She walked briskly up to the desk, giving Sergeant John Broderick the most dazzling smile he could recall. He smiled back reflexively. "Can I help you?"
"Yes, I'm Amber Adair to see Peter Caine."
Broderick marveled at the woman. She was neither slim nor stout, but instead fit and strong looking. Her hair was, like her name, a honey red-gold. She wore a soft grey suit with a gold-colored turtleneck and grey boots -- but what nailed him to the wall, so to speak, were the 1000-watt smile and the brilliant green eyes. He was pleased to be able to keep that smile of hers intact as he told her,
"Yes, Ma'am. Peter's expecting you. Go on back."
She twinkled at him and leaned towards him confidentially. He could see she was not consciously flirting -- she could not help the reaction she caused. "I haven't seen Peter since we were kids. I'm guessing he's changed a bit. Maybe he even has hair."
Broderick grinned. "Yes, he has hair now. Look at the desks in the middle of the room -- he's in front of the Captain's office in the back. You can't miss him. He's the good-looking one."
Amber laughed merrily. "Then that much hasn't changed." She pushed through the little wooden gate and went on back.
He was right -- she saw the handsome young detective seated directly in front of the Captain's office and knew he had to be Peter. So different from the tense boy she'd known, but so much the same. She stopped to look at him for a moment, unnoticed -- he was the oldest friend she had. At that very moment, he looked up and saw her. With a whoop, he jettisoned himself from the wooden chair, launching himself toward her.
He swooped down on her, dipping her into an enthusiastic kiss. Peter could not contain his exuberance at seeing this old friend -- they had been close for the time Amber had remained at the orphanage, had written and phoned one another for years after that. Jody laughed and shook her head.
"Peter, you know Jordan's right behind you."
He swung around with Amber still in his arms to face his girlfriend. Amber was trying to collect herself, but she felt the potential tension like heat prickles on her skin. She grinned at the blonde woman, pulled out of Peter's arms and stuck out a hand.
"You must be Peter's lady. He told me on the phone he was seeing a very special woman. Peter and I knew each other a long time ago."
Jordan could not help herself. She responded, as the whole room now did, to Amber's electric smile. She shook the proffered hand. "And you are...?"
"Amber. Amber Adair. You'll have lunch with us, of course. I know Peter told you we're having a kind of catch-up lunch."
Peter had, in fact, forgotten to say a thing about it, but shot Amber a look of gratitude.
"How about sharing your lovely friend with the rest of us?" Came a sardonic tenor.
Amber turned, disengaging herself from Peter. Her eyes rested on a man somewhere in his forties, clad in a dark suit with a red tie and dark green sunglasses.
"Kermit!" Peter ejaculated. "You're worse than Lo Si for sneaking up on a guy!"
"You'd have seen me coming if you hadn't been so...busy."
Peter gave a slightly uncomfortable laugh. "Kermit Griffin, meet Amber Adair. She and I were at Pathways together for a while."
Amber's eyes met his -- she knew that, even with the dark glass in the way -- and a thunderbolt struck her brain.
Kermit met her eyes -- he knew she saw through the glasses somehow -- and was hit by lightning. There was something about her -- her eyes? That brilliant smile? Maybe...but there was something indefinable, something he wanted more of.
"Pleased to meet you, Miss Adair," he gravely took her hand.
"Amber," she said softly. "And it's mutual."
Peter looked from one to the other, and then met Jordan's eyes. She wore a faint smile. Jody rolled her eyes. Blake merely sighed. He wore an enchanted grin, as he seemed to sniff the air. Peter tried a sniff, somewhat in reflex, but only smelled Jordan's cologne.
"Well," Peter threw up his hands. "Kermit, you'd better join us for lunch."
"Be happy to."
Amber and Kermit had not yet looked away from one another. Peter wasn't sure Amber had blinked -- he couldn't tell what was happening behind the former mercenary's glasses, but somehow knew he hadn't either. Gently, he gave Amber a little push toward the door. "If we're going to eat, we ought to move."
The eye contact broken, Amber got herself together and started for the doors. "You're right. I have to get back to my shop sometime today. The locals said somebody named Caine wanted to talk to me. You know this guy, Peter?"
"Your shop is almost in Chinatown, right?" He knew it. He just knew it.
"Yes -- actually I think I'm inside the area. I know I'm in your precinct."
"Then that Caine is my father."
She stopped. He narrowly avoided running into her. Jordan giggled, but Kermit just stopped, waiting. He was still watching the girl from behind green glass. "Your father? But you're an orphan, like me."
"It's amazing: Pop was nowhere near as dead as I thought. Seems he thought I was dead, too. I went from no father to two of them in no time."
Numbly, she began walking again. "I wonder how I could have missed picking that up?"
"What do you mean? You couldn't know..." Jordan asked.
"Oh, Amber's a psychic." Peter told Jordan smugly.
Amber groaned. "You just had to get that in there, didn't you, Peter?"
"What are friends for?" He grinned. Out on the street, he pointed. "There's a great pub just up there. Good burgers, bad fries."
Amber grinned again. "And we do love bad fries, don't we?"
"Oh, indeed we do," they both cackled madly for a minute. To Kermit's great shock, he felt a growl rising in his throat -- what was this about? Was it as selfish as that he felt she wasn't paying him enough attention?
No...couldn't be that.
Amber must have felt the growl rising -- she could not have heard it. She turned to the man in the glasses and took his arm. "Jordan's got an escort. I ought to have one, too, don't you think?" She carefully avoided meeting his eyes -- she needed to see ahead of her, not break her neck because she was entranced by the man.
He felt a peculiar rush as she tucked her hands around his bicep. With another woman he might have felt silly -- this was a Chinatown street, not the opera. With Amber Adair it felt right. Kermit, like her, looked straight ahead as they followed Peter and Jordan to the chosen pub.
The bartender waved at Peter, saying, "Hey, Caine -- take a booth. Sally will be right with you."
Amber slid all the way to the window, Peter doing the same on his side. Jordan sat across from Kermit with a wry look. "Something tells me we're in for orphanage reminiscences."
The honey-haired woman twinkled. "Oh, no. We'll bore you with that another time. Right now I want to hear about how Peter lost his orphan status! This is terribly exciting. And I can't believe you didn't say something over the phone!"
The waitress, a strong featured woman with a thick red ponytail, bobbed over and took orders. Amber knew about Peter's going to live with the Blaisdells, but they had lost touch before he had become a cop. He told her about that, and then about meeting Caine after fifteen years, and the long road to rediscovering their relationship. She soaked it up with glee. Kermit thought he had never seen anyone listen so hard. This woman seemed to give you her whole attention, to take in your words like a sponge. Her eyes, ears, even fingertips all faced Peter as he spoke, as if she were a small satellite dish receiving data. He wanted suddenly to have anything to tell her -- just so she would listen like that to him. But what could he tell her? About his life as a mercenary? His time with the CIA? What it had felt like the first time he'd killed a man? Surely she wouldn't want to hear what his memories were about.
As Peter paused to sip his coke, she turned to Kermit and softly told him, "You might be surprised at what I'd like to hear about, Mr. Griffin."
Then she turned her eyes back to her old friend, leaving the older man feeling like a koi on a stream bank, out of his depth and gasping for air.
Mentally, Amber was kicking herself. Stupid, stupid, stupid, letting him know she had `heard' that. Damn. Would she scare this marvelous man off? He was such an enigma, even to her gift...he knew how to guard his mind -- those thoughts had merely been such loud, sudden, surface thoughts that she had accidentally picked them up. This was a man she wanted to get to know -- wanted to touch. He was darkly beautiful; a soul strong in itself, deeply contained; deeply in pain, yet seeking solace.
Peter finished talking about himself. "Now, Forest-Gem, what the heck are you doing in Sloanville? What happened to you? I know your aunt came and got you from Pathways -- but we kind of lost touch after high school."
She colored. She had almost forgotten that nickname. "Aunt Edith and Uncle Dougie completed my training in the `psychic arts'," she rolled her eyes a little. "That sounds pretty damn pretentious for someone who pretty much tries her best not to overhear other people's thoughts. Then they sent me to college, and I've been moving from place to place ever since."
Peter repeated, "But what brought you here? I mean, I'm glad you did come here, but what made you decide on this town?"
"I'm about to open a bookstore, like I told you on the phone this morning -- kind of a New Age deal -- some Wiccan stuff, some Buddhist, Shinto, Hindu...books on ancient civilizations -- you know. A store for the fringe elements. There'll also be some jewelry, incense and candles, and the like."
Peter nodded. "My Pop will be glad to hear you have all that kind of stuff."
"I've done this before. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure why here. Maybe I was drawn here because I knew you. I still don't know how I lucked into finding you here. Captain Willard, back in Columbus, was telling me about his pal Captain Simms at the hundred and first, and mentioned your name. I just had to call you when I got here, after that. It had been way too long."
The burgers were as good as Peter had promised -- the fries as bad. That was an old joke between the Pathways Alumni -- Amber and Peter had sneaked off the property many afternoons to get greasy, crunchy french fries. They had been caught, of course, and disciplined -- but it had, they agreed, always been worth it. There was nothing like a bad fry -- the worse, the better.
The four of them talked of general things for the rest of the meal. Jordan asked a question Kermit wanted answered himself.
"Why did Peter call you Forest-Gem?"
"It's a bad joke. My name -- Amber -- is a semiprecious stone formed by a specific kind of pine resin."
"And that I found you crying in a tree that first night at the orphanage." The young cop teased her.
She blushed again, and Kermit smiled -- that was a very attractive color she turned.
"Yes, well...you helped me out that night, and until Aunt Edith came for me. But we said we wouldn't subject these poor people to our Pathways nostalgia."
Afterwards, the quartet made their way back to the precinct house. Peter asked,
"You want to meet the Captain? I know she would be interested in your talents."
"Maybe another time. Here -- give her my card, and tell her that I have worked with other police departments. I have letters from a few of those captains she can read over if she would like references."
"Will do. See you later? Meet us at Delancy's around six-thirty," he chucked her chin then realized how close he had come to pulling back bitten fingers. She gave him a feral grin, and he chuckled ruefully. "I'm sorry, Amber. You just bring out the big brother in me."
"Right, `big brother'." She smiled at Jordan, who once again found herself powerless to do anything but smile back. "Good to meet you." Finally, Amber looked up into the green glasses with a crooked smile. "And Kermit. I'll miss you most of all, Scarecrow."
The answering grin was just as ironic as her own. "Until this evening, Green Eyes."
She turned and strode away. She felt eyes on her back all the way until she turned the corner. Amber shook her head as she walked -- what was wrong with her? He was no one to fool around with, she told herself. The man was a panther, not some tame kitten she might cuddle.
Although cuddling with the panther in the green glasses might be worth the risk.
Kermit followed Peter back through the banks of desks, heading slowly for his office. The Captain rose from her seat and followed him in, closing the door behind her.
"Detective Griffin..." he raised an eyebrow and she chuckled. "Kermit. Look, I know it didn't ever quite work out between us, and I know it may not be my business, but I want you to stay smart. Promise me you'll be careful."
"Careful?" He seemed intent on whatever was on the monitor.
"Careful about that friend of Peter's. Oh, yes, I saw her when she came in, and she seems like a nice young woman. I also saw the reaction between the two of you. Watch yourself."
He slid the glasses down his nose to look at her. "Captain...Katherine. I...I guess I'm not used to having friends.... I...well, thank you. I appreciate your concern for me."
His Captain smiled sardonically. "But it's none of my business."
He laughed low. "I can't think of too many other people whose business it might be. There's something about that young woman. Of course, I'm probably old enough to be her father. So far, nothing beyond a few odd stares has happened. I can't really say what might come next, if anything."
Karen stood once more, rounded his desk and laid her hand on his shoulder. "If you need to talk, Kermit, you know I'll be here..." she couldn't continue. He had helped her so often, helped her make complex problems simple -- and for some time, they had both thought their deep-growing friendship might bloom into something far more. It had all but broken her heart to realize, and to have to tell him, that that was not going to happen. She still felt deeply for this enigmatic, hard man.
"Thank you, Karen," he put his own hand over hers, grinned up at her. "You're a class act."
She winked and left. He pushed his glasses back up and turned to his monitor. Amber Adair was going to be a distraction, he could just tell. Throwing up his hands at his inability to settle back down, he went for a cup of coffee. Blake was at the pot.
"So, Kermit, did you get a load of Miss Adair?" The smaller man sighed happily. Kermit squelched a growl -- Blake was an old friend, always ready to back a colleague. It wasn't fair to take out his strange reactions on his comrade.
