Teeth of the Past
Special Thanks to Bram Ambrose, my technical advisor -- any mistakes in here are my own fault -- he gave me very good advice. Whether or not I took it is my own fault <G>.
And, of course,
Old Ping Hai, without whom this story would have been much worse than it is. Again, her advice was all good -- whether or not I followed it is the question! Thanks, Master, for giving me so much of your time!
“It was very nice to meet you, Kermit,” Aunt Edith was still not quite comfortable calling the man by the name she associated with a Muppet. She added with a sly wink, “I’m glad to see Amber’s in such good hands.”
The ex-mercenary was suddenly very glad of his sunglasses. He didn’t want Amber’s aunt to see his wince at her joke. Edith was an earthy soul, and surprised him often with her oblique sexual references. It just wasn’t right that the woman who’d raised Amber should be so happy to put Kermit and the young woman in the same bedroom.
Amber had no such trouble over Edith’s ways. Her wide green eyes twinkled as she laughed, “You’re incorrigible, and I love you.” She hugged her aunt and then Uncle Dougie. “And you, too. Thank you for having us.”
“Wouldn’t have missed it,” the big Irishman told her, bussing her loudly on the cheek. He tugged playfully at her braid. “We’re both pleased you’ve found a place to roost, little bird. Come visit again when you have the time. And you can bring this mysterious man with you, too.” He shook Kermit’s hand as Amber checked the security of the braid he had just pulled -- it was never easy to tame her honey-red curls, and any confining hairdo was likely to spring loose at the slightest pressure no matter how tightly she fastened it.
Kermit winced again at the meaty pressure of Dougie’s handshake, but covered it well. “Thanks for everything,” he told them.
In the rental car, Kermit turned to regard his girlfriend. My girlfriend, he thought. It still feels strange to think it. “Nice folks,” he told her.
“They liked you, too,” she assured him. “Even though you only let them see your eyes once.”
He blinked. This was the first time she had ever even come close to mentioning his ever-present sunglasses. She continued, though, as if she hadn’t done so now. “Uncle Dougie thinks you’re just what I need. And Aunt Edith told me you’re the nicest man she can remember my being with.”
He snorted. “They don’t know me very well, do they? I thought I told you from the first that I’m not a nice man.”
She laughed. “I think they know enough. But I’m ready to go home now.”
Home. Another word I’ve been trying to get used to.
Returning the rental car and boarding the plane went quickly enough, and in a matter of hours Amber and Kermit were back in her cozy apartment over her shop. Joseph and Mai Wang were still downstairs, capably running ‘The Unturned Page’, and Amber immediately began puttering around her home.
Amber’s life had been one of transience until recently. She had lived in many cities across the country, moving from place to place helping those in need of her gift. Upon coming to Sloanville, however, that little voice that kept urging her to think about the next place had fallen silent. There were two things she had always wanted to have that her constant moving made impossible -- a car and plants. As soon as she’d realized she could stay in one place for a while, she’d gone out and gotten both. Her midnight blue Mustang was safely garaged, as she seldom needed it.
Plants, however, lived all around her home now. She drifted from window to window, watering can in her hand, a dreamy look on her face. “I love my plants,” she murmured as she tended the wealth of greenery. They loved her too, it seemed. Every one was still fresh and vibrant, and some were still blooming, though it was now fall.
Kermit shed his coat and settled at her computer while she went to start dinner. “And I’m so glad to be back in my own kitchen,” she smiled. “I love Aunt Edith’s cooking, but it’s always nice to do my own.”
Kermit looked up from his email, giving her that quick half-smile she loved to see. “As long as you’re not asking me to cook, please yourself.”
She laughed. Ask him to cook? Not likely, unless she wanted Brunswick stew and beans over a Coleman stove.
She watched him quietly as she cooked and he worked. His longish, shaggy hair, touched with white, his dark glasses and the standard dark suit -- he was not the kind of man she’d ever been with before. Then again, she’d never been treated so well by a man before. Kermit Griffin might seem remote, but he made her feel cared for and appreciated. Yes, there was danger lurking beneath the smooth, urbane surface, but he was a man of honor and principle, with iron control over powerful emotions.
“Dinner’s ready,” she finally broke into his concentration. “Come and get it or I’ll throw it out.”
He looked up at her laughing face. “Don’t do that,” he grinned. “I think even I can leave the computer for one of your meals.”
Amber sat across the table from him. This was one benefit to wearing the shades day and night -- she couldn’t tell that he was watching her steadily as he ate. At least I don’t think she can. I don’t think she’s touching my mind. Kermit had never had a relationship like this before. Amber was a psychic. She was also a warm, generous woman with an earthy practicality he now knew she’d learned from Edith and Dougie. She accepted him for just what he was, gave as good as she got, and never made demands on him. She had only asked two things of him -- that he be honest with her, and that if he had to leave town suddenly he call her himself. He could hardly think of those as demands.
This was new for Kermit. No other woman had so totally taken him on faith. Hell, she had never even asked him to remove his sunglasses! He took in for the millionth time her wide green eyes, the amber curls falling to just below her shoulders -- she had loosened the braid as soon as they’d stepped though the back door of the shop. She carried an aura of good will that made everyone who met her want to like her.
Blake had explained the strange attraction everyone felt towards her when Amber had first come to town. She had very powerful pheromones, a primitive sub-scent, that made people react to her positively. When she smiled, anyone seeing it had to smile back. Kermit had found himself drawn to her far beyond that, though. He’d become accustomed to her pheromones early, and still could not get her out of his mind. Amber was good for him, he decided again. She made him feel that someday, perhaps, all the things that make a life normal could be his.
Amber looked at him. “You’re staring.”
He grinned again, a flash of teeth that came and went like lightning. “Sorry. Can’t help it.”
Her smile dazzled. “I’m glad to hear that. I suppose I won’t be seeing much of you for a few days while you catch up at work.”
“You’ll see me. At least tomorrow night.”
“Oh, yeah.” He grinned again. “Got to ease back into it, after all. There may be some late nights in my future, but tomorrow night won’t be one of them.”
In the morning, Amber ran and made breakfast while Kermit got ready for work. He had a selection of clothes here, as she had at his house. Since they spent most nights together at one place or the other, it seemed only sensible.
Amber sent him off to work with a grin and a kiss. “See you tonight, Mercenary Man,” she muttered against his mouth.
As he drove the Corvair away, she went to shower and dress, then to see how the shop had fared. Not that she had any worries on that account. Amber let the Wangs tell her about the week, though it was completely unnecessary as far as she was concerned. Joseph and Mai ran ‘The Unturned Page’ efficiently, freeing Amber for other pursuits. She would someday offer to sell them the shop on generous terms, the purchase price being a small percentage of the profits over several years.
The little bell on the door tinkled, heralding the arrival of Lo Si, clad in a soft grey robe. Amber stepped quickly to hug the old man. “I’ve only just started the tea, Master, but if you have a little while...”
“No, thank you. I merely came by to make sure you were back safely, and to remind you of our lessons.”
“I remember,” the young woman smiled. “I’ll be at your home at two.”
“Very good. I will expect you.” The little man gave her an angelic grin -- as infectious as her own smile was, Lo Si’s was more so. She had to return it, and then he was gone.
She shook her head at the Wangs. “That adorable man gets what he wants, doesn’t he?”
