the classic ghost-hunter uniform—khaki trousers and shirt, leather boots, leather jacket, and heavy leather belt. All of it looked well-worn. All of it sent the message that he had seen a lot of action in the Underworld.
Like every self-respecting hunter he wore amber. There were chunks of it set in his buckle, his watch, and the hilt of the knife he wore on his belt. And that was just the visible amber, she thought.
Sedona knew that it had come as a shock to the hunters who had recently arrived on the island to discover that here on Rainshadow, even well-tuned amber wasn’t strong enough to steer a person safely into and out of the forbidden territory known as the Preserve. Only those with unique talents could handle the paranormal forces inside the psi-fence.
But the Guild wasn’t on the island to deal with the problems inside the Preserve. That was the job of the Rainshadow Foundation. The Foundation had brought in the Guild to do the one thing ghost hunters did best—neutralize the chaotic forces and assorted hazards that were always waiting down below in the catacombs.
The maze of ancient tunnels on the island had only recently been discovered in the aftermath of some very powerful storms. Researchers and explorers from the corporate and academic worlds were eager to go into the Rainshadow Underworld to start collecting data. But that kind of expensive and dangerous—and potentially quite lucrative—fieldwork required security. For as long as anyone could remember, the Guilds had had a monopoly when it came to providing escort and protection services for those going underground.
“I’m sure you’ll want space to set up a temporary office, Mr. Jones,” she said. “This morning when I saw your name in our files I called Anna Fuentes down at the Bay View Inn. She said she’s got a lovely two-room suite with a connecting door. It will be perfect for a field office. Very conveniently located to the center of Shadow Bay, I might add.”
“I don’t need the extra room,” Cyrus said. “The Guild will be renting space from the owners of the Kane Gallery.”
Revue de presse
“Castle serves up another riveting installment in her futuristic Harmony series, and the resulting fast-paced, witty, sexy romance is guaranteed to keep readers enthralled.”—Booklist
“The perfect recipe for hours of reading pleasure.”—RT Book Reviews
Praise for Deception Cove
“Fast-paced, witty, sexy…[a] danger-spiked plot and compelling characters.”—Booklist
“A thrilling adventure…Jayne Castle again proves her writing prowess with Deception Cove.”—Fresh Fiction
Praise for the novels of New York Times bestselling author Jayne Castle…
“Castle is well known for her playful love stories, and this futuristic tale of romantic suspense runs delightfully true to form…An appealing, effervescent romance mildly spiced with paranormal fun, this novel won’t disappoint.”—Publishers Weekly
“Writing under Jayne Castle, Jayne Ann Krentz takes her trademark combination of witty, upbeat action, lively sensuality, and appealing characters to [a] unique, synergistic world.”—Library Journal
“Jayne Castle, one of the pioneers of the futuristic subgenre, continues to set the standard against which all other such books are judged.”—Affaire de Coeur
“As always, the characterizations and plot blend perfectly for a thrilling, funny, and fully satisfying read.”—RT Book Reviews (4½ stars)