"Yeah, I did. What do you think?"
Blake beamed beatifically with another of those annoyingly joyful sighs. "Pheromones."
"She has great pheromones." The little man saw the perplexed look on his friend's face and explained. "The basis of human attraction, Kermit. Pheromones are like a sub-fragrance, kind of. You pick up on them through glands associated with your nose -- she has terrific pheromones. That's why everybody likes her on sight -- or rather, on sniff."
Jody had heard this and started to laugh. "We all like her because she smells good?"
Blake gave her an earnest look. "Well, yes. It's not really a smell like you think of a smell -- more like a...well..."
"Sub-smell, didn't you say?" Kermit asked. "Sort of like subsonics -- you react even though you can't consciously hear the sound."
"Exactly!" Blake beamed. "Well, I have to get back to paperwork. But I must tell you, as good as her scent is, Amber Adair is just a very nice person."
Jody grinned. "And a pretty one, too."
Blake gave her a look. "She's pretty, but most of that is her personality and her scent. Next time you see her, hold your breath for a second. She is an attractive girl, but nowhere near as beautiful as your brain tells you she is. And you'll get accustomed to her pheromones -- they'll lose their effect on you after a day or two. You'll see, she's no super-model."
Kermit felt that snarl rising again. He must not have caught it in time -- Jody and Blake both looked at him strangely.
"Sorry -- too much grease at lunch. Got to get back to the ol' computer."
He took his coffee and made a beeline back to his office. Thank whatever you thanked that none of the others were around just now -- although he knew the precinct -- his reaction to Amber was likely to be gossip fodder for weeks to come. Well, the ex-mercenary thought, that was the price you paid for getting involved with people -- loners didn't have this sort of thing to worry about. They also didn't have friends who cared. It all evened out, he was discovering. He devoted a few minutes to a very specific search.
Finally, Kermit was able to get back to work.
Amber reached her store, `The Unturned Page', and went in. She checked everything over to make sure she was prepared for her opening tomorrow. She would do this several more times before the appointed hour. She always did. A tap at the front door made her start -- a man with longish grey hair peered in -- there was a somewhat oriental cast to his features. A young Chinese couple stood close behind him. Amber opened the door.
"I'm not open till tomorrow," she began.
"I know. I am Caine," the tall man said.
Caine -- Peter's father. "Yes -- they said you would come by to see me today. Come in, come in. Can I make you some tea?"
"That would be...very nice." The two young people smiled nervously as Caine inclined his head somewhat formally.
Amber led them back to the stairway to her apartment. In the kitchen, she told them to sit at her table while she put the kettle on and warmed the teapot. This little ritual always seemed to calm her as well as those who had sought her. She pulled down the good oolong and busied herself setting out the tea things. The three Chinese watched her move around the room. Caine was calm, seeming to merely enjoy observing her graceful economy of movement. The other two were beginning to respond to her, letting down the guards they had maintained so carefully.
Finally tea was ready, and small biscuits and cucumber slices laid out. Amber poured the dark brew and took her own seat. "Now, what can I do for you?"
Caine sipped his tea, nodded in satisfaction. "Very good tea," he murmured. She couldn't tell whether or not he was surprised. "I have come to ask a favor," he told her simply.
"If I can do it, I will." After all, this was Peter's father.
"My friends, Joseph and Mai Wang, are in need of employment. I thought that perhaps you would be in need of employees."
She perked up. "As a matter of fact, I could use some help." She looked at the young people. They were maybe twenty-one, she estimated, but each had a look of determination, Joseph's still somewhat nervous, like a cornered cat. "How much can you work?"
"As much as you need," the boy said defiantly. "All the time!"
She chuckled. "I'm not planning to be open all the time," she replied gently. Joseph found himself grinning in response. "I could use a couple of good people, though. Can you each work a full schedule?"
Caine put a hand out, stopping Joseph's reply. "They are enrolled at the local college. They can work full time, as long as they have time for their studies."
Amber grinned. Something in her mind clicked. This might be the reason, or at least part of it, why she was in Chinatown. "I think we can accommodate that. I'm all for education. Tell you what -- give me copies of your schedules, and we'll work out hours for you. If I like what I see after a week, you'll both become assistant managers. Can you run a register?"
Mai nodded. "I can. I can teach Joseph. He learns quickly. If you will excuse us, we'll go home and be right back with our schedules."
Amber nodded and the two hurried out. She called after them, "When you come back, ring the buzzer at the back door!"
Caine smiled at her as he crunched a slice of cucumber. "Thank you," he murmured.
Amber smiled back. "I'm pleased you approve. It makes me very happy to be able to aid Peter's father."
He looked up sharply. "You know my son?"
"Yes, from our time in the orphanage. Your son was very kind to a lonely girl who had just lost her mother. He is a good friend."
Caine nodded almost to himself. "We must discuss this further another time. For now, there are things I must tell you about the Wangs."
"They ran afoul of a Tong in New York City, didn't they?"
He gave her another razor look. She smiled gently and continued.
"Poor Mai was forced into prostitution at a young age. She and Joseph met when he was drawn into the drug trade. They fell in love and tried to get away together."
Caine nodded. A slow smile spread across his face. "Yes. They eventually required assistance to flee the Tong. They came here to start again. They will work very hard for you, Amber. Thank you for giving them a chance."
She grinned. "Of course. That's part of why I'm here -- I try to help people get back on their feet, put their lives and souls back together."
"You have...a gift."
"Yes, I have a certain amount of ESP. I try to use it to help -- especially young people who are trying to help themselves. Joseph and Mai will be fine with me. We'll make sure she gets her business degree, and that he has the opportunity to pursue his art. Thank you for bringing them to me."
"And you will have to tell me, one day, about my son when you knew him."
The buzzer sounded, and she went to let the Wangs in. Caine excused himself with a smile, telling them
"You will do well with Amber. I must go now. Come to me if you need me."
Mai looked far more confident now, as she handed over a small piece of paper. Joseph handed over his, as well. He seemed to have gained some assurance, too. Both of them beamed back at her. Amber took the papers cheerfully, and led the way to the small copy machine in the stockroom. Once copied, she gave the originals back to the couple and they went back upstairs to the kitchen, where Amber pulled out a ledger book.
"Let's see. I plan to be open from ten until six most days. We'll be closed on Mondays, and open until ten at night Tuesday and Thursday nights. From your class schedule, it looks like you could work the nights for me?"
The couple agreed. In fact, it turned out that they were willing to work any time they were not in class. Amber worked out a fair schedule for them, one where they could work together as much as possible and be off together as well. They were still in the honeymoon stage -- Mai shyly confided that they had only been married a month. As they got used to each other and their marriage, Amber figured they could adjust for private time as needed. She was reasonably certain than by then they would be handling the schedule.
By the time they were all satisfied, Amber was more pleased than ever. These young people were going to work out just fine. She gave them a quick tour of the shop -- the books, incense, jewelry cases and so on. The two were to come back tomorrow after class to help with her grand opening. The newlyweds thanked her again for hiring them, and departed.
It was time to go to Delancy's.
Amber sighed heavily: it was time to go to Delancy's. Time to see that bunch of loud, friendly cops -- who seemed willing to become her new friends -- and Kermit. The man behind the glasses intrigued her, drew her, called to her like light calls a moth. Was she doomed to get burned? Would his flame warm her or engulf her, leaving her in ashes?
She ran back up the steps to check her face and hair -- they would have to do. The amber of her hair glinted in the last of the sun filtering through the window. She ran a brush through the curls, taming them into a braid, and then flew down the steps and out into the alley.
A shadow fell over her as she went out into the street.
She felt the observer, but then he -- she? -- was gone.
She shrugged and went on. If someone was watching her, it was most likely curiosity. Amber was not the usual type to open a shop in Chinatown -- there was no possibility of Oriental blood in her very Celtic features. She was new in Sloanville, and there was the effect she'd always had on people -- that way of drawing them to her. All in all, it was not surprising that someone might want to watch her unseen.
Delancy's was a nice place, she discovered. It seemed a friendly bar, not too loud but full of chatter. Peter stood and waved her over -- the cops had pulled several tables together. Amber went over and took the seat next to him. Jordan was on his other side. Blake took the seat across from Amber, smiling beatifically.
"I'm not a stalker," he told her earnestly. "I just want to sit here and feel the effects of your pheromones."
She laughed lightly. "That's all right. You're the first person to react like that, you know."
He laughed too. "You must be joking."
"No, really. Usually someone who knows what it is doesn't want to be affected, and so stays away from me."
"I know that I'll become accustomed to it, and it won't be as much of a rush anymore. Do you mind if I just enjoy it for a while? It's a fascinating effect."
Now she laughed heartily. The man was odd, but harmless. "Not at all. You're sweet to ask."
A brunette woman came in then, with -- Caine! Peter introduced Skalany her as his sometime partner. Amber gave a start as she realized how the brunette detective felt about Caine -- these cops tended to scream their thoughts out, with the exceptions of the Captain, whom she had seen through the woman's office window, and Kermit. She smiled to herself. Mary Margaret Skalany's feeling for Caine was certainly no stranger than her own attraction for a certain...
Someone who arrived as if on cue, taking the seat beside her. "Evening, Ma'am."
"Sir," she unleashed that dazzling smile again. He could no more resist that grin than anyone else. His fellow detectives tried not to notice the uncharacteristic smile until he got his face back under control.
"You ought to register that smile as a weapon," he told her.
"Only if I can get a license to carry it concealed."
Jody joined them, followed by a redheaded cop Peter introduced as TJ.
"Thomas Jefferson Kincaid, Ma'am. Don't call me TJ."
Amber grinned at him. "Pleased to meet you, Thomas Jefferson. Don't call me Ma'am."
He grinned back, sitting beside Blake to gaze her way.
Peter called the waiter over -- he ordered beers all around. Amber asked for an ice water to go with hers, and then largely ignored her beer. She didn't like the light rice pilsner he had chosen, preferring a more bitter brew. But she never drank much in any case -- alcohol and ESP could be a bad combination.
Some of them changed seats through the evening -- Blake let Jody Powell take his chair so she could talk with Amber for a while. The blonde cop found that she liked the psychic. By the time she let Blake have his seat back, she had gotten a promise that Amber would meet her for lunch in a few days.
Kermit remained in the chair beside Amber. He didn't really speak to her, but lingered in the seat. He talked with Frank Strenlich and with some of the others, but his eyes seemed to always return to Amber. She wished he would talk to her, but could not think how to begin. TJ spoke to her eagerly; relating a tale about someone named Donny Double D's wedding aboard a cruise ship, complete with terrorists and cruise missiles. Of course, she could tell that the tale made him look better than he had actually been -- people always were braver in hindsight, and he kept leaking his thoughts about his actual performance. She could forgive him that, as he was a good storyteller. She liked the young man, but wished he would stop staring at her.
Finally, Amber could stand no more -- the bar had become more crowded. The bartender had dimmed the lights, and someone had cranked the jukebox up. The press of people and their thoughts was growing -- as people drink, they lose what natural restraint they have on their minds. Amber began to feel battered. She made her excuses, inclined her head formally to Caine, and escaped outside.
She was leaning against the brick wall, breathing in the cool night air when a voice made her jump.
"Walk you home?"
"Last I looked," he gave her a crooked grin. "Could have changed by now."
She laughed shakily. It was happening again...she couldn't look away from those glasses.
"Can I walk you home?" He repeated.
"I -- I'd like that." She assented. He offered her his arm. Amber took it as she had this afternoon, again feeling that peculiar jolt.
"You don't drive?"
"I don't have a car." She admitted. "Haven't for several moves."
"You move a lot, then."
"I keep hoping I can find a place to settle," she told him softly. "Someplace I can stay. Maybe this will be it."
"There are worse places than Sloanville," the glasses glinted at her in the night.
"And I have connections at the precinct," Amber grinned. "Where would I possibly be safer?"
"Safe?" He mused. "I don't know about safe. It's interesting around here, but I'm not sure about safe."
"I feel safe with you..." she murmured.
He stopped, looked down at her. "Maybe that's a big mistake. I'm a fairly dangerous man." He was surprised at himself -- he usually told people he was a very dangerous man.
"Oh, I know that," she said very quietly.
She laughed softly. The danger she was talking about was only the danger to her heart and peace of mind "Are you telling me I shouldn't settle here?"
"Not at all, Green Eyes. Just letting you know it might be a more...eventful place than you think."