Joseph laughed out loud -- the once shy and defiant young man had come out of his shell in this store to become a personable, relaxed, first-rate salesman. “You know it, Amber. What the Ancient wants, the Ancient gets.”
“Well, it doesn’t hurt me to get more training. I didn’t know there was so much more to learn until he began to teach me! And if it makes that dear man happy, how can I refuse?”
Lo Si had been crucial in helping to save Amber’s life. Shang Kai Zeng had taken her prisoner, using a fantastic technology to block her psychic gift. It was the little Lo Si who had been able to trace her whereabouts by looking for that which was different about her mind. Without his assistance, Amber’s new friends at the 101st could not have found her, and Kermit could not have shut down the program controlling her. Amber knew she owed the Ancient her life, and would do anything to thank him.
Mai continued her report, to which Amber half-listened. She poked around happily to see what they had changed in her absence. From the looks and sounds of things, it would be time for her to turn the store over to them sooner than she had first thought. Mai ran the place at least as well as she could, and Joseph had caused sales to skyrocket. He’d even infected the part-time kids with his enthusiasm, and Amber privately thought a couple of them might turn out to be real retailers one of these days.
“And we thought it’s foolish not to be open later on Friday and Saturday,” Mai was saying. “I’ve talked to the kids about it, and they don’t mind trading off working a few weekend evenings.”
Amber grinned and poured the tea. “You’re really impressing me. Sales figures are up, your inventory choices have almost all proved right...I think you’d better tell me when I should come to work!”
Mai flushed. “I would never do that, Amber. You’re the boss.”
“We’ll talk about that one of these days. But right now I think you and Joseph should be the ones in charge. You’re doing a great job, and that gives me more than enough time to help those people who need me. I’m officially turning over all scheduling and ordering decisions to the pair of you.” That was the first step. They had been doing all this unofficially for a while now, but now they would no longer have to ask her approval on schedules and orders. “In fact, I’ll call the suppliers tomorrow morning and have them list you both as able to sign for me.”
Joseph stood a little taller. “Thank you for your trust in us. “
She laughed merrily. “You’ve more than earned it.” She would have said more, but the telephone rang. It was the extension of her personal line that rang in the back room. “Amber Adair.”
“Where’s lover-boy?” a harsh voice asked.
Amber froze. She could not quite identify it, but there was something very wrong. The strange voice held a frightening quality of malice. “I’m sorry?” she managed.
“You just might be,” the caller hissed. “But not as sorry as he’s going to be.”
The connection abruptly went.
Amber replaced the receiver with a slightly shaky hand. Mai approached, fresh cup of tea in her hand. She put her other arm around her boss, steering the woman to a stool.
“What is it?”
Amber blinked several times, shook her head and accepted the tea. “I don’t know. Might have been a wrong number for all I know. Someone called asking for ‘lover-boy’ and said he was going to be sorry.”
“You don’t think someone was trying to threaten Detective Griffin?” the younger woman asked, shocked. “Who would be crazy enough to try that?”
The honey-haired woman chuckled, shaking her head again. She was recovering from the shock. “You’re right. It must have been a kid playing a practical joke or something. It couldn’t be anything to do with us.”
Kermit sat in front of his terminal, chair precariously balanced on the back legs, checking through his work email box. Suddenly, he let the front two legs hit the floor hard, frowning mightily at the offending message. The sender had obviously set up a blind box with false information, and most offensive of all, the ‘reply to’ address was his own! The body of the mail contained only two words: ‘Remember Marguerite?’
Marguerite? She was long dead. There was only one person living besides Kermit himself who would remember her -- Paul Blaisdell. Blaisdell could not have sent this message. He couldn’t have rigged the ‘reply to’ address without Kermit’s help, for one thing, and for another, he was not the sort of man to do this. If Paul had wanted to tell Kermit something, the ex-mercenary would have received a PGP-encrypted message, or perhaps a phone call on a secure line. Paul would not play games.
But there was a lot of work to catch up on, and Kermit had to make a dent in it if he planned to keep his promise to Amber. She expected him for dinner, and he would not disappoint her for anything. The message was cryptic and stirred memories he didn’t really want to examine, but it was hardly urgent. He filed it away for later investigation.
Marguerite. She had been so young and, he had thought, so innocent. Goes to show you can’t trust anybody, he snarled to himself. He had thought she was good for him, until...irritably, he shook himself. It was Amber, with her green eyes and unruly curls, with her way of knowing just what to say and how to touch him, who was good for him. Got to live in the present, you old spook. Now he was finally able to focus on the stack of information requests and duty reports Karen would skin him alive for not finishing.
Amber presented herself at the Ancient’s door precisely at two. The little man greeted her with a charming smile, shooing an unspecified young relative out the door at the same time.
He told the child, “Tell your mother I thank her for the rice, young Sammi.”
The little one gave him a respectful bow, then grinned and ran down the hall.
“Come in, Amber. We will have a cup of tea before we begin. I assume you have been practicing what I have taught you?”
“Of course, Lo Si,” she smiled and bowed. “I have spent an hour a day in meditation.” She had not been working with the Master for long, but already respected his abilities greatly. He had given her two assignments. Meditation was one of them. He inquired after the other next.
“It is sufficient. You have been practicing sending your thoughts around you regularly?”
“Yes, Master.” Amber accepted the steaming cup offered. Until recently, she had thought her psychic talent well-trained. After the Shang incident, however, Lo Si had insisted upon training her further. I had no idea there was so much to learn. Did Aunt Edith know? Did she purposely let me go off half trained? I know I was an impatient kid, and after college I just assumed my training was done. But the things Lo Si can do...and he’s teaching me!
At his prompting, Amber told the Ancient about the trip home and introducing Kermit to her family. In turn, he filled her in on several of the locals whom she had been helping with various problems from career counseling to strange nightmares. Afterwards, he took their cups to the kitchen.
“Come. It is time to begin.”
He led her to a spot by the window where they could sit in the sunlight, surrounded by ivy.
“Sit as I have shown you.”
She sank gracefully to the floor in the lotus position, the backs of her hands resting lightly on her knees. Lo Si sat before her, mirroring her. “Very good. Now, attain your first level trance.”
It was almost automatic now, and she knew that before long it would be totally so. Awareness of her surroundings remained, but she was now in a circle of serenity, centered within herself.
“Very good again.” The elfin man murmured. “Soon you will be able to do this in the midst of a hurricane or firestorm.”
Amber felt the faint glow of pride at his praise but did not let it interfere with her trance.
“Now,” he told her softly, “Reach out and touch my mind.”
This was easy -- she had always been able to touch the thoughts of those close to her. This was why Delancy’s had been difficult at first, until she learned to better maintain her shields. Another bit of evidence that she had left Aunt Edith before her training was complete. She obeyed the directive, feeling the cool of his essence. There were little flickers here and there of the imperfect emotions of man -- Lo Si was no stranger to lust, love, rage or envy, he just did not let them control him. His very soul was a soothing testament to what could be accomplished by will and practice: not perfection, but self-control.
“You are doing fine. Now reach further, child, and touch Kwai Chang Caine’s mind.”
Again Amber obeyed. She had asked everyone concerned now, and all had granted her permission to enter their minds like this. The only one she had not asked was Kermit -- something made her unwilling to speak to him about it. I don’t know that he would invite this. He’s such a private man, so tightly controlled. Caine’s essence, his chi was similar to the Ancient’s but not quite so tightly and elegantly controlled. Amber could easily detect his concern for his son, her friend Peter Caine. She could also feel flickers, still stronger than those of the Ancient, that revealed Caine’s similar all-too-human condition. There was potential for great anger and harshness lurking inside Caine -- but the gentleness of his spirit kept these well-contained in their enforced limits. Now Caine felt her mind brushing his and sent a gentle, silent greeting.
“Now we will try further yet,” Lo Si prompted her. “Look for young Peter.”
This was where Amber began to wonder about her skill. She had never known how far it was possible to reach with her talent. So far, she had found it very useful for sensing the thoughts and feelings of people in close proximity -- and had never needed to be able to reach further. She was embarrassed at how little she knew about her own abilities. Aunt Edith was so pleased to learn that Lo Si was teaching me. She must have been waiting for this for years.
She complied with Lo Si’s suggestion, searching through the bustle of the city’s souls for her old friend. She had to hold fast to her center for a moment as she did find him. Where Caine and the Ancient had each had decades of practice, Peter was still a young man and subject to a young man’s passions. She instantly recognized and catalogued simmering anger and confusion, his constant companions. Then there was the way he felt about Jordy, which Amber skimmed away from quickly. She did not intend to intrude, only to contact. Suddenly, Peter noticed her feather-touch in his mind. It startled him until he recognized her, and she felt his sheepish grin and a sort of mental shrug and wave. She sent him back a smile of understanding and apology before moving on.
“Now, Amber, we are going to go much farther. I want you to reach out for your Aunt Edith.”
She stifled her surprise, which had no place in her cool, calm center. Quickly retaining her grounding, she drew in a deep breath, letting it out slowly. At the same time she sent her thoughts out as far as she could reach, farther than she ever had before. It was still not enough.
“You must narrow your focus, child,” Lo Si admonished. “Do not broadcast yourself all over, but tighten your thoughts into a...a beam. Like in Star Wars, make a light saber of your thoughts. This serves two purposes. First, you will reach farther if you tighten the focus. Second, when you broadcast widely, anyone with talent in the area can pick up your thoughts and intent. This could be a problem if Shang returns to the city. When you tighten your thoughts like this it is more likely that the person you seek will be the only one to sense you.”
She tried it. It took a few minutes to get the hang of, but then everything slid into place, like fitting the one crucial piece in the jigsaw puzzle. She felt an amazing amount of power now, and sent it eagerly in search of her aunt. It felt almost as though she were flying. The woman’s mind was warm to touch, full of affection and joy. Amber, my dear! You’ve done it! I’m so proud. And then in a sly tone, And how is that dark and dangerous man of yours?
Amber jumped with a sheepish smile of her own. Poor Peter -- had he felt her touching his feelings for Jordan? Fine, thanks, Aunt Edith. She quickly changed the subject, This is amazing! I’ve never felt anything this clearly before -- it’s almost as if we’re actually talking!
Lo Si chuckled, her passive ‘rider’ on her journey. He politely introduced himself to Aunt Edith, and Amber felt left out for a moment as the two chatted in a tight focus for a moment. Lo Si then allowed her a few minutes more communication with her aunt before deciding it was enough for today.
“Come back to yourself now. You see? I told you an old dog could teach you some new tricks.”
Amber chuckled, pleased with herself and with the world. As she opened her eyes, though, she suddenly felt weary. The Ancient was already up and pouring fresh tea. He showed no sign of fatigue.
“Sit on the sofa and drink this while you regain your strength,” he told her.
“I feel so drained, Master.”
“Yes. That is to be expected right now. You must practice this every day now, just as you run every day. The more you train yourself, the less it will fatigue you. It is like any discipline -- only by working at it do you build strength.”
“Thank you, Master.” Her eyes were shining -- she had touched a depth of power she had not dreamed she could today, and it was all his doing.
“You have done well today. We will not work tomorrow. I want you to practice on your own, but it can be dangerous without someone to guard you. Until you have built some strength, make certain you are safe when you do this. Be alone or with someone you trust. If you are alone, lock your doors and put up your shields. Touch the same people tomorrow as we did today, and be sure to rest afterward.” He smiled at her, a little Chinese pixie. “You will need to.”
She nodded, sipping at the fragrant brew. It seemed to strengthen her as she did.
When she departed, she kissed the old man’s cheek with affection. Beaming at her, he repeated, “I will see you in two days.”
Amber walked through Chinatown, heading in the direction of home. Now that Shang had disappeared she felt safe walking again. Most of the residents had come to accept her, thanks to Caine and Lo Si, so many of them smiled and waved as she passed. Of course, Kermit had promised violence if he heard of her walking on any but two streets alone after dark. Peter had seconded the motion, and to her surprise, Jody and Mary Margaret agreed. With four cops giving an order by committee, she had felt more than outnumbered and capitulated.
But now the sun was shining and the locals were still bustling about their daily business, so she decided it would be all right to stop by and visit Caine. She wasn’t sure what prompted this, as she still felt less than comfortable in the priest’s presence. He was Peter’s father, but a father who had been dead when she first met the boy years ago at Pathways. He was also a strange sort of man, quiet and deliberate. She always found herself speaking more formally to him than was her wont. With a tiny shiver of nerves, she climbed the fire escape, knowing immediately that Caine was on his balcony tending his plants. This she had in common with him, the love of green growing things.
“Amber...welcome,” he bowed with raised fist and hook salute.
She returned the bow, but not the salute. Not being Shaolin, she felt it would be disrespectful. She gave him, instead, the traditional Japanese bow of student to teacher, eyes lowered to show trust and deference. “Thank you, Caine. I came to thank you for allowing me to touch your mind during my lesson.”
There it was, the stiff formality she always slid into with him.
He gave her that one-shouldered shrug. “It was...nothing. You have a light touch.”
She gave him a dazzling grin. “Thank you.”
His own lips twitched in response. Even Caine could not completely resist her smiles. “I also know that you sensed things below the surface when you did touch me.”
Amber nodded. “I’m sorry. I did not intend...”
“It is no matter. I know you did not...set out to probe my thoughts. It...happens when one is less experienced. You are a friend of my son. It is...not distasteful that you have felt my concern for him. I believe many of his friends know of it.”
“It would be unnatural if you did not worry, Caine,” She winced as she realized she had begun to adopt his speech pattern, tried to sound more like herself. “He’s a cop, for heaven’s sake -- he puts his life on the line more often than any of us would like. But I came to ask -- did I sense that your concern for him has increased recently?” Damn -- there it was again -- she had to stop sounding like him!
He gave a minute nod. “Yes. I have sensed a...malice in the air. Someone has come here with evil intent. I do not know any more than this, not who has arrived, not what his intent may be but...I will continue...to watch.”
Amber nodded in turn. “I’ll keep an eye out too, although your senses are more finely turned than mine.” At last! She sounded more like herself again.
“Whoever this...person is, he comes from the past. He follows a trail...of vengeance gone cold.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
He shrugged again. “We will both watch. Now, I am ...going to play.” He bent to remove his flute from its worn cloth wrapping. “The plants seem to...like it. You may stay if you wish.”
“No, thank you,” she hurriedly backed to the fire stairs. She had heard Caine’s flute-playing before. “I have to go check on Joseph and Mai.” Amber made one more formal bow and hastened down the steps to the street. As she made her way back to the shop, the random notes of the priest’s flute followed her like a mournful reproach for her small lie.