"I'm kind of counting on that." Green Eyes -- when he called her that, it felt like a caress.
They walked on. She realized he was leading -- smiled. He had done some checking on her. She should have expected that. He was a cautious man -- rightly so, with the life he had led. He did not speak again until she said,
"Well, we're almost there. Want to come up?"
A quick flash of strong white teeth in the dark. "Not this time. Maybe another?"
"You ought to come to my grand opening tomorrow."
"I might do that," he said slowly.
"I'll keep an eye out."
With one hand, he lowered his glasses just enough to peer at her. She could not see any more than that he did have eyes. With the other hand, he raised hers to his lips. Then he was gone.
Amber looked after him for a long moment, the fingers he had kissed to her mouth. At last, suddenly feeling eyes on her from the shadows, she turned and went through the back door and up the stairs.
Kermit strode back to Delancy's, where he had left the lime green Corvair. He did not go back in, but drove home. He had recently purchased a house in a Sloanville suburb -- a quiet neighborhood, close enough to the precinct house for an easy commute. As he parked in the garage, he wryly thought that if Amber came over here more than once, he would have to actually meet some of the neighbors who shied away from him. What was it about her? It couldn't just be the pheromones -- and he could not stop thinking about her.
TJ had been unwittingly close to injury this evening. Kermit shook his head at his own response to the redhead's attentions to Amber. Blake had not disturbed him so much -- but then, Blake had made it clear from the first that he was merely enjoying the chemical high she put out. TJ had been trying to impress the young woman.
The former spy poured himself an Irish lager, watching the amber liquid flow into the chilled mug. Amber. He'd looked her up in the system today. She was twenty-eight -- had not lived in one place longer than ten months since college. She had a valid driver's license -- made sure to get one for whatever state she lived in -- but owned no car. Her newest, for this state, had been issued only yesterday. She was an heiress, with a modest fortune that allowed her to open store after store and then sell them to young people on generous terms. He was not old enough to be her father --that had eased his mind. The feelings he had for her were decidedly un-paternal. Then again, she had not looked at him like a girl looked at her father, either. He suddenly realized he was sitting in the dark.
Rising, he pulled off the tie, flipped the light switch and went about his `coming home' ritual. A quick check to make sure his domain had not been penetrated during the day, a change into more comfortable clothing, and he pulled a `frozen in a bag' dinner from the freezer. It wasn't great, but it wasn't K-rations, either. This was one of those `you sauté it and put it over rice' meals. He used the Asian rice Caine had taught him how to prepare, and made his solitary dinner.
Amber made herself a quick dinner, then changed into a soft, light grey robe and flipped the television on. It wasn't yet hockey season...she had a few weeks to go for that...and none of the usual sitcoms appealed to her. She settled on a PBS special on the pyramids and logged into the net, checking her email.
Nothing pressing. Kermit's face rose in her mind. Why hadn't he wanted to come up? She knew now that he was drawn to her as much as she to him -- was he merely playing it safe for both of them? And if so, what harm could she do the man? He was even more dangerous than he had tried to tell her. She knew he could kill without a second thought, that he had done so. She knew that he had lived a life diametrically opposed to everything she stood for, but she could not explain that to the primitive part of her brain -- the part that responded to a male of the species. He was, indeed, a dominant male, and her body appreciated that fact. Then too, the more evolved part of her mind knew that he had spent the past few years living a life less brutal. He did yearn for real connections to people now.
She shook her head. She could not let him take over her mind like this! To change the topic of her thoughts, she replied to a few emails from friends in other towns -- Briana in San Francisco was still delighted with the store Amber had turned over to her, and burbled on about recent days. Amber typed a reply with a fond smile. Briana had been about to hit rock bottom when they met. She had been neck deep in a gin bottle, careless of with whom she slept, sleeping in doorways when someone wanting easy sex did not offer a warm bed. Something in her had drawn Amber's eye, and the two women had begun a wary, tentative friendship. Briana had responded to Amber's show of trust well. In little time, she had turned herself around, gotten sober, found a girlfriend and -- somewhere deep in herself -- a reason to stay off the booze. When Amber had felt the stirrings of the need to move on again, Briana had accepted the offer of the bookstore. She and her lover Marcie were turning quite a nice profit, and Amber was pleased for her.
Finally, she turned off the television and went to bed, staring into the darkness. Would he come to her store opening?
And why did she care?
She rose early from a restless sleep and went out for her morning run. It took her past the precinct -- she saw Mary Margaret leaving. The brunette waved cheerily and called.
"Gotta catch some z's -- I just came off a night case -- but I'll get to your opening later!"
"Can't wait to see you! Sleep well!" The green eyed woman called back. She grinned and waved as she ran past. Her route was a loop, so she came back past the station a bit later, seeing the back of Peter as he went in. She wondered if Kermit was in yet. She didn't know what he drove, or what shift he actually worked. She ran on home, showered and dressed before gulping down a glass of orange juice and a bowl of oatmeal.
Then Amber went down to the store, checking it over one last time. The New Age jewelry was lit nicely in low glass cabinets, the incense -- Wiccan, Pagan, and many varieties of Oriental temple blends, filled a wall rack. She had shelves full of books filling the place, and then other, odder items around the walls. Her register sat amid the jewelry counters. Everything was ready. She slipped to the back and started a pot of herbal tea, in case any of the Chinatown worthies came by to check her out. She'd been warned that someone called The Ancient was notorious for flirting with young women and begging tea. She would be happy to oblige -- she hoped he did come -- if he approved of her, her place in the community was assured. She would need the endorsement of the community elders to do what she was here for. Amber had lived in many cities, in many different ethnic neighborhoods, usually finding a specific person in need of her support, but more needing less direct help from her.
She unlocked her door precisely at ten, and waited for custom. Sure enough, Caine came a few minutes after she opened, following a small, wizened old man. They approached as she sat at the register. Caine inclined his head from behind the other man and told her,
"This is Lo Si. He is the one they call The Ancient."
She slid from her stool and came around to bow formally to the old man.
"I am Amber Adair, Ancient One, at your service," she said and turned her smile on him.
Lo Si grinned impishly. "You are quite a nice child. I think I will stay here and chat with you for a while."
She laughed. "Let me bring you a stool for your comfort."
Amber scampered to the back and brought the stool, which she set just in front of the counter. Then she ran back for some tea. Thus ensconced where he could survey the shop, supplied with tea and a small plate of tea cookies, he grinned like little Chinese angel and told Caine,
"You may rest assured I will be fine here, Kwai Chang Caine."
The Shaolin smiled at Amber with a shrug. "He is happy here."
She laughed. "I'm glad to have him. If the Ancient is here, the others in the community will come to my store. I need his approval -- and yours, Master Caine."
"I think you have both. I will see you again." He left.
"May I have another cookie?" Lo Si twinkled at her. Amber had no more defense against his smiles than most people had against hers -- she chuckled and fetched him another few cookies before pacing around the store. The Ancient remonstrated, "Calm yourself."
"No one's come."
"They will come. Get yourself a cup of tea, and sit down. They will come."
And they did. Before long, there was a steady stream in and out of her shop. When Mai arrived, Amber was glad to turn over the register and walk the floor. The 101st precinct cops were as good as their words -- most of them popped in at one time or another during the day. Peter clapped her on the shoulder, gave her a congratulatory kiss on the cheek when he came in. Jody Powell bought a book and a pack of incense. Even Captain Simms came in asking to speak to Amber. The storeowner led the auburn-haired woman to the back room, where they could talk without customer interruption.
"Thank you for coming by, Captain Simms."
"Peter tells me you have letters of recommendation to show me?"
"You mean you're interested in a psychic?"
"Lady, I'll take any help that's offered to keep crime down on my watch."
"Come with me." She ran lightly up the stairs with the older woman right behind. The letters were in the desk in her living room. Captain Simms scanned them quickly.
"I've worked with two of these people, and I know four of the other five. I'll make some calls and then get back to you. May I call you?"
"Sure. I carry a cellular -- the number's on the card Peter gave you."
"Great. Thank you." Karen Simms looked around the flat. "This is a nice place -- very comfortable."
"Thank you, Captain." Amber grinned. The other woman smiled back.
"Thank you again. You're always welcome here."
They shook hands. Amber walked the Captain out, then checked on Mai. She was doing fine. She had already hit her stride and was chatting away with the customers like an old hand. Amber made a mental note to keep an eye on Mai. The young bride might well have the potential to take the store over.
Lo Si remained until three, when he smiled and slid off his stool to go. He gave her one word of warning as he left.
"You are a good girl, Amber. Keep an eye out -- I sense there are those who do not mean you well."
Joseph Wang grinned at her as he entered the store. "If you got The Ancient here, you're set, Ma'am."
By closing, the only cop she hadn't seen was Kermit. Trade slowed, trickled, stopped. It was almost six. She sent Mai and Joseph home for the night.
"You're closing tomorrow night which is a late night. We should be pretty slow for a few days now, while people think about us. Mai, you can show Joseph the register tomorrow afternoon, and we'll talk about stock, ordering and that kind of thing. Okay?"
They left, and she began to close up. The bell tinkled and she looked up to see Kermit, swathed in his black trenchcoat, glasses firmly in place.
"Hi, Green Eyes."
"You made it." It was one minute to six.
"Long day," he said. "I'm sorry."
She froze. "What?"
"I'm sorry I missed your opening. Can I make it up to you?"
Amber's jaw dropped. She could think of nothing to say. He was sorry? How long had it been since a man had apologized to her? And this man did not apologize, she sensed. But more than that, they had only met yesterday -- why the chivalry?
"I know your first day meant a lot to you. I had a lot of work fall on me. We had some really complex crap and I had to hack into some tight places to get the information the Captain needed. Then, some kid almost hacked into our files. Sometimes it's not so good to be the only computer expert in the department."
"I...I'm...it's okay?" She tried.
"Well, let me take you to dinner."
"I could cook something upstairs. You don't have to..."
Something in his face told her she had made an offer that almost hurt. He wanted her to cook for him -- wanted it a lot, but didn't want to go back on his offer. He tried again, "No, I'll take you out."
"No." She told him firmly. It did not take her talent to know he would quite possibly kill for a real home cooked meal. "Let me cook for you. It's much more fun than cooking for one, which is what I do a lot. Come on upstairs. Did you lock your car?"
"Oh, yeah." He sounded so firm she had to laugh. "If you insist, then I can't turn down your offer."
"Rain check on dinner out?"
Again, that quicksilver smile. "Name the day."
She flipped the switches turning the lights off, locked the front door and made for the back. She could feel him a step behind her. As she set the alarm, he waited patiently. Then she led the way up the stairs. He looked around her flat, much as Karen had done.
"Nice place. Homey."
"Sit down," she told him. "What would you like to drink?"
"Whatever you have."
"Actually, what I have is water, juice, tea or an Irish lager. It's sort of an acquired taste."
He smiled. "That's my favorite, besides scotch."
She fetched one and poured it into a chilled mug, just the way he liked it. He had to laugh.
"I can't believe it -- that's the way I do it at home."
She smiled gently, poured herself some cold filtered water. "That's the only way a civilized person serves it."
"You're not having any?"
"I drink very seldom. I'll have some with dinner."
She moved around the kitchen the way she had moved when Caine had noticed -- efficiently, with a fluid grace. Kermit watched her through his glasses, appreciating her easy glide.
"Do you eat meat?"
"Doesn't everyone?" He joked.
"Oh, good. This is a quick dinner, then. Not too much work, but it feels elegant."
Kermit watched as she sliced some veal thin, pounded it thinner, dipped it in egg and then breadcrumbs. She let it sit on the counter while she swiftly put together a salad and took rolls from the freezer, placing them on a cookie sheet in the oven. "Made them a few days ago and froze them. Much better than bought."
He could only agree. Amber stood before him, hands on her hips. "If you're planning to stay, you'd better give me that coat."
He rose and removed it -- he had forgotten he was still wearing the thing, to tell the truth. She took it and hung it on a tall coat rack in the central hallway. "If you need to make an escape, it's right there."
His suit coat fell open as he sat, revealing the big ugly desert eagle in its holster. He was so used to it, he had almost forgotten it was there. "Want this, too?"
She didn't even look. "No. I figure the safest place for it is with you."
Kermit couldn't think of anything to say. She trusted him that much?
"Of course I trust you," she told him from where she was heating a cast iron pan of olive oil. "Would I offer to cook for you otherwise?" Amber turned to meet his eyes -- somehow he knew she was again looking past the glasses, right into him. "Mother raised me not to share meals with strange men I don't trust. With or without superior firepower."
"Green Eyes, you're taking a lot on faith."
"All I know is faith, sir. It's kept me alive so far."
He loosened his tie -- today it was a green and black patterned one. He stood again, took his mug and stalked to the living room. Amber was cooking the veal now, watching him covertly. It felt so natural to have him prowling her home. He was magnificent in a strange way. He was not, as Peter was, the conventional male beauty. He was older, for one thing -- she thought maybe in his forties -- she'd call Peter tomorrow and ask. Or maybe Skalany or Jody. His hair fell to his shoulders in a purposely-shaggy sort of style -- the white lock in the front and the ones at his temples merely added to the attraction she was feeling. He was a man who had seen hard times, made hard choices and lived not to tell about it.
He was poking at her computer when she told him, "Come and get it or I'll throw it out."
She dressed the salad as he came back over, and they were ready.
Kermit had not quite realized how much he missed the times he had shared dinner at the Blaisdells' home until now, as Amber poured him a second beer and got one for herself. The meal was just right, he decided. The rolls were crisp and hot, the salad crisp and cold, the veal delicate and tender. He thought he could get used to this. And he could get used to sitting across from this woman on a regular basis.
He realized she was watching him. "It's great," he told her. "For so little time, it's a terrific meal."
She colored. "Thank you. I'm glad you like it." For some perverse reason, he liked it when she blushed.
Afterwards, he helped her clear up. They ended up standing awkwardly in her kitchen, dishes done and put away, not sure where to go from here. He didn't want to leave, and she didn't want him to. Finally, Amber attempted,
"Want to watch some TV?" Not her best come-hither line.
He didn't, but it was an excuse to stay. She turned the box on and they sat on the sofa. This was too comfortable, she thought. She could learn to like this, sitting with him of an evening, having another person with her in her life. That life had been somewhat lonely of late.
When he put his arm across the back of the couch, she said nothing. She wasn't sure what to say, so instead, she shifted a little closer to him. He turned to her.
"What do you want from me, Green Eyes?"
"I want you to take off your jacket and stay a little longer," she could only tell the truth, feeling his eyes locked on hers behind the glass.
That flash of teeth again. "As you wish." He leaned forward sliding the offending garment off and tossed it on the chair. Now he put his arm across her shoulders, touched the remote and the TV went dark.
"No more games," he told her.
"No more games," she whispered.
He took off his glasses -- his eyes were dark, deep wells she wanted to plunge into. Then he leaned over and kissed her. It began gently, as if he were seeking something -- but as she responded he grew more determined, tasting her, learning her. She could not have pulled away had she wanted to. She didn't want to. Amber wound her arms around his neck and held on, plunging her fingers into his dark hair.
All too soon, he released her. Regretfully, she disentangled her hands.
"I should go."
"I have to get to work in the morning."
Amber sighed. "I didn't know you were so responsible."
"I'm an old man. I need my sleep."
She raised an eyebrow. He gave her a crooked smile. "I'm old enough to be your father."
Now she laughed, low in her throat. It sent a shiver down his...well, all over. "Not hardly," she told him. "Not unless you were a very advanced boy."
"I've been married before."
"So, you're telling me I wouldn't be your first?" The amusement in her voice should have warned him. Amber was about to do something she was not sure about, but had to do. "Darn. And I so hoped to deflower you."
"I really ought to..."
She stood, unbuttoned her blouse and let it fall to the floor. Her skirt followed. Kermit had been about to replace his dark glasses, but now they fell from his fingers onto the sofa. Amber Adair had an athletic figure with some definitely feminine curves, but more than that, she carried herself with the confidence of a queen. Her eyes showed her uncertainty, but her body already knew what his response had to be.
"Oh, yeah," he breathed.
Amber smiled slowly. The wariness faded. "Do you still have to rush off?"
"I'm not sure I can," he told her, meeting her eyes frankly.
"Good." She scooped up his sunglasses and her outer clothes and strode down the hall. He rose and followed. The lingerie she wore was a wine color, and Kermit was beginning to feel it had gone to his head. In the bedroom, she set his glasses on one of the bed tables, tossed her clothes aside and turned to unbutton his shirt. He stripped off the tie, put his holster on the table and then unbuckled his belt while her fingers fumbled on his buttons in her eagerness. He stepped out of his trousers and took her in his arms for a lingering kiss. Then laughing softly, he finished removing his shirt.
"Guess I'm in too much of a hurry," she smiled.
"I'll take that as flattery," he got her onto the bed, running slow fingers over the bra, over her shoulders and down her back. Amber slid her arms around him, pulling him to her, then wriggled and twisted herself on top of him. As she ran light hands down his furred chest, he found and unfastened the clasp, letting the bra slide down her arms. A lazy smile teased her lips as she shrugged it off and bent to kiss his neck. He buried his face in her breasts, while his hands slid down to remove the last garment in his way. She was beginning to think that being burned to ashes might not be such a bad fate for a moth, after all.
Amber was no blushing virgin. She ran her hands along his body with great delight -- he apparently did not spend all of his time seated at a terminal. Her last lover had been in far less trim, and Kermit had a way of enticing her along one path only to pounce and take her in another direction that was at once delicious and maddening.
He teased her until Amber thought she might scream, before entering her. With a happy little moan she wriggled to meet his thrust. It took a little for them to find a rhythm, but once they did, it quickly built, both in speed and intensity. She was a little frightened of her own need -- she felt shameless as she met every thrust, letting out little noises of pleasure.
He seemed to dive deeper into her and her green eyes. This was not what he had expected -- it was more. This woman knew how to give and take at the same time -- she both cradled and demanded, rocked gently and clutched at him. It must be this gift of hers -- he not only felt his own sensations, he could feel her feeling him, and it was very heady stuff. She was taking her own joy while giving him a sense of pleasure he hadn't felt in a very long time, and this odd double-sense of it made every motion even more intense.
The pace quickened -- she was panting now, her need building as his did until finally they peaked and subsided to the mattress spent.
Amber lay with her head on his chest, still breathing heavily as she recovered. It had been long and long, and Kermit had made his need for her known. She could not remember a time when loving had been better. She opened her eyes again and twisted up to better see him. He grinned up at the ceiling.
She blinked. "Well what?"
"Well, what now?"
"Now I pass out into dreamless and contented sleep, lover."
"Ah." That wasn't what he had meant. He wasn't completely sure what he had meant.
She rolled enough to turn off the light. "Damn."
"I have to go turn off the other lights."
"I can do it," he offered.
"No, I'll do it." She was half-afraid that if she let him do it, he would keep going out the door and home. She scampered out to flip the switches, sliding back into bed beside him.
She drifted off to sleep lulled by his regular breathing, comforted by the warmth he brought into her bed.
Kermit woke to the sun coming in the window -- which faced east. He groaned. Turning his head, he found a pair of wide green eyes studying him.
"Morning," she grinned.
"Don't tell me you're a morning person," he begged, closing his eyes.
A slivery peal of laughter answered him as she leaned over to kiss him, then flung herself out of bed.
"I have to go run."
"And you run in the morning?"
"If I ran at night in this neighborhood, I'm afraid Peter would turn me over his knee."
"If he didn't, I would."
She raised a brow. "I think I'll leave that offer alone."
"I have to go home before I go to work," he groaned, reaching for his sunglasses.
"I think I have a shirt that would fit you," she offered. At his look, she added, "Don't give me that -- I wear oversized men's shirts from time to time. And I have some ties. You can just clean up here and pop off to the office."
He rolled out of bed. "You're way too perky at this hour."
"Come on, I'll run while you shower, and then I'll fix you breakfast."
He turned the glasses upon her. "Now, that's an offer I can't refuse."
"Well, take your time washing. My route will take me about half an hour."
She threw on the shorts and tank top and went. Kermit took a minute to make the bed. I may be a tough guy, but I can help a lady out. By the time he emerged from her shower, she was back. Amber found him the promised shirt and tie, and a spare toothbrush. Then she cooked up a quick two bowls of oatmeal with brown sugar, serving it along with what had to be the last of the summer melons and sent him off with a kiss.
He stopped at the back door and grinned. "Why do I feel like the dad in an old sitcom?"
Amber laughed lightly. "Mercenary Man, the TV series."
He touched her hair softly and almost said something. Then he changed his mind and left.
Amber ran back up the stairs and took her own shower. It was only when she returned to dress for the day that she noticed the neatly made bed.
"Big tough guy," she laughed. "His Momma must have taught him that."
She threw on a button-down shirt and dark slacks, with a pair of little black half boots. Then, on a whim, she tied on Kermit's tie.
She spent some time updating her store files on the computer, and then it was time to open. Jody phoned shortly after that, to see if Amber was still up for lunch. Amber confirmed as the first customers began trickling in.
Mai and Joseph arrived before lunchtime -- they had a light class load on Thursdays. Mai immediately showed her husband the register, and then closely watched as he rang a few purchases. When she was satisfied, she sent him out to chat with the customers. Amber was impressed. This couple was really trying to make good for her. When Jody poked her head in the door, Amber waved to her new employees.
"I won't be long -- call me on the cell if you need me."
Mai merely waved her off with a smile.
Jody drove them to a small café outside Chinatown. "I know, I know, we live and work there, but sometimes I just have to get out!"
"I understand," the honey-haired woman told her. "Sometimes you just want something different."
Jody gave her a look through narrowed eyes. "And our ex-mercenary is something different, I would guess."
Amber started, looked away with a blush. "If I don't want it to be general knowledge, I guess I ought not wear the tie he wore yesterday."
The blonde detective laughed. "Believe it or not, I won't say anything. But you might want to change it if you don't want Peter to notice."
She hadn't really thought of that. Peter might feasibly drop by the store at any time. And if Jody had recognized the tie, why shouldn't anyone else who knew Kermit? Reluctantly, Amber untied and drew off the green and black tie, carefully rolling it into her pocket. "Thanks, Jody."
"So, does he ever take off the shades?"
She gave the other woman an enigmatic smile. "Not so's you'd notice."
They chatted of other things through lunch -- primarily their respective childhoods. Jody was burning with curiosity, but did not want to push. The idea of this woman, so full of energy and openness, together with the mystery man of the 101st just begged for examination. The cop might like to be tough in her line of work, but she was a romantic at heart, and was dying to poke her nose in it -- she just didn't dare yet. Soon, but not yet.
As they were leaving, Amber decided to ask Jody -- after all, the woman had said she would not spread the news. "Jody, how old is Kermit, anyway?"
"I don't really know," the cop admitted, taken aback. "I think he's somewhere in his forties. That white hair at the temples and the top is premature -- he's had that since I've known him. Why?"
"Confidential," Jody made the international kids' sign for locking her lips and throwing away the key.
"He made some crack about being old enough to be my father," Amber admitted.
Jody laughed out loud. "Maybe a dirty old uncle, but not your father, I suspect. Anyway, your questions are safe with me. I'll tell you anything I can, but I couldn't even dig any other info up for you. I hear he's found and deleted any information pertaining to himself."
"A man with many secrets."
"No kidding. But Amber, he's one of the good guys. He might not always come across that way, but he is."
"That much, I know." Amber gave her new friend an earnest smile. "I don't think I'd care so much for him so quickly if I didn't know that."
Jody could only look back into Amber's somber face. There was no need for Amber to state that she was giving Jody a confidence. She would not tell anyone of this -- she really liked Amber, and would honor the trust the other woman had placed in her. This had to be strange for the gentle woman. She had been raised to honor all life and help those who were trying to help themselves. To be falling in love -- Amber had not used those words, but Jody knew the signs -- with a man with such a past might seem a betrayal of her training.
She drove Amber back to the shop. The shopkeeper gave her a quick hug. "Thanks, Jody. I'm so glad we did this. Let me know when you're free again."
Jody sighed. "All too often."
"Well, come by some evening and I'll make dinner for us."
"That sounds like a deal."
"Yeah, we can rent some flicks and eat fattening foods and paint our toenails or something."
Jody threw back her head and laughed. "You're on."
Amber got back into the shop. She felt that sense of eyes on her back again from the car to the store.
Mai Wang looked up as the shop bell tinkled, smiled. Joseph came from the stock room.
"I guess things went all right, since you didn't call?"
Mai nodded. "Joseph has been checking on what's in the stock room for me -- I've been watching the front. He's given me a list, and I'm checking what sold fastest yesterday and today."
"Very good," Amber told them. "And what will you do next?"