Amber was getting things together to start dinner when she felt him behind her.
“Hi there, Mercenary Man.” She didn’t turn from the fridge.
Kermit grinned tightly. “You always know when it’s me, don’t you?”
She did turn now, grinning. “What kind of psychic would I be if I didn’t? Besides, only you and the Wangs have keys to the back door. How was your first day back?”
He removed his coat and sat wearily at the kitchen table. Amber could see the butt of his big, ugly gun secure in its shoulder holster. She could remember a time when she would not have allowed a gun in the house. But being friends with a precinct full of cops, and being a cop’s lover had changed that. She could hardly argue now -- the people she cared about came as packages, and she couldn’t pick and choose which parts she liked.
“Seems like I never left,” Kermit told her with a grimace. “The Captain barely said ‘welcome back’ before she deposited a two-foot stack of papers on my desk.”
Amber nodded sympathetically. “Tough to be needed.” She set the vegetables on the counter, reaching into the freezer for a chilled mug and poured him one of the bitter British beers he liked. She was expert at getting just the right amount of foam on top. Kermit watched her through his dark glasses -- he always enjoyed watching her move. Her lean runner’s body was endowed with enough curves to leave no doubt as to her gender, and she was possessed of a quiet grace that he found restful. As different from Marguerite’s youthful enthusiasm as a woman could get. Who would have thought that one lousy two-word email could do this to me? I’m supposed to be one hard-bitten, cold son-of-a-bitch. And here I am with Amber, thinking about a girl years dead, a girl I really didn’t know as well as I thought I did. Resolutely, he pushed all thoughts of Marguerite from his mind and focused on the present, on the woman coming towards him with a beer and understanding for a man who’d had a hard day. When she set the frosty mug down before him, he grasped her arm, pulling her down for a fierce kiss.
She laughed down at him as he released her. “What’s that all about? Do you want dinner, or shall we just skip right to dessert?”
In answer, he removed his dark glasses, setting them on the table and extending a hand. She stepped closer with a twinkle in her eyes. Giving him a searing kiss of her own, she brushed sensuously past him to lead the way to the bedroom. With that, he let her banish all memory of past ghosts. He sank into her, wrapping himself in her nearness and her passion, letting her take him forward to the now and her warmth.
It was much later that Amber finally made dinner. Kermit sat again at his place at the table, regarding her silently through his glasses. He’d put them back on though his shoulder holster was back on the bedside table. His beer had gone warm, but he did not seem to notice.
As Amber brought dinner over, she asked, “Did you notice anything going on with Peter today?”
“No, he seemed our usual Peter. Why?”
“Caine thinks there may be a menace from the past in town. He didn’t really ask, but I get the feeling he’d like us to keep an eye on our hotshot Shaolin cop.”
“Nothing unusual in that.” He gave her his quicksilver smile. “I’m used to keeping an eye out for the kid.”
“Great. Thank you, Kermit. Next time I see Caine, I’ll tell him we’re on the job.”
“How did your lesson go?”
Amber fairly glowed. “It was amazing! I actually touched Aunt Edith from the Ancient’s living room -- and we spoke as clearly as if we were on the phone, except it was better! I knew all the feelings behind her words, and she could read me as clearly! I’ve never sent my mind so far, been so focused, or felt so strong!”
Kermit nodded slowly, flashing her a grin. “You know I don’t really understand all this, right? But I’m glad it’s working for you. If anyone can help you learn these things and avoid what Shang tried to do to you, it’s the Ancient.”
She sighed happily. “He’s my Chinese Angel. First, he made the others in the community see me as a friend, not a foreigner. Not to mention that he was able to lead you to me so you could get those...those things out of my head.” The nanites Shang had inflicted upon her had given Amber the worst fright of her life. “And now he’s teaching me so much more than I knew there even was to using my talent!”
The ex-mercenary fought down an irrational spark of jealousy. It bothered him sometimes that the old man was such an important part of her life. It was ridiculous -- after all, it wasn’t as if he, Kermit, could help Amber learn to use her talent. He wanted her to be able to protect herself and do what she’d been raised to, and Lo Si was just what she needed. He had to share her with so many friends, why not one more?
“I’m glad for you,” he said, and really meant it. “And if he’s teaching you so much, it sounds like you don’t need my help to watch over Peter.”
She gave him an arch smile, looking at him through her lashes. “Of course I need you. You’re the man with the big gun.”
Over the next few days, Amber practiced her new skill on her own and with Lo Si. He had told her truly: each time she tried, it got easier. She was able to keep tabs on Peter easily this way, and was learning to touch the minds of others without their knowledge. She was not sure this was ethical, but her capture by Shang and his men had left her with a definite desire never to be taken so again. It was better to have the knowledge for use in emergencies than to be caught without it. Knowledge is power, and the good or bad of it depends entirely on what I do with it. Only Caine and Lo Si seemed able to catch her -- even Aunt Edith and Uncle Dougie had missed her touch the last time. Amber was pleased with her progress, and Lo Si appeared to be, too. Amber looked forward eagerly to each lesson.
She received no more calls like the mysterious, harsh-voiced threat from her first day back, but three times she answered her home line to hear the click of the other party hanging up.
Kermit might have forgotten about his strange email, but a few days later another one showed up in his box, from the same fictitious account. It read, ‘The past is a dragon with sharp teeth’. Two days after this came a repeat of the first message: ‘Remember Marguerite?’ He spent some time trying to trace the sender, but to no avail. He did not mention these missives to Amber. The memories crowded in on him now and the guilt trapped him inside them. He returned slowly to that withdrawn, self-contained state the 101st knew so well but that Amber had not yet experienced.
Amber was beginning to worry. Her lover was becoming less attentive, less communicative than ever. His mind was closed to her more than ever. Usually when they made love her mind touched his on a superficial, instinctive level -- but the last time, his had remained shut tight. It had been the least satisfactory sex they’d ever shared. It was like we were just going through the motions, with no real intimacy or feeling. Could he be tiring of her already?
Caine had reported no new information about the menace he felt, but still seemed to want her to help him keep mental watch on his son. Amber grew frustrated with the task. As if Peter is the only one with problems! She wished she had some idea how to pull Kermit back out of himself, some way to wave her hand and send this supposed menace away. She wanted to be able to focus on the trouble she was having in her own life.
To add to all this, she was beginning to feel that someone was watching her! It was not like the times Shang’s men had spied on her before her kidnapping -- this felt more as if someone were keeping an eye on her only because she was there. Someone else was the subject of surveillance.
Finally, she asked Lo Si about tracing the silent watcher.
“Amber,” the little man told her gravely, “you are not yet experienced enough to search this person out. Attempting to find this one soul in a city of so many unfamiliar to you is very difficult. Here -- link with me and I will show you.”
She closed her eyes and opened her mind to her mentor, dropping a little deeper than the light trance, letting him enfold and carry her mind in his own. She ‘watched’ in amazement the elegance of his thought patterns. It was akin to watching the older women of the community in their dawn Tai Chi exercises -- economy and grace in action. First, he scanned her lightly for the little she had felt, like a policeman taking a vague description from a nearsighted witness whose glasses had fallen off. She knew then how hopeless the search would be, but still Amber ‘observed’ how he cast his thoughts outwards like a fisherman casting a net into the sea. She knew this was not something she was capable of yet -- she still had so much to learn! After what seemed like hours, they returned to themselves, eyes meeting in mutual disappointment.