"I'll track the sales for a few weeks, and then we can talk about what I think we need most of. You tell me if I'm right, right?" The Chinese girl went on earnestly. "I tracked yesterday even though I suspect the numbers will be off -- yesterday was the first day -- people bought things they probably wouldn't ordinarily, out of curiosity. But it's good to have the data."
This young woman was sharp! Joseph said proudly, "I sold the big jade ring, Miss Adair."
"Amber," she corrected automatically. "You both call me Amber. I'm very pleased. Joseph, I'm impressed -- I figured that ring would take weeks to sell! And Mai, you're definitely on the right track. Now, I would like you two to take a few minutes to help me. Several teenagers asked about jobs yesterday. I had them fill out applications. Will you help me go over them? Whoever we hire will report mostly to you two, so you ought to have some say."
Mai beamed. Joseph nodded -- he was not as confident yet as his young wife, but would do anything to prove his ability and desire to do as asked.
"Great. I'll be right back." She scampered up the stairs and fetched the papers from her desk. Amber did not use standard applications, but her own creations. These would tell her and the Wangs more about the character of the applicants than about their previous work experience. As she re-entered the store, Mai held up the phone.
"It's for you."
Peter's voice was welcome in Amber's ears. His news was less so. "I found a note on my desk asking me to call you. Kermit had to go out of town unexpectedly. He said he'll be back when he can."
Amber almost dropped the phone in dismay.
Amber recovered herself even as her heart hit her shoes. "Thanks, Peter. Thank you for telling me."
"Say, are you busy tonight?"
"Why?" Had he heard the hurt in her voice? She thought she had better control over herself than this.
"Well, there's a preseason expo game on tonight...do you still like hockey?"
She smiled sadly into the phone. "It's my favorite! Why don't you get Jordan and Jody and ask if they want to come over? We can all watch it here and I'll put together some food."
Peter whooped. "You bet! That sounds terrific! We'll be there."
"Just come through the front and Mai or Joseph will let you back to the stairs."
Kermit had gone. She should have figured -- she'd thrown herself at him last night -- what must he think of her? Probably he had skipped out for a few days to let things cool down. She should never have rushed him. She might not have -- had never done so before -- but she had never felt for anyone what coursed through her when she thought of the mysterious man behind his walls of green glass. Could she have completely misread his feelings for her?
Still in a haze of disappointment, she went about the business of the afternoon -- she went over the applications with the Wangs, then left them to make some preliminary choices while she went out to pick up some groceries for the evening. The unseen watcher was again with her as she walked to the Huan's little corner store and back. Amber might have paid more attention to the sensation had she not been numbed with self-doubt.
Around six, she went upstairs to prepare for her guests. Mai and Joseph knew to call up if they needed her, but she was sure Mai would do a fine job. Joseph was becoming quite the salesman -- his young good looks made him a hit with the older ladies of the community -- and the younger ones, too. But it was his young wife Amber had her eye on: Mai had the potential to manage the store. If these two were the ones she was to sign `The Unturned Page' over to, she had no doubt that Mai would become the shop's driving force.
Amber looked around her flat, making sure there were no signs left of last night's tryst. With Kermit's flight, she did not want to have to talk about it. His tie went in her bedtable drawer; his shirt hung on a hook on the inside of her closet door. She would take both to the cleaners down the block so that on his return, she could render them fresh and pressed to their owner, thereby relieving him of feeling pressured by her.
A hockey game called for food that could be eaten on the sofa, in front of the TV. Amber suspected that Peter, being what he was, would invite some extra folks along. She threw together tortilla chips and cheese, ready to be melted into cheese nachos, then put the chicken wings on cookie sheets for heating, basting sauce handy. A quick spinach and cheese dip for the potato chips took her no time. Lastly, Amber set up a tray of sandwich makings and cut vegetables. No matter how many people Peter brought, no one would leave her home hungry.
Footsteps on the stair alerted her that she had been correct -- more than three people were coming. Peter and Jordan, followed by Skalany, Jody and Blake trooped in. Peter bestowed a brotherly kiss upon her forehead. "I hope you don't mind the extras."
"Not at all," she laughed up at him. "Somehow I knew you'd do this. Where's your father?"
He looked at her, startled. "How did you -- never mind. He'll be along in a minute. And Lo Si is with him."
"Ah. Very good. Go right on in to the living room."
They filed past her, all except Jody who said, "Can I ask you a question about that book you sold me?"
"Sure." She let the blonde lead her a little down the hallway.
"Man, I wanted to warn you about Kermit -- he was there this morning when I left to meet you, but when I got back from lunch he was gone. You have to know -- he does this. I don't think he's completely left the old days behind. From time to time he'll disappear for a few days. When I heard Peter call you about it, I figured you might have taken it wrong."
"Well, that he didn't call you himself, that he had Peter do it. I know something's going on with you and him, and you ...well, I thought you ought to know he does this."
"Oh." Amber could think of nothing to say. How had Jody put her finger so exactly on her feelings? She didn't know if she had taken it wrong -- had he left like that due to some mercenary emergency? Whatever was up, he was too far away for her to try to read -- and though she might have had a chance with someone other than Kermit, that man knew too well how to shield his mind. She would just have to see. Maybe she was taking it too personally, but the timing was suspicious, and she'd been treated lightly by men before.
Jordan came looking for her. "Amber? Can I help you with anything?"
Jody didn't miss a beat. "Thanks -- you cleared that right up for me. Can I call you with other questions?"
"Sure. Thanks, Jody. Great -- let's go bring out the food before Peter gets too hungry."
Caine and the Ancient tapped at the doorway right about then, and Amber ushered them in with a smile. Caine said, "Thank you for your hospitality. I hope my son did not presume upon your good nature."
She laughed. "You are always welcome in my home, Caine. You and Lo Si," she gave the old man another smile. "You honor me with your presence. But I never figured you two for hockey fans."
"I am attempting to understand the game, as my son is such a ...fan." The priest told her.
Lo Si grinned. "And I am an old man -- I enjoy watching the young be young."
The nachos melted quickly and the wings took little time to cook. Amber brought out the light beer she had picked up. How they could drink it, she did not know, but they did. She joined Caine in drinking water. The Ancient sipped at a beer, but quickly invaded her kitchen to make a pot of tea for himself.
The evening went well. Amber enjoyed the company of her new friends, and the hockey game was close, with lots of good, clean hockey. She had never liked the gratuitous fighting, preferring the game itself. For a time, she even almost forgot to be hurt at Kermit's defection. She decided that once hockey season began, she wanted to watch the games with this crowd -- they were a boisterous lot. Peter was trying to explain the game to Caine, who merely nodded in response to everything. The Ancient whooped and hollered along with Amber and Blake, even though he did not seem to really care about who was winning.
Amber had not had such fun in ages. Never at a loss for something to do, she had seldom had so many friends at once. Usually, she was set about aiding people from the moment she hit a town -- here in Sloanville, she was beginning to see that she was going to be more of an auxiliary to Caine. The idea of having the luxury to build a life was attractive. It had been a long time since she had felt she had the time to indulge her need for a social life. In recent years, most of her friends had been those she had helped, not people who, like these, seemed to want nothing more than her company.
Her visitors did not stay very late. Skalany and Jody helped Amber clear up, and then she let them out. As she waved them all out of sight, she was aware that her stalker was again nearby. This time, she did begin to wonder. Should she tell someone? But what would she tell them? That someone was watching her, but she only knew because she had ESP? Even if her new cop friends believed her, there was nothing they could do on that information. She locked up, double-checked the alarm and went to bed.
Saturday night Jody took her up on an invitation to come spend a "girl night'. Amber made hot cocoa with whipped cream, and they ate cookies out of the package. Jody had brought a video they had each admitted to secretly wanting to see. It was a real tearjerker -- a four-hanky special. The psychic had not fully realized until now how much she craved a girlfriend to have these cozy times with.
Amber in her green flannel pajamas, Jody in blue, sat huddled on the couch in the dark, watching the late night Cartoon Network shows.
"You're still upset about Kermit, aren't you?" The blonde woman asked.
"Upset might be the wrong word," Amber returned. "I can't believe the timing, and his not telling me himself."
"You really are falling hard for the guy, hunh?"
She looked down -- Jody could not see her flush in the dark of the living room. "Yes."
"Want to talk about it?"
"If you do," her friend offered. "You know where to find me."
"Maybe I need to wait until he comes back, and see what happens then. You say he's done this before?"
"Kermit goes away from time to time. I think it's because of old debts getting called in. Then again, every so often he's decided to go look at some ancient ruin or other. Why, I don't know. What I do know is that you shouldn't take it to heart."
Too late. The timing -- that was what made Amber worry -- that and the one small fact she could not ignore -- the fact that he had asked someone else to let her know he was leaving. What could that mean? Then again, did it mean anything? What good was being a psychic if she couldn't get answers to questions like these?
"I guess it's got to do with my history with men," she admitted. "I've not had that good a track record. Every time I think I've found the right one, he does something -- blow town, get with another woman, tell me my life is too weird -- or worse, I end up having to move on and he doesn't even try to ask me to stay."
"You're a psychic," Jody admonished her. "Why don't you use that edge with guys?"
"I'm also an ethically trained psychic," Amber returned miserably. "If I did that sort of thing, it would be kind of like Anakin Skywalker giving in to the Dark Side. I'm not supposed to try to invade or influence people -- although with that Mercenary Man, I have to admit I've been tempted."
"Figures," her friend grumbled. "Get a cool superpower like that, and you just know there's a catch."
Amber had to giggle.
Sunday was a quiet day, which left Amber alone too long with her thoughts. When Skalany called with an invitation to join herself and Jody at Delancy's, the young woman jumped at it. She had a good evening with the two policewomen, trading stories and eating bar food.
She was walking home when the figures jumped her. Right away, she knew that the leader was the same unseen watcher she had felt for days. They were five, surrounding her, moving with a sinuous grace certain martial artists develop.
"We don't need any more damn do-gooders around here," snarled the leader. He was tall. She could see nothing but gleaming black eyes behind the dark ski mask. "The boss wanted us to let you know you're not wanted here."
She turned warily, slowly, using eyes and talent to keep tabs on each of the five. Four of them were still circling her as she responded to the one who seemed to be in charge. "Who's the boss? And why is he so sure no one wants me here?"
"No one else counts," the man told her coldly. "Shang Kai Zeng casts the only vote that matters. There are enough Chinese talents meddling around here -- we don't need any white" he spat the word. "witches sticking their noses in. Go back to your own people, little girl."
"Anyone who needs help is `my people'," she retorted defiantly.
"Very noble," another of the black-clad figured sneered. "We'll put that on your tombstone."
One of them lunged. Amber might be averse to killing, but self-defense was another matter. As Uncle Dougie had taught her, she caught the attacker with a right uppercut. Simultaneously, she attacked two of the others with a mental shriek directed at their spinal cords. It shut down the nervous system temporarily -- just long enough to drop them to the ground and make them want to think about getting back up. The leader advanced with a menacing step and a long black cosh as one of the other two leaped at her, catching her in the gut with a hard kick.
She fought like a wildcat and marked them with her nails through their masks before the rain of blows from the nightstick broke her concentration -- she could not use her talent to keep the other two away with such distraction, and the one she'd clipped was already up and assisting his cronies. The small satisfaction she had known at the feel of her fingernails breaking the skin faded as she recognized that the masks kept their skin from under her nails. There would be nothing for the coroner to identify, and it was beginning to look bad for her. She hoped she might have enough wit left to make herself ready to die. The pain lancing through her middle and her head told her these men were serious -- she had little chance of making it out of this.
Then they were there -- a tall, grey-haired figure in brown and a small man in grey robes with an impish little face. Caine and Lo Si. The Ancient placed himself in front of Amber, sliding gracefully into a defensive posture. He kept himself between her and the assailants. Caine took the offensive, a brown blur to Amber's eyes. He quickly routed the men attacking her, chasing them off with a final contemptuous kick at the leader's hindquarters. Amber tried to laugh at that, but slumped suddenly to the concrete. Caine caught her tenderly, lifting her into his arms. She thought for one moment that he was someone else, someone she could not delude herself from knowing she wanted to see. Her world turned black.
She woke in an unfamiliar white room -- then realized it was the hospital. It was pain that had called her back to consciousness. She hurt.
"You are awake," a soft voice told her with evident satisfaction. She blinked, lifted her head. Lo Si stood beside her, Caine at the foot of the bed. It was Lo Si who had spoken.
"Yes. You came from nowhere! How can I ever thank you?"
"Thanks are not necessary."
"I think they are. If you hadn't come along, I think they would have beaten me to death."
"Perhaps," Caine shrugged. "But we did come, and they did not beat you to death."
"Who is Shang Kai Zeng?" She whispered.
"He is a very powerful man," the priest told her. "You should stay away from him."
"I may not have the option," she told him. "He wants me to leave town."
"But I won't. I won't be driven away by anyone." Her whisper was as fierce as she could force.
Peter appeared, came over and pushed the button to raise the head of the bed. "You don't need to be straining yourself just now," he admonished.
Amber smiled weakly. "How many ribs did they break?"
"None. They just cracked two, luckily," her `big brother' told her. "Mostly you were just bruised inside and out. You're very fortunate. It could have been much worse."
"It would have been," she told him. "If my two guardian spirits here hadn't come along."
"Yeah," he looked over at Caine with a wry but proud smile. "My Pop has a knack for coming along in the nick of time."
"What in the hell is going on?" A voice demanded from the hall. There was chaos in the corridor, like the orderlies were trying to keep someone out of a place he wanted to get into. Apparently they failed. Kermit burst through the doorway. "What are -- Amber!" He was at her side in a flash; face twisted in...was it anger? "What happened to you? I've been trying to reach --" he broke off as he got a good look at her battered face.
"Shang's bully-boys happened to her," Peter told his friend. "Seems our old friend wants this lady out of the way."
Amber turned her head, closed her eyes. Kermit touched her cheek. "Damn. I should have been here. How did they get you, Green Eyes?"
This did not sound like a man who'd run away from her. She cautiously looked back at him. "I was walking home from Delancy's..."
"You what?" His voice took on a dangerous edge.
"I had drinks and a burger with Skalany and Jody -- I was walking home and..."
Kermit's face registered holy wrath. "What in the hell did you think you were doing? We talked about you running at night -- what made you think you could walk alone at night in that neighborhood?"
Indignation crossed her face, but the pain made her wince, ruining the effect. "I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself..."
"Yeah, right. Have you seen your face?" His gentle finger on her cheek belied the anger in his tone. "If that's how you take care of yourself, Green Eyes, remind me not to let you take care of me."
She closed her eyes again. "There were five of them. Usually the creeps who hassle a girl on the street are less organized." Her tone took on an edge. "Besides, who are you to tell me what to do?"
Peter and his father recognized the potential firestorm and withdrew to the doorway. Lo Si withdrew a little way, as well. Peter did not necessarily try to overhear, but he did not try not to, either. It was looking like he had missed something between these two friends of his. He'd hardly given it a thought when he'd gotten Kermit's note asking him to tell Amber he was going away, but now...well, he had apparently been clueless again.
"What are you talking about?" Kermit demanded. That look of righteous indignation had not left his visage.
She had a similar look about her bruised and battered face. "I don't see where you get off telling me anything -- you who took off without a word to me. I thought there might have been something between us -- that finally someone I cared about might care about me, too. Boy, do I feel stupid now! Damn it, you had Peter call me. You didn't care enough to call yourself?"
Kermit sat down in the chair now, removed his sunglasses. "Is that -- oh, Amber, I'm sorry. It's been a long time since I had to worry about someone caring that much about where I was. I haven't had to explain my life to anyone in a long time."
She regarded him silently.
"I actually left you a note. It's probably still in my office." Nobody went into his office when he was away anymore. Paul Blaisdell had been able to do so with impunity, but even Peter knew better now.
Still she said nothing.
"I'm not good at being very close to people. Ask my ex-wives." He thought a moment. "No, don't. If they find out where I am, I might have to start paying alimony again. No, wait -- they did remarry, so I'm off the hook. I'll even find out where they are for you. You check with them -- they'll tell you. I'm rotten at this sort of thing," he was babbling now, and he knew it. Time to shut up. When was the last time Kermit Griffin had found himself babbling? Then again, when had a woman he cared about been beaten like this?
Amber blinked. "Do you mean that?"
She almost smiled. "Let's see: you'd really find me the phone number of an ex-wife so I could ask about how bad you are?"
He didn't answer right away. She asked, "You left me a note?"
"And what about the other part of that?"
"What -- the part where I didn't tell you I've come to care about you too much already?" He told her gravely, "You're likely to have to live with me not telling you that. Actively not telling you. That's another thing I'm not good at."
She laughed, winced, tried again more carefully. "I think you do fine."
He very gently kissed an un-bruised spot on her hand. Then, as he put his glasses back on, Peter advanced again.
"Amber, I just got a call. More bad news, I'm afraid. Your store."
She tried to sit up. This time, she managed. She was already healing. Peter and Kermit tried to push her back, but she shook them off impatiently. "Damn it; let me up. I'm a fast healer -- I just can't move too quickly right now. Damn it -- what about my store?"
"There's been some vandalism. We can't tell how much, because there's also been a fire."
"What?" She fairly shrieked. "Was anyone hurt?"
"No, but your apartment has had it. Jody says she was able to get the firemen to save your hard drive and the file cabinet, but I'm afraid the rest is a wash."
She slumped back against the bed.
"Damn." For one moment, the amber-haired woman looked utterly defeated.
"What are you going to do?"
"What can I do? Tomorrow I'll file the insurance claim, and start over. I'll need another storefront." She rallied, sat up again. "I am for damn sure not letting any two bit hood with a match chase me out of here."
Caine stepped forward. "I may be able to assist you in finding another place for a store."
She flashed him a grateful smile. "Thank you. I can buy anything reasonable you find. I'll call the Wangs tomorrow. They'll need to know they are still under my employ, and still getting paid. We should be up and running again by the end of the week."
Kermit smiled to himself. He had to admire her determination. Peter asked, "What are you talking about? The insurance company isn't going to pay out that fast!"
Amber turned her 1000-watt smile on him. The effect was only partially marred by the damage. "Why Peter, you know I have more money than brains. As soon as I can get around without groaning -- probably faster than the doctor would like -- I'll be able to get going on getting things together. Can someone get me to a hotel?"
Peter snorted. "I'd let you stay with me, but I have a one bedroom apartment, and Jordan would just not understand."
"You could stay in my home," Caine put in.
Kermit put a hand lightly on her shoulder. "No. Hey, Caine doesn't even have electricity. Stay with me. I have plenty of room."
"That's right -- you bought a house, didn't you?" The younger cop asked. "But you're a bit out of Chinatown, aren't you?"
"I'll get you wherever you need to be." He told her.
Amber met his eyes -- well, she met the glasses. Suddenly, she grinned. "How can I turn down that kind of an offer?"
He flashed her that quicksilver smile.
"You're a prince. You're my Frog Prince. Now," she went on petulantly, "Can we get me checked the hell out of here?"
There was no arguing with her. Peter and Kermit were not sure she should leave yet, but Caine did not seem to agree with them, and Amber was determined to get out of the hospital, calling it an `antiseptic edifice'. The Ancient merely smiled his elfin smile and offered her his arm to lean on. She limped with his support to the nurses' station and insisted on checking out right away. Dr. Sabourin finally agreed to let her go, as long as she took it easy.
"Frankly," she said after giving Amber a quick check-over, "I can't believe how much better you are already!"
"I heal fast," Amber replied. "Family trait. Thank you, doctor."
The doctor shook her head in amused exasperation. "You heal fast, Caine here heals others fast...I'll be out of business soon."
Amber, stubborn as she was, could not get out of being wheeled out of the hospital. Kermit pulled his Corvair around as the intern stopped the chair. Caine helped her stand.
"Come to the station in the morning," Peter told her. "We'll get the insurance people on the right track, and take your statement. I'll try to get the Captain to let me work on this one."
"Thank you," she hugged him gingerly, then Caine.
"And you, Kwai Chang Caine -- thank you for coming to my rescue." She turned last to hug Lo Si and bestow a kiss on his old cheek. "And you, for protecting me. Thank you, my Chinese angel."
He twinkled at her. "You owe me now, young lady." Then he told her gravely. "I told you already that there are those who will seek to hurt you. You must be very careful. The danger is not over."
Amber felt a feather-light touch in her mind. The old man grinned again, saying, "I will also keep an eye on you."
Kermit didn't say anything as he pulled the green Corvair out of the lot. Amber leaned back in the seat and closed her green eyes. Finally, he spoke.
"You could have been killed."
"Yes," she agreed, eyes still shut. "It's a good thing Lo Si and Caine came along when they did."
"I'd say it's a good thing you're not the only psychic around."
"Thought I was done for," she answered conversationally.
"You know, walking around that neighborhood at night alone was stupid." His tone was also casual. "Why in the hell did you walk home by yourself?"
"Because Delancy's is close to the store...was close to the store," she corrected herself. Her store was no longer -- at least not for the moment, and would not be in the same place. "Because I've never been afraid to be alone."
Kermit was silent again for a time, watching the road through his glasses.
Amber opened her eyes, turned to look at him. "It's nice of you to let me stay with you tonight."
"By the time we get there, the night will be mostly gone."
"I've lived on short sleep before."
"What will you do?"
"Catch a ride in with you tomorrow and fill out paperwork for Peter, then see the insurance people, and then see Caine about a new place."
"And maybe buy a car."
He regarded her silently for a moment. "So you're really thinking of staying here?"
"There are worse places than Sloanville."
He flashed that brief grin again. "I sort of hoped you might think so."
Mindful of her injuries, he offered her the guest room. Amber chuckled softly. "Putting temptation out of reach?"
"You're hurt," he told her.
"Yes, I am. But I will be better soon." It was a promise. As it turned out, she slept beside him again. They were chaste enough, but Amber felt herself much reassured with his warmth next to her.
They arrived at the 101st bright and early. Their joint entrance did not go unnoticed, but no one mentioned it. Jody gave Amber a wink on the sly. The honey-tressed woman returned it with a twinkle in her eye and a sheepish grin.
"Come on over here," Peter gestured. "I need a statement, and we have to fill out a report."
Kermit went into his office, closing the door. Amber sat in the chair Peter indicated and they got to work.
Once the report was filed, she used Peter's desk phone to call the insurance agent, who agreed to meet her at the property in ten minutes. Her old friend chuckled as she reported this. He directed a look at the closed door.
"I wonder what our buddy put in your policy file."
Amber started. "You think he...?"
"I would be surprised if he hadn't."
Peter and Jody went with her to meet Ross, the agent. Amber walked around what was left of `The Unturned Page' with a lump in her throat and tears threatening. Impatient with herself, she shook them away -- no one had been hurt, and Jody had managed to save all her important documents and her computer. It was only things that had been destroyed, and things could be replaced. She would have been incapacitated had Mai or Joseph been in the shop when it went.
Ross agreed that Providence Insurance would pay out quickly, but Amber's premiums were going to go up. The young woman nodded her acquiescence. She'd never had an incident before, and the alarms she had always used were usually enough of a deterrent. Anyone who could bypass her security was dangerous enough that she did not blame the insurance company for wanting to raise her rates.
She went back to the police station with Peter and Jody. Softly rapping on the door to Kermit's office, she was told to enter.
"Thank you for everything," she began.
He looked up, removed his shades to pinch the bridge of his nose, then smiled briefly and replaced them. "Sure. What in particular?"
"Oh, just everything. I'm about to go see Caine."
"I'm leaving at six. If you want to come back to my place, be here then."
She dropped a light kiss on his forehead. "Check, chief. I think I will need to rely on your kindness another night."
"Then I'll wait for you."
"Shouldn't have to."
She left, then stepped out of the precinct and into the street before she realized that she had not asked Peter how to get to Caine's home. No matter, she shrugged to herself. All she would need to do was find and follow that serenity she had felt from him the moment he'd first stepped into her shop.
Amber found the building and climbed the fire escape to find Lo Si sitting with Caine on a balcony, the two men silently regarding the city.
"Ah...welcome." Caine said softly. "Are you ready to look at a new...store front?"
"You found one already?" She asked eagerly.
Caine shrugged, looking at his old friend. "It was Lo Si who...discovered the place."
The little man grinned up at her from his seat. "I am sure you will be happy with it."
"Then so am I."
"I will take you there. The owner, Jack Ling, will meet us there at one thirty."
He slid off the ledge and bowed to Caine. "Thank you for allowing me to join your meditations. I am an old man and Amber is an injured woman. We will have to walk slowly, so we should start now."
Caine rose with a look at the young woman. He must have seen her eyes, for he said, "Surely you can wait and have a cup of tea before you go."
Amber nodded gratefully. Her ribs were bothering her from the climb up, and she would be grateful for the brief wait before the descent. After a cup of steaming tea she felt much better and followed the brisk old man with barely a wince.