“I am sorry, child,” the Ancient told her. “I cannot find the person you seek. I do sense the menace Caine mentioned, but the source is scattered and confused, not coherent enough for me to identify accurately. I cannot tell if your watcher is the same person, either. You must stay vigilant and tell me if you learn anything more. I will try to watch also, but there are many in my care, and I may not neglect them.”
“Of course not, Master,” Amber returned soberly. “This task has seemingly been laid on me, and I will do my best to meet the challenge. Thank you for your help.”
The whole 101st gang was in Delancy’s. The hockey game was on over the bar, and Peter and Amber had made their usual wager over it. She loved Peter like the brother she’d never had, but they had almost never agreed on favorite teams.
Kermit sat beside her as was his custom, arm draped casually over the back of her chair as he chatted with Strenlich and Captain Simms. His natural shields, always tight and smooth, were almost aggressive tonight. It was like he was hovering outside her own mind, trying to stifle her awareness of what was going on around her. She felt almost as if he were holding a blanket over her head. He also appeared distracted, somewhere else. Yet he showed no sign of being angry or dissatisfied with her, only this strange withdrawal.
Amber turned her attention to the game. She could do nothing about Kermit here in the bar. Maybe I should ask him about it later tonight.
“Looks like I’ll get your quarter tonight, Forest-Gem,” Peter leaned past Jody to grin at her.
“There’s still a period and a half left,” she retorted. “Your quarter may be mine yet, Hotshot.”
There were so many games to a season these days that she and Peter had settled on a two-bit per game bet. They each took so much glee in a win, gloating and dancing around, that anyone might think the amount in question significantly higher.
Caine met her eyes from the bar where he stood with Skalany. Amber could only give him an infinitesimal shake of her head -- Peter was still looking at her, and there had been no sign of any ill will being directed at the young cop. She and Caine had been watching for days with no result. The priest gave her a tiny nod of acknowledgement, and Amber leaned over to hear what Jody was trying to say.
“Hey, Amber, you’re miles away tonight,” the blonde detective complained.
“Sorry, Jody. I was just woolgathering.” That’s about all I’ve gathered in my searching, she thought. Caine’s right -- there’s someone unfriendly around, but I’m not sure Peter is under attack.
“So, we’re still on for ladies’ night at your place this weekend?” Amber asked.
“You bet. This time I’m not due at work till second shift, so we can stay up later.” Jody giggled like a girl.
“I’ve already got in the groceries, so we’ll eat well,” Amber smiled. “I know how you love whipped cream, so we’ll have plenty of it.”
Jody grinned even wider at this. “Mary Margaret will pretend she can’t have any, but she’ll scoop it out of the bowl with her finger when she thinks we’re not looking.”
Amber laughed despite her worries. “We’ll put a napkin close to her, and pretend we’re not looking a lot!”
“And I’ve got a couple of real tearjerker movies to watch,” the blonde confided.
“I’ll make sure there are boxes of tissues for all of us. Just don’t let the guys find out about it.”
When the game ended, Amber made a great show of chagrin as she dug a quarter out of her jeans, handing it over to Peter. “Well, Hotshot, looks like your team got lucky. But my guys’ll make you eat that puck next time.”
“Yeah, them and what army?” Peter made an equally dramatic performance out of his win, gloating over the quarter and twirling an imaginary moustache. “Hey, what do you mean lucky? You think six to two is luck?”
“Hey, everyone gets a lucky streak every once in a while.”
“Everyone but your team,” he laughed.
Peter and Jordan left shortly after, arms wrapped around each other’s waists.
Kermit rose, looked down through dark glasses.
She nodded and stood to follow, bidding her friends good night. She waited for him to speak as she followed him to the parking lot, but he remained silent. He held the door open for her to get into the front seat. They were pulling out of the lot before he said a word.
“I think it’s only fair that I tell you what’s going on.”
She nodded. Then unsure if he had seen the gesture, she looked over at him, green eyes grave in the night. “Only if you want to.”
“I think I have to.”
“All right. I’ll be happy to listen.”
His lips tightened for a moment, then he began.
“The day after we returned from your aunt’s house, I got a strange email. ‘Remember Marguerite?’ was all it said.”
Amber burned with questions suddenly, but did not know how to frame any of them, and she didn’t want to interrupt him. But the name filled her with foreboding.
He continued. “Marguerite was a girl I knew in Venezuela.. She’s dead now.”
That bald statement of fact should have swept away the cloud Amber felt hanging over them, but it didn’t, and his tone did not encourage her to ask any questions.
“Anyway, I’ve gotten a couple more messages since then, all of them cryptic, all seemingly from no one at all. But it’s been on my mind, and I think it’s right you know that that’s why I’ve been...less than attentive lately.”
Amber took a deep breath and asked the question she knew might end the whole discussion right here.
“Did you love her?”
His head snapped around and dark glasses fixed her with a glare she could feel. “Maybe. Once. But she’s dead now, and I’m with you. Or am I?”
Shakily, she smiled. “As long as you want to be, Mercenary Man. I’ve told you more than once, I’m not going anywhere.”
It seemed to her that as he turned back to the road, he relaxed just a little. His right hand came down quickly, almost furtively, to cover her left. “I’m glad to hear it, Green Eyes.”
She took another deep, slightly tremulous breath. “Do you think you’re being warned of something? Could this Marguerite,” she was very proud that her voice did not quiver as she said the woman’s name, “still be alive? Or does someone want you to think she is?”
He shook his head decisively. “No. She’s dead. I saw her die, and then the place went up in flames. Everyone who knew about us is dead, except Paul Blaisdell.”
“And he would never do this to you.” It was not a question -- between what Peter had told her and what Kermit himself had said about the man, that was a given.
“I can’t believe he would. Besides, I know his email address and exactly how much Blaisdell knows about computers. He couldn’t set up this good a blind box without my help.”
“Then that leaves...no one.”
“I know!” He slammed the steering wheel. She could feel the frustration in the air, like a third person in the car. “I know it,” he continued in a more reasonable tone. “Everyone who might have had a reason to do this to me died in that fire. I barely got myself out alive and it took six months for my eyebrows to grow back.”
Impulsively, Amber reached over and put a hand on his, completely ignoring the image of Kermit without eyebrows for the moment. “I’ll help if I can. You know that.”
The sudden sense of gratitude and...affection? These were followed by a rushing combination of anger, guilt and confusion that nearly overwhelmed her. She fell back against the seat, sliding down as though struck. Then his thoughts clamped firmly closed once more. Amber drew in a long, shaky breath and struggled to sit upright.
This frightened her more than anything else. Kermit Griffin did not go around losing control of his thoughts and feelings this way. The guilt she had sensed overrode all the other emotions, but she did not know what he felt guilty about. Was it the other woman’s death? The fact that he had allowed the memory of this Marguerite to come between them? She put her hand lightly on his arm.
“Are you all right?”
He laughed shortly. “You just almost collapsed in my car and you ask if I’m all right?”
Not for worlds would she give voice to his loss of control. “I’m just tired from helping Caine and learning from Lo Si. Are you all right?” She insisted.
“I will be, Green Eyes. I will be.”
As soon as they were in the kitchen, Kermit did not wait but took her in his arms, showing her just exactly how she could help right now. She did not hesitate either, but returned his fierce, demanding kiss with a fire of her own. As she plunged her fingers into his shaggy, dark hair, he picked her up and carried her up the stairs.