"You will like this new place, I am sure." He told her as he led the way. She was trying to keep up, one hand touching the painful ribs. Suddenly, he seemed to notice her discomfort. "I am sorry, child," he apologized with a smile. "I am forgetting your injuries."
She dropped her pace with a sigh of relief. "Thank you, Lo Si. Usually, I could keep up fine, but I'm afraid I'm a little slow today."
"You must remember to be more careful," he admonished. "Why did you not heed my warning?"
She hung her head. "I'm afraid I didn't think long about it. I've never had anyone out to get me before."
"Tsk, tsk. What do you think I am giving you the warning for? Just to hear myself talk?"
"No, Ancient. I will be more careful."
"Good. Now, here we are."
Amber stopped dead and stared. It was wonderful! Her little Chinese angel had picked a tall, narrow brownstone built in the 1930's. It was the kind of storefront she had dreamed of, with the same old-fashioned windows and door as one sometimes saw on Christmas cards. She clapped her hands together.
"Bloody marvelous," the old man chortled. "I have it on good authority that Jack Ling will sell it at a reasonable price."
A middle-aged Chinese man emerged through the front door Amber was coveting. He strode toward them with his hand outstretched. Lo Si performed the introductions and tagged along as Ling showed the property. There was an attractive little apartment over the store, accessed by both the back stairs and a little lift. The apartment occupied the second and third floors -- two bedrooms and a bath on the top, kitchen, great room, a small office and bath on the second. The rear storage area on the store level was a bit narrower than her last one had been, but Amber was seeing possibilities.
Ling named a figure Amber thought reasonable, and she shook his hand. While he called her bank to verify her first check, she drifted around the retail space with a dreamy look, envisioning where things would go. When she and Lo Si left, she was the proud owner of a new home for `The Unturned Page', complete with keys and the alarm code.
She threw her arms around The Ancient and kissed his cheek, wincing just a little as she let him go.
"You must be careful of your hurts," he admonished, but grinned impishly.
"I'm feeling better already," she told him exuberantly. "It's just beautiful, Lo Si! Thank you!"
She tried to call the Wangs from her cell phone, but the thing did not seem to work. She walked Lo Si back to his flat, and then returned to the precinct. Peter gravely told her,
"I've filed your report, and the Captain is doing what she can, but I'm afraid we aren't going to be able to do much. There's no evidence to hook anyone for the arson, and you didn't get so much as a look at your attackers.
"I was afraid of that," Amber admitted. "I got a couple of them with my nails, but through their masks. I'm afraid all you'd get from under my nails would be wool fibers."
"I guess we could question anyone in Chinatown with scratches on his face, but then we don't even know if they live here."
"Shang Kai Zeng would be foolish to only have people here," she agreed. "He's very clever. Say, I need to use a phone."
He gestured to the one on his desk and went over to Strenlich's office. Amber phoned the Wangs and gave them the news. They were indignant that anyone would do that to her store, but glad to know she would be reopening soon.
Then she called a few suppliers and arranged for restocking, and arranged to have power, telephone and even cable turned on in the building. Finally, she called the cellular phone people, and was told to bring her unit into the nearest store, which was a few blocks away. Jody and Skalany offered to go with her.
"Tough luck, that fire," Mary Margaret said sympathetically. "And how are you feeling?"
"I'll be fine soon," the psychic assured her. "Be right in no time. I just don't understand why Shang is so set on getting rid of me."
"Word has it he likes to dabble in the arcane," the brunette replied. "Keep an eye out, will you? If he can't chase you away, and you're not dead, I'm afraid he may try something else. This is probably not over. I heard Kermit and Blake discussing your next alarm system."
Jody laughed. "Now, that's an idea. Heck, you might not be able to get into your own store!"
The saleswoman checked out Amber's phone while she waited. "I'm more angry than anything," she admitted to her new friends. "This man thinks he can frighten me away, or make me leave by destroying my property. And then to have his bullyboys try to kill me? It's just too much!"
"Miss Adair, this phone service was cancelled Saturday."
The young woman behind the counter was apologetic. "I can't understand it. The cancellation fee was paid, and we discontinued service Saturday morning."
"I didn't authorize that."
"I'm sorry, ma'am."
"Who did this? Do you have a record?"
"Well, she signed it `Amber Adair'."
Amber sighed. There was nothing she could do about it now. "Well, I need a new contract, then. And I think I want you to note that any request to alter or terminate the service has to be accompanied by not only my signature, but a photo id."
"Yes, Miss Adair."
That was all she could do for now. The new service established, the three women returned to the station. Amber felt those eyes on her again, but still said nothing. There was nothing to say. As they re-entered the precinct house, she ventured, "Maybe all three of us could get together one evening once I'm in the new place."
"That sounds great!" Jody crowed, and Skalany agreed. They went back to their desks.
Captain Simms opened her office door and asked Amber to join her.
"I understand you've been having some excitement," the older woman said gently.
"Yes, I have. And it's not the kind of excitement I would have chosen. I filed the necessary reports, but Peter doesn't think we'll get anywhere."
"No, I'm afraid not. Even if you were to be able to use your talent to tell us who attacked you, there is just not any physical evidence we could use."
"I understand. Was there something you needed to see me about?"
"I just wanted to make sure you're all right." Karen scrutinized the younger woman.
"I will be soon. And I also guess you want to make sure I'm not going to bring you a major crime wave."
The Captain shook her head. "No, I'm not worried about that. People with strange abilities tend to attract trouble, but that's hardly their doing. I really want to know you're okay. I get the feeling a friend of mine cares about you."
The woman's mind opened for just a moment, and Amber blinked as she `heard' some of the past relationship between this woman and Kermit. Her eyes widened, but she said nothing.
"Amber, you may think me a somewhat reserved person, but I care a lot about my people. Peter Caine and Kermit Griffin are two of my best people -- and Powell and Skalany rank up there as well. If they all find you worth their time and care, I have to, too. I've also made some of those calls I mentioned -- you come highly recommended. Jim Willard in particular told me I should get to know you."
Amber sat up a little straighter. "Thank you. I trust Jim is well. He's a good friend and a good cop."
"Then you'll understand when I ask you to have lunch with us next Monday. He's coming into town then, and would like us to join him."
"I'd be honored. Thank you."
She was dismissed. This woman, Karen Simms, had such a natural sense of authority -- it was easy to see why she made such a good Captain. She reminded Amber a bit of Jim, with whom she had enjoyed a working friendship.
Kermit stepped from his office. "I can get out of here a bit early, if you're ready."
"Whenever you are," she told him. He cocked his head and led the way to the parking lot. Amber added, "I need some clothes, if you wouldn't mind."
"Just tell me where."
Amber did not take long to shop. She merely presented a credit card to the sales clerk and handed the girl a list with her sizes and the items she needed, and then waited with Kermit while the girl rounded them up. That done, they left laden with a number of bags.
"Clothes! Oh, no!" Amber slapped her forehead.
"What is it?" Kermit was instantly alert.
"Your shirt and tie!" She wailed. "They must have been burned along with my stuff!"
He couldn't help it. He laughed. Then he couldn't stop laughing, and sat back in the driver's seat, shaking his head as he tried to bring his mirth under control.
"What is it?" She demanded.
"You." He removed the glasses, wiped his eyes and replaced them. "Your shop is incinerated along with everything you own, you're beaten senseless on the street and the thing you find to worry about is my shirt and tie?"
She smiled hesitantly. "Guess it is pretty foolish."
"I can replace those with no problem. You, on the other hand, are definitely one of a kind."
Still chuckling, he drove them back to his house. "You want to take that rain check for dinner tonight?"
"Let me get a shower and change first," she begged. "I've been in these clothes for two days now, and I think I might be ripe."
"Take your time," he told her. He did not let her go in until he had performed his little coming-home ritual, though. Finally, she went up the stairs and took the shower she'd been dreaming of for hours and slid into new underwear and clothes.
"You still look like a big accident," he told her when she returned to the kitchen. "People are going to think I beat you."
"You think someone'll call a cop?" She teased.
"Are you sure you feel up to eating out?" He asked. "You have two black eyes, among other things."
She sighed deeply. "I hoped I could get away without this, but give me a couple of minutes." She went back up and used some of the cosmetics she'd picked up with the clothes. With enough concelaer and foundation she looked almost normal.
"That's better, Green Eyes. Ready?"
She twinkled up at him. "Whenever you are, my Frog Prince."
He had chosen a rather nice restaurant. The interior was rich with dark wood and subdued upholstery. The maitre d' showed them to a table in a quiet table, where Amber smiled to herself at Kermit's choice of seat -- he had automatically put his back to the corner. She still could not have said why she found him so attractive, but it was, as always, hard to pull her eyes away from his face.
Kermit took pleasure in the view from his side of the table. It had been some time since he'd felt this way -- maybe since adolescence. He had thought of her more than once while he was out of town. Truth be told, he had thought of her almost constantly. New York City had seemed colder than usual this time, and the Arab more annoying. Wilson had a lot to answer for. Kermit had wanted to call her quite a few times over the weekend. He had tried to call from almost the moment he'd touched down, but had been unable to get through. Then Peter's call had come, telling him Amber was at City General...he'd been nearly frantic. If she had been hurt more seriously, or worse, he would have been terribly angry with somebody.
As it was, he was angry. Angry with Wilson, who had called him away with an urgent message that had turned out to be nothing, after all. Angry with whoever had attacked Amber, and at Shang Kai Zeng for ordering it. Angry with Amber for having been out alone and not careful enough. But mostly, he was angry with himself, for reasons he could not fully explain, even to himself. He knew now that he should have phoned her himself when he'd had to leave. How could he have thought it wouldn't matter?
When he'd found her room, and seen her face -- she'd looked like three miles of bad road. It was bad enough that Peter had had to call and tell him where she was: he'd tried the shop phone, her apartment and her cell, all of which had gotten him nothing. But then, to see that he was the last one there when she needed help...Kermit still found himself wanting to smash something. At least it had been Lo Si holding her hand, not Peter. It wouldn't have been right -- Peter had had so much in the way of `the love of a good woman' -- this was his turn. And then when Amber had turned away from him closed her eyes...he hadn't needed to be a psychic to know something was wrong. At least it was easily fixed -- all he had had to do was apologize. He would not make the same mistake again. He could not promise never to disappear again, but he damn well could make sure to tell her himself.
Amber sipped cautiously at the wine he had selected. It was very good. If she did not watch herself, she might be tempted to drink more of it than was good for her. "Lo Si found me the perfect place. I should be able to move in tomorrow or the day after."
He didn't reply for a minute. Then, "That's good. Still in Chinatown?"
"Of course. I want to stay there a while. Will you help me find a car?"
She was beginning to really love that flash of smile.
"I'll do what I can."
Back at his house, the ex-spy booted up his box and found the online classifieds. Amber paged through them, until she crowed with delight, "This one!"
"You want a Mustang?" He asked in a strange tone.
"Yes, a '67 Mustang! A dark blue one -- this sounds perfect. I'll call this guy tomorrow and take a look at it if I can. Oh, this would be great!"
Kermit merely shook his head. "All right. Then I'd better hit the hay."
She grinned. "Sounds like a plan."
They were a bit less chaste this time, in spite of having to watch Amber's injuries.
She called first thing about the Mustang, while Kermit ate a bowl of oatmeal under her watchful eye. Really, the man had no idea how to eat properly -- he had actually told her he never ate breakfast! Amber was cautious, calling the Mustang's owner so early, but he did not seem to mind at all. He told her to come along and take a look now, if she liked.
Kermit drove her to the address Bob Reed had given, and watched impassively while she looked it over. Bob turned out to be an elderly man, still strong and muscular, with a white beard and a quick grin for the young woman who so enthusiastically appreciated his classic. She drove it around the neighborhood, enjoying the feeling -- she had not driven a car in a long time, and the act imparted a sense of freedom she hadn't known she'd lost. The Mustang was a manual, and she made a mental note to thank Uncle Dougie for teaching her to drive one. Totally enchanted with this piece of automotive history, she wrote a check for Bob's asking price without demur.
Amber waited patiently while Bob called her bank. He hung up, handed over the registration with another smile. "Here y'are, Miss. Drive `er like you love her, is all I ask."
"I will," the young woman gave him her happiest grin. "I do."
"Wouldn't have sold her to you if you didn't."
Kermit smiled briefly at the two of them. "See you for lunch?"
"I'll meet you. The place Peter took us?"
The man nodded and got into his distinctive Corvair. Amber watched him go, then shook hands with Bob.