He fumbled once pulling the soft grey turtleneck over her head, but only once. Amber pushed his jacket off his shoulders, loosened his tie and began on his shirt buttons. She ran light hands over his furred chest delighting in the resulting shudder, then trembled in turn as he stroked the length of her body, starting with her newly-bared legs, all the way up over her torso, over her breasts to her neck. Then he cupped her face in his hands and kissed her deeply. She slid her own hands over his form, and he nibbled gently at her throat. She pressed against him, molding her body to his. The ethereal feeling of joining brushed them -- here was the only place their minds joined, where their passions also met.
There was no sense of Marguerite as he took her then, or later as she coaxed him to repeat the performance.
Afterward, she giggled sleepily.
“You with no eyebrows.”
He lay, holding her close as she slept, staring up into the darkness. His eyes, exposed to the night, looked sad and removed. How could he even think of letting a dead girl from the past take his thoughts and attention from this warm, living woman? He had known Marguerite so short a time...barely known her at all, in hindsight. The little thing that had eaten at him for days now, keeping him apart from Amber, was that Marguerite had said she loved him, acted like she loved him, but ended up dead just as he found out how deep she was in the councils of the enemy.
This relationship was different, he told himself firmly. He and Amber were not on opposite sides in a dirty little war in the Third World. They were on the same side -- both of them trying to help people. He did it with his badge and computer, partly in penance for his past. She assisted those in need with that peculiar talent of hers, that he thought he might never understand, any more than he understood her motives for doing it. I might think it’s some freaky New Age do-gooder thing, but her compassion is so earthy and practical. She never tells them to burn incense and chant to the Universe -- she’s always got some rational, real-world answers.
Amber would not die through her association with him. She was far from helpless -- first, she had her psychic gift. Then too, Amber was skilled in the roundhouse fighting her uncle had taught her. On top of these things, she had more protectors than just him -- much as he had to admit he liked the idea of protecting her himself -- Peter would go to the wire for her, as would his father and the Ancient, whose apparent frailty hid a razor-sharp mind and surprising fighting ability. Most of the 101st cops liked her too, especially Jody. Amber’s good humor and generosity had won them over even past the strange pheromone effect.
He put it all aside, burying his face in her curls. He would find out who was sending the messages and put a stop to them.
Amber awoke feeling much better. He didn’t seem so withdrawn after we talked about Marguerite. Well, after he told me about the emails, she amended, being totally honest. We didn’t really talk about her, but he certainly came back out of himself afterwards. It wasn’t as if she needed to know all about his time with the other woman -- after all, he had shown his preference for herself over a memory. She searched his face as he slumbered on. I can still see a little of the guilt this unknown person’s been trying to make him feel, but he’s back to the Kermit I know. He seemed less rigid than he had been before telling her what was going on.
She crept out of his bed carefully so as not to wake him, and slid into her running clothes. Tiptoeing down the stairs, Amber reached the kitchen and reset the alarm as she slipped outside. It had rained during the night and small puddles dotted the gutters. She avoided as many as she could as she set out. Some of the neighbors had grown accustomed to seeing her and no longer stared at the sight of her coming from Kermit’s house. They waved as she passed, and she always returned the gesture with a smile. She still had trouble understanding how her lover had come to move to this suburban setting. He never had backyard cookouts, barely acknowledged his neighbors. Peter had told her that until shortly before she’d come to town, Kermit had lived in a city apartment. That seemed more like his style than this cozy house in a neighborhood.
She laughed softly to herself as she ran -- he would not thank her for calling his home ‘cozy’.
By the time she returned, he was up and out of the shower, glasses once more in place, clad in another of his apparently endless parade of dark suits. Today’s tie was dark blue -- one of her favorites.
Amber kissed him on her way to the shower. “Be down in a minute to cook. Can you drop me at Caine’s place on your way to work?”
“Sure.” Then he stopped to look back at her. “Caine’s? Why Caine’s?”
“I just want to check in with him on this floating malice thing. I’m not getting the slightest hint that Peter is in any danger. Maybe it’s all about someone else altogether. I thought Caine might have some ideas about how to change the way we’re looking.”
“You say he thinks it’s someone from the past?”
She nodded as she pulled out the clothes she wanted to wear today. Kermit had given her exactly half his closet space. Amber still couldn’t quite believe it, but it was very nice to have enough clothes here to have options in the morning.
“The past is a dragon with sharp teeth.” He mused.
“What?” Amber asked absently, already stepping towards the shower.
“Nothing. See you in the kitchen.” He left the room, renewing his determination to find out just who was sending him these messages and end it. Teeth of the past, indeed. I’m getting spooked. I’m not supposed to get spooked -- I’m a spook myself!
A little later that morning, Kermit pulled the Corvair up in front of Caine’s building. Amber kissed him goodbye and hopped out.
“See you tonight, then?”
“Oh, yeah.” He grinned. “You’re cooking at your place, and you know I never miss that.”
She climbed the fire escape. As she did, Amber reflected that she had never visited Caine by his front door. I wonder why it always feels more natural to come up the back way? Maybe it’s that he still makes me nervous. Or maybe it’s that every time I come, I know he’ll be out with his plants. I just hope he doesn’t have his flute today. Wiping her palms on her jeans, she stepped forward onto the balcony.
“Good morning, Amber.”
She returned the bow but got right to the point.
“Caine, we have to talk about this danger we’re trying to track. I’m not sure it’s directed at Peter at all.”
He nodded gravely. “I was...tracing it last night. The sense of menace has grown stronger. It is still chaotic, as the Ancient says.” How had he known that? “The focus of it is still the...precinct, but it is not my son. I was...mistaken.”
“Then it must be someone close to him, or you wouldn’t have made that mistake.” She mused. “Kermit’s been getting some strange emails about a girl from his past, but she’s been dead for a long time.”
“And you think it is he who...might be in danger?”
“He told me that everyone who knew about her is dead except for Paul Blaisdell.”
Caine shook his head. “It is not Paul Blaisdell.”
She shook her head impatiently. “I didn’t think so. Do you think...?”
“I...do not know. If you will watch for me, I will attempt to touch the source once more.”
Amber nodded and sank into a light trance. In this state, she could sense someone coming for a few blocks -- she was not looking for a specific person, just scanning for approaching dangers. She did not try to link with Caine -- she was not comfortable enough with him, and he would do this better without a ‘rider’. After a few minutes, she sensed him returning to himself, and he opened his eyes.
“I cannot sense enough of the intent. This mind is...protected by its very chaos. There is evil and disorder, but I am...afraid you may be correct. Kermit...may be in great danger.”
Amber’s heart dropped to her stomach and her mind whirled. “Oh, no! He doesn’t know! I’m sure he doesn’t think it’s a real threat! I have to go warn him!”
As she leapt to her feet, Caine rose slowly and asked, “Can you not reach him on your...cell phone?”
She slapped her forehead, rummaged through her purse. “Why didn’t I think...? Damn! It’s just ringing -- wait -- no, I’ve got his voice mail!” She left a terse message, then dialed Peter’s desk.
“Caine here.” Came the familiar voice.
“Peter, you have to get Kermit for me.”
“He’s not in yet.”
“What?” she shouted. “He left me here over half an hour ago!”
“Where are you?”
“At your father’s place.”
“He should have been here by now. If you’ll hang on a sec, I’ll check around.”
“No. You check around, but I’m on my way there.”
She thanked Caine hurriedly and ran down the steps only to find him, not breathing anywhere near as hard as she, right behind her. “Caine, I have to go. I think something’s happened to him.”
“Reach out with your thoughts, Amber,” he admonished, keeping pace with her easily.
She tried. With only a thought to the ethics of touching her lover’s mind without his permission, she really, honestly tried. The only time she had ever attempted this outside of the light bed-contact had been to make sure she could, right after Kermit had shut down the nanites in her brain. She ran along the bustling, crowded Chinatown streets trying to reach for that tightly guarded, dark mind. Caine was never more than a step behind her, though he never left a walk. She searched and searched, but could not find Kermit. His mind could merely be too well-shielded, or he might be unconscious or dead. The worst possibilities crowded into her thoughts, interfering with her attempt.
Amber barreled into the station, tearing past desk sergeant Broderick without so much as a nod. He did not stop her -- Peter had warned him that the young woman was on her way and had sounded near hysteria.
Amber came to a dead stop in the bullpen, though, as she saw the concerned faces of Captain Simms, Blake and Peter. Simms nodded to her, saying only, “My office, please.”
She followed the older woman, Caine and the others falling in behind her. The Captain’s office seemed very full as Karen closed the door.
Amber looked around at them. “What is it?”
Peter spread his hands helplessly, saying, “There’s no sign of him. His car is in the lot, locked and empty. There’s nothing to indicate that he’s not sitting in his office, working on whatever it is he works on. But he’s not there, either. I’ve called his house, your shop and his cell, but nothing.”
Karen asked calmly. “Isn’t it possible that he’s had an emergency and vanished on us? It has happened, you know.”
Peter said, “Not without his car.”
At the same time, Amber shook her head firmly. “Not without a note or a phone call. After the last time, he swore he would call me on his way out of town, no matter what it was about.”
The redhead nodded. “Right. I just wanted to cover all the bases. I think we’re all right to be concerned -- something has happened to him, or he would have told one of us where he was going. Okay, people, what was he working on? Amber, did he say anything to you about it?”
“He...he hasn’t said anything about work...” Amber started. The words caught in her throat.
“What?” Peter’s voice was hoarse.
Caine dropped a hand heavily on her shoulder. “Tell them about the messages.”
Simms raised an eyebrow. “Messages?”
Amber took a deep breath. “He’s been getting emails. Just a few, but they were strange. He said that all two of them said was, ‘Remember Marguerite?’.”
“Who were they from?” Peter demanded, grabbing her arm.
She twisted away before his grasp could hurt her. “I don’t know. He said that they came from a blind box -- he couldn’t trace the creator.”
Karen Simms sat in her chair heavily. “Unfortunately, I don’t know anyone else as good with computers as he is.”
Blake spoke up. “Who’s Marguerite?”
Amber replied quietly. “Kermit knew her in Venezuela. He told me that only Paul Blaisdell knew about them. Well, there were others, but they’re all dead now.”
“Apparently one of them isn’t as dead as you might think,” Peter put in wryly. He put a comforting arm around her in apology for the earlier, painful grip. Twisting his head toward the Shaolin priest, he asked, “Pop -- Dad, you have any input here?”
Caine shook his head jerkily. “No. But Lo Si might.”
Blake added, “I can try to look up anything on a Marguerite in Venezuela. Does anyone know when he was there?”
“You don’t?” Amber asked, surprised.
“I have an idea, but if anyone’s got a specific year, it would help.”
Peter shook his head. “Only Paul might.”
Blake pushed his glasses up his nose. “I’ll call Annie. And I might have some other avenues to try.”
“I’ll go see the Ancient.” Amber put in. “You can reach me on my cell. Don’t leave me out of the chain of information.” Her look boded ill for them if they tried.
Peter laughed shortly. “You’ll pick the information out of our brains if we do, won’t you?”
She nodded. “It’s against my ethics, but under the circumstances, I will make exceptions. Of course, that would only make me angry, you realize.”
Blake patted her arm sympathetically. “I’ll call you the minute I find anything.”
“Thank you,” she flashed him a smile of gratitude.
Caine stepped to her side. “I shall...accompany you to visit the Ancient. If Kermit is in danger, you...may be as well. Whoever took him might try to...take you as well.”
She nodded, looking at her other friends with thanks in her eyes. “I appreciate all of you letting me help. I’ll let you know if Lo Si can help us.”
Kermit had made sure they left his house early enough to have plenty of time to drop Amber off and still make it to work well before his shift started. He was planning to try tracing that blind box one more time, and then he would make some calls and send some emails to a few contacts in the information business. If he really put his mind to it, he was sure he could find his anonymous correspondent. As he opened the Corvair’s lime-green door, his thoughts were divided between Marguerite and Amber. The former had been a charming young girl, wide-eyed and full of idealistic fervor. Amber was wide-eyed and charming, too, but neither so young nor so trusting. Kermit Griffin was happy with her and with his present life -- he did not want to dig up the past. He just wanted to settle this matter and get on with that new life. He did not want to feel he had to pull away from Amber to protect her.
As he stepped out of the car, his foot landed in one of the puddles left from the night’s rain. Electricity coursed through him, dropping him to the asphalt. He could not move for just a moment -- long enough for three men to dart in from somewhere. Two of them grabbed his arms as the third plunged a hypodermic needle into his shoulder. The blackness took him.
Amber and Caine reached Lo Si’s comfortable Chinatown home quickly. She did not run this time, but tried to match the strange pace set by the priest. He never seemed to hurry; indeed, many of the locals stopped him along the way to ask his advice or thank him for his help. Many of them also had reason to thank the young woman, or ask or offer advice. In spite of the interruptions and the minutes spent with each person, it was not long at all before the two were knocking on the Ancient’s door.
The pixie-like old man admitted them. “Come. We must go to the basement.”
Amber did not question this -- how the Ancient knew what they had come for was no mystery, though she had not felt him touch her. She had never seen more of this place than the living room and kitchen, but she was now so accustomed to following the old man’s orders that she merely stepped after him silently. Caine came behind her, making her feel under guard. Lo Si opened a door in the hall and they descended into a very dark but immaculately clean cellar.
The Ancient flipped a light switch, and Amber saw a large, ornate wooden cabinet, surrounded by so many other wondrous things, she wondered how he could remember what was where. But he ignored everything else to open the cabinet, withdrawing a square of Chinese silk. Doors once more secured, he stepped toward the center of the room.
In a soft voice, he said, “Kwai Chang Caine, you must help me to prepare.”
Caine nodded and stepped to comply. As Amber watched, she realized that the square of cloth was actually a very thin pad of brilliant red silk, quilted with small Chinese dragons in yellow thread. It looked old and hand made. The two men spread it on the floor, aligning it with great precision to some specification she could not fathom. Then, Caine carried over many tall, wrought iron candle holders from dim corners. When all was set to Lo Si’s satisfaction, the old man nodded to the younger priest. Caine waved a hand, and flames sprang up from the candles.
Amber stared, but said nothing. That’s a useful trick.
“Come, child,” the Ancient said gently. “We will search for your Kermit.”
She realized her shields were crumbling now. Her thoughts and fears must be leaking all over the place, possibly attacking strangers in the street. Kermit -- how could he have been taken like this? Surely he had known someone was near, had put up a fight. He was a trained mercenary, well-versed in the risks and possibilities! How could anyone have gotten him without leaving any trace?
But she sat exactly where her little Chinese elf indicated, sighing and trying to banish the chaos and pain roiling in her head and stomach. At least the lotus and light trance came automatically now.
Lo Si sat facing her, so close their knees almost touched. Caine sank down immediately behind her. The Ancient spoke again. “Now, Amber, we are going deeper than you have ever gone before. You will need to remember who you are -- hold on to your self, Amber Adair. It is too easy for novices to become lost in the web we will walk. Kwai Chang Caine will guard us on our journey. Now let your mind drift and merge with mine.”
Again, she felt that gentle yet stern control the old man had over his emotions. Again, that sweet, cool peace flooded her. This time she was deep enough in trance that the world seemed very far away. Amber Adair. I am Amber Adair. A flutter of fear stirred in her mind, but she squelched it firmly, wanting -- no, needing to help Lo Si find her lover.
Somewhere around, above, within, she sensed the iron calm of Peter’s father. He exuded a sense of paternal protectiveness toward her. Why, he likes me! He’s glad Peter and I were friends all those years ago! I guess my nervousness around him is all in my own head. He would, as the tiny Ancient had promised, protect and guard her. Thus reassured, she looked around for her mentor.
He stood a little in front of her on a great silvery web of lines. She stood on a line, she saw when she looked down. Her ‘soul self’ looked at his and managed what she hoped was a brave smile. His ‘feet’ rested on an intersection of two lines -- one of which was the one on which she also stood.
What do we do now, Master?
We search. He said simply.
Like this. He bent to touch the line that intersected hers. This line is Kermit Griffin’s. It is his...essence, for lack of a better word. His chi, if you will. We follow.
With this insight, Amber realized that the line she stood upon was her own chi. She could clearly see the point at which the two had joined, and to her surprise, it was shortly before they had even met. Looking along the lines, she could also see where the two lines separated -- just this morning. If she wanted to join them again -- get Kermit back -- she and Lo Si must follow his line -- leave hers behind. I am Amber Adair. I am me. Lo Si took her hand and they started along the path.
Kermit surfaced slowly from blackness. His mind was still clouded by whatever drug they’d given him, but he was a professional. He opened his eyes to see where he might be. The walls were a sickly green and he nodded to himself -- psychological warfare. The movement made his head swim, and he closed his eyes for a moment, willing the nausea to subside. Now it was time for another look around.
The room was small, containing little. He lay on his back on a cot. The ceiling was the same murky hue as the walls. Carefully, slowly, he tipped his head forward to check himself. His captors had left his sunglasses in place, but nothing else. He wore a wide metal belt with manacles at the front, into which his wrists were locked. A few experimental tugs told him he would not easily get free. Scanning his body, he came to a decision -- if he got out of this, he would join Amber on her morning runs. She’d been feeding him a little too well. Not that he’d gained an inordinate amount, but he’d definitely gone soft around the middle. His mind must have gone soft from all the domesticity, too -- Otherwise I wouldn’t be here now.
His clothes were gone. He knew he wasn’t completely naked -- now that sensation was returning, he could feel something where his underwear had been, but it was not his. It was too tight, whatever it was, and small. By moving his hands carefully to flip up, resting his wrists on the bottoms of the manacles, he could see that he now wore a hot pink thong. There was small, fine writing on it, but he could not read it.
So, someone was working on his state of mind with the depressing color of the walls and the humiliation of what passed for clothing. Whatever was written on the garment couldn’t be good. Something about this had to do with Marguerite, he was sure -- but what? And who? Who would do this to him? And what could they hope to gain? The girl was dead -- had been dead for more than ten years. He recalled the gunshot, the bullet penetrating her forehead and the wide brown eyes regarding him with shock and disbelief before glazing over as she silently slid to the ground. Then the fire -- everyone lost. He had fought his way out, breathing smoke and searing air all the way, losing all of his hair and a fair amount of flesh in the process.
He struggled to sit up, hampered by the manacles confining his hands. Taking mental inventory, he decided there was no damage. He tried to stand, but a bolt of electricity shot through him and the door opened as he collapsed weakly back onto the cot.
He managed a look at the newcomer as he panted, trying to recover.
But she had died in the same fire that destroyed Marguerite’s body -- they had all died! As she stepped closer, Kermit could see the mark of that fire. The left side of her face was smooth, shiny and an unwholesome pink. The eye seemed clear, but he had no way of knowing whether she could see through it.
Those brown eyes, so like Marguerite’s, were fixed on him with venom.
“Welcome, Kermit Griffin,” she spat the name. Her voice was a harsh hiss. Apparently, she had suffered more than the facial burns in the fire. He couldn’t quite believe it was her, though, that she still lived. “Welcome to your new home. I see you’ve discovered the little surprise about the belt.”
He was recovering. Looking up at her through dark glasses, he tried a half-grin. Keep the enemy off-balance. “I see you’ve decided I’ll be staying a while.”
“Yes, my dear Kermit, you will be staying with me. This room will be where you draw your last breath. Before that, however, you will suffer for killing my sister.”
He went limp with guilt and grief -- and he could tell she knew that she had scored a point. He said only, “You know I’m not the only one to blame.”
“Yes, you are,” she rasped, stepping closer, the red nails of one hand raised like bloody claws. In the other hand, she held something black, like a TV-remote. “You killed my sister, Marguerite, Kermit Griffin, and now I am going to make you pay!”
His mind raced. Christina was crazy -- he could hear that in her ruined voice, see it in her eyes. He could try to bluster or fight his way out, but the memory of the voltage told him he couldn’t get far. The best he could hope for was that the rest of the 101st cops could get enough information from the parking lot to find him. The memory of the electricity from the puddle gave him hope. Surely that had left some sign. If time dragged on and no indication of help arrived, he would pit his self-discipline against the agony of the belt, but for now he would have to wait.
Christina bent and lifted his glasses so she could look into his eyes. “You will know what suffering is, gringo,” she rasped. “Just as I have suffered. My sister dead, my face -- look at my face!” her eyes were wild. “Look at what you have done to me!”
He met her glare with what he hoped was a mild look. “It was war. There are always casualties in war.”
“Marguerite was nineteen!” she snapped. “You killed her before she had a chance to live!”
Kermit had no answer for that. The scene replayed again in his memory, as sharp and clear as when he had been there, in the basement lab of the University. Marguerite holding that box of explosive chemicals, her eyes warming at the sight of him -- then the rest of them had seen him, rushed to attack. The fight was short and ugly, and then Marguerite’s dark brown eyes widening in surprise as the bloody flower bloomed across her forehead and she fell. The box hit the concrete floor and all hell erupted.
“You may think about it for now,” Christine told him softly. “And think about your new girlfriend, too. She’s as dead as my poor sister now, in fire and blast, just like Marguerite and the rest of my people.”
Kermit went rigid. Amber dead? In a blast?
Christine smiled slowly, the tight shiny side of her face a grotesque mask. “Yes. As soon as she returned to her shop, I’m guessing she went up the stairs to your little love-nest. My dear Paco set the kitchen door to blow the whole New Age hell into the next dimension!”
softly to herself, she dropped his sunglasses into her shirt pocket and
left the room. At the same moment, the lights went out, leaving the
ex-mercenary alone and all but naked in the dark with his guilt and