"Thank you, sir. I promise, I'll take good care of her. I plan to learn how to work on her myself."
That earned her another wide grin. "Then hold, on, Missy." He vanished into his house and reappeared with a battered old book. "Found this at a library sale back in the eighties. It's all you'll need to know. If it isn't in there, you'll have to go to someone with machinery to pull the engine out."
Amber enjoyed the smooth feel of the car as she drove to get the registration changed over. Parking it in back of the new store, she patted it fondly and went in.
She called the phone and power people, and confirmed that service had been switched to her name. A few calls let her know that her personal furniture would arrive tomorrow, along with the cookware she had ordered. The merchandise and display cases would take one more day. She had not felt watched since yesterday afternoon. Things seemed to be settling back down -- maybe Mary Margaret had been wrong, and Shang had decided she was not worth the trouble.
Amber locked up carefully and set the alarm before walking to the post office to get her address changed. She met Kwai Chang Caine and Lo Si along the way.
"Good morning...Amber," Peter's father said in his soft way. He inclined his head.
Amber gave the older men a little bow. "Good morning, gentlemen. Where are you off to?"
"The Post Office," the Ancient told her happily. "I am sending a letter to old friends in China."
"What a coincidence," she laughed. "I'm going that way, myself. May I walk along with you?"
"Of course," the wizened old man told her. "How are you today?"
"A twinge here and there, but I feel much better. I won't be able to keep myself from running much longer."
"When did...Dr. Sabourin wish to...see you again?" Caine inquired with a sharp look.
"I see her tomorrow. I will ask her," the honey-haired girl promised, "before I do anything."
"Your face is healing nicely," Lo Si said. "The bruises are already yellowing."
"Yes. I told you, I heal quickly."
The trip to the Post Office took a little time, as people stopped to greet the Ancient with respect, and Caine had to check on those he had helped along the way. Amber was a little surprised at how many people here in Chinatown knew Caine and had sought his help at one time or another.
When they parted ways, she asked Lo Si, "I am very sorry, but I will not have a teapot today after all. Would you be good enough to come tomorrow?"
"I will. What time shall I come?"
"Say, three o'clock?"
"I will be there."
Amber walked past the 101st to the pub Peter had chosen last week. She found a booth near the back and sat. Kermit walked in a few moments later and slid in across from her.
"I'm afraid I'm going to have to impose upon you for one more night," she told him with a hopeful smile. "Unless you're tired of me."
"Hardly." He leaned back on the red vinyl bench. "Are you sure you'll only need to stay one more night?"
"My furniture should arrive tomorrow. Are you coming to see it?"
He didn't answer right away, but looked over the menu. "Of course I'll come see your place."
"When you invite me."
Amber reached across the laminate table to touch his hand. "You have a standing invitation," she told him. "Any time you like. But I'd really like you to come see it this evening."
"Well, then," he flashed her that smile again. "I'll be there. And I'll have a present for you."
Amber laughed warmly. "I love presents. I'll see you after work, then."
Jody and Blake entered the diner then and saw them. Just as the pair saw her and Kermit, Amber waved with a smile, saying softly, "I hope you don't mind -- I think we're about to have company."
Blake diffidently asked if Kermit would come with him for a minute, and the two men went over near the door. Jody took the spot just vacated across from Amber and told her, "I think they're talking about your new alarm."
"Sh," the woman murmured. "I get the feeling it's supposed to be a surprise."
The blonde sat up indignantly. "Well, they should have said so, then! Skalany and I would never have said anything..."
The two men were returning. Kermit gave Jody a hard look, but slid in beside Amber without comment. They gave Sally their orders and Amber let Jody lead the conversation. It suddenly occurred to her that she had a place here. For the first time in her life, Amber had a home and a stake in keeping it. Oh, maybe she had not bought a house or thought about having babies yet, but she had bought a car. She had what looked like the beginning of an interesting relationship, even if it had mostly been physical to date. She had friends -- two real girl friends, who actually wanted to spend time with her -- not merely people seeking her help. And then there was dear Lo Si, who could brighten her whole day with his elfin smile.
And most curious of all, perhaps, was the fact that her inner heart seemed to have stopped thinking about the next move. For as long as she could remember, there had been a secret little place in her that had always said things like, `in the next store,' or `maybe next time I should'. That voice was silent -- had been silent since she'd arrived in Sloanville.
Jody lightly slapped her wrist. "Hey -- you still with us? Or are you in a psychic trance?"
Amber laughed. "Sorry -- just woolgathering. What were you saying?"
"We're doing the Delancy's thing again tonight. Want to come?"
She glanced at Kermit beside her. He made no gesture, so she said, "Sure. Got a couple things to take care of, so I might be a little late."
"There is no late at Delancy's. Just get there when you can."
Jody and Blake took off soon after eating. Kermit stayed a minute longer. "So...see you at the new shop?"
"Do you need the address, or should I let you have the fun of finding it on the net?" She teased.
"Oh, just this once I guess you could give it to me up front."
Kermit went back to the precinct in a strange mood. Most of the other cops had grown accustomed to him by now and when they saw his expression, steered clear of the man. He noted this with a wry internal grin. This time, they couldn't possibly have read his expression accurately -- he didn't know what the mood was, himself. He wasn't angry, although that was a safe assumption for anyone else to make.
He strode into his office and shut the door; trying to get back to the process he'd been following that morning. It didn't work. A light tap announced Karen Simms. She softly closed the door behind her and sat.
"What's going on with you?"
"Me?" He looked over the monitor at her. "What makes you think something's going on with me?"
She gave him a steady look.
"Amber's got a new shop," he said conversationally.
"That's good. And a place to live?"
"Just like the last one -- an apartment over the store."
"Ah." Was all the Captain said.
He tried unsuccessfully to ignore her, tried to get back into his work. Finally, he threw up his hands.
"All right. The lady's been staying with me while she looked for a new place. She's got furniture and everything coming tomorrow, and she'll be coming back to live in Chinatown."
"And this bothers you?"
"I don't like the idea of her coming right back to where she was attacked. I don't like Amber putting herself right back in Shang's reach. And I'm going to..."
"Miss her?" Karen's voice was gentle. She'd had time to get to know this man, to learn that his tough shell was carefully constructed to protect a man who was not as hard as he liked to pretend.
Kermit took down his green glass walls and met Karen's eyes. "I guess so."
"Have you told her that?"
"No." He put the shades back on. The tone would have warned most off the subject.
Not Karen Simms. "Why not? Why don't you tell her?"
"It's too soon, damn it! I've only known the lady a week."
"Sometimes that's enough."
"And if she gets that `call' she talks about? The call to leave and find others who need her?" He put the keyboard on his lap, deliberately rocked back onto the rear legs of the chair. "I couldn't ask her to stay based on...what? A week? It wouldn't be right."
"It would if you needed her," Karen said very quietly as she rose. "You might think about that."
Kermit grunted. After she had gone, he sat for a long time looking through the widow after Karen.
If he needed her?
What a thought.
Amber looked up as Kermit entered the store from the back. She gave him a welcoming smile as she shook the papers together and set them in a stack. "You made it!"
"Hope you don't mind. I asked Blake and some others to come along to help me with your present."
She giggled girlishly. "I just love presents," she told him again.
Blake came forward, holding some sort of electronic box, rolls of wire draped over his shoulder. Kermit produced another roll from beneath his coat. Skalany and Jody, Jordan and Peter followed, each carrying part of the system.
"I thought we were all going to meet at the bar?" The psychic asked.
"We're helping," Jody grinned. "Thought we could all go to the bar after we got this done."
"Kermit didn't think your alarm here was quite what you needed," Blake got out. "This alarm should be far better than anything you can buy."
Amber looked around at her new friends, a suspicious mist rising in her eyes. "And you're all here to put it in?"
The chorus of `yeses' almost loosed the tears.
"Thank you." She managed. "Thank you all." But her eyes told Kermit who she was thanking most of all.
The process took less time than she would have thought. She helped as well, doing exactly what Blake told her. She did cheat a little, sending a tendril of thought towards the little man, making sure she knew precisely what he meant. She probed no further -- would not have violated his thoughts for anything.
When it was all done, Kermit and Blake showed her how to arm and disarm it, how to set it for `home', and made sure she understood. Then the gang went off to the bar. Skalany said with a sly look,
"Don't be too long, you two, or we'll come looking."
Alone with Kermit, Amber merely looked at him for a long minute. "Thank you. You can't know what this means to me."
He cleared his throat. "Yeah, well...why don't you show me around?"
She did so. He seemed suitably impressed with the place. "You sound like you plan to be here a while. Bought the building, bought a car..."
"I keep telling you, I think I'd like to stay here," she said very softly.
"I'd like that."
She pulled his face down to kiss him very thoroughly. "I was sort of hoping you'd feel that way."
They made it to Delancy's. Amber found a space for her new car close to the entrance. As she walked with Kermit into the place, she thought for just a moment that someone was watching. It was not the same person as before, and was gone so quickly she decided she must have imagined it.
Inside, the bar was as warm and friendly as she recalled it, and she spent the evening in a friendly wrangle with Peter over which team would take the Stanley Cup this year. Once more, Kermit remained at her side the whole time, but talked with Frank Strenlich and Kelly. Caine came in with a sturdy brunette, whom he introduced to Amber as Cheryl. Cheryl seemed to know everyone here, and Caine went over to sit with Mary Margaret.
Amber was again swept by the new feeling of having friends. She'd known these people so short a time -- but they all cared about her. Not one of them seemed to have any motive other than friendship.
She followed Kermit to his house, and parked out in front. In the kitchen, Kermit suddenly pulled her close.
"Gonna be different without you here," he said.
"Maybe I ought to leave my toothbrush." She chuckled.
He cocked his head quizzically.
"That way, I'd have an excuse to come back." She explained.
"You don't need an excuse," he told her.
"Nor do you, to come see me," she replied. "But you might want to put some clean shirts in my closet."
The next few days sped by. Doctor Sabourin cleared the young woman to carefully work her way back into her usual routine. Amber and the Wangs got `The Unturned Page' organized, and Amber's apartment was simple to arrange to her satisfaction. By Saturday, Amber thought they would be ready to re-open on Tuesday. Kermit had spent a night in her new place. She was feeling a certain contentment with her new life. She had even begun to think about what she would do when it came time to turn over the store -- and leaving Sloanville was not in her plans.
Jody was coming Sunday night to have another little party -- Mary Margaret had pulled night shift again and could not join them. Amber spent a little time shopping for their evening, then hurried back to her apartment to get ready for tonight -- Kermit had asked her to join him at the opera. Who would have thought? She had to look perfect.
Amber spent quite some time experimenting with her makeup to see what would cover the last of the bruises and complement her dress. Finally satisfied, she was ready just as the buzzer told her he was downstairs. She swept down the stairs with a flair of floor length dress to let him in.
Kermit stood very still to take in the sight. He was in his usual well-tailored suit and a formal dark tie this time. But Amber...she wore a long dress of something soft and shiny-looking, in a color so like her hair it was hard to tell where one stopped and the other started. Her green eyes sparkled up at him. The neckline was low and square, and she must have done something, for there were no traces of the bruising on her face or chest. Her jewelry was simple -- a single strand of richly colored amber beads and matching earrings. Her hair was done up, cascading down over one shoulder. She looked...perfect.
Her grin widened as she saw the very effect she'd hoped for. He looked stunned, and in a selfish little part of her, she exulted. The rest of her was merely relieved she'd managed without going overboard.
"Come up for a minute?" She asked.
"We ought to go," Kermit told her. "As much as I hate to share this with anyone, we don't want to be late."
Amber laughed softly. "What a nice thing to say, detective. Let me get my wrap."
She only took a minute, then let him hand her into his car.
"You look amazing." He said as he drove.
"Thank you," she responded. "You're no slouch, yourself."
The opera was Carmen, and Amber enjoyed it immensely. She was conscious of him beside her the whole time, though. When they went out to the lobby for the intermission drinks, she stayed close to him. The press of people was difficult for her, and their surface level thoughts seemed to be mostly full of who was there to see them. She found herself pulling Kermit along to a secluded corner where their only companion was a middle-aged man of lean build whose thoughts were calm, reliving the joy of the music.
"Are you all right?" Kermit was concerned. He had taken his glasses off to watch the performance, but now they were firmly in place.
"I'm fine," she told him. There are just a lot of people out there who don't seem to have any control over their minds."
"That would be most people in the world, I suppose." He grinned.
Amber smiled tiredly. "Yes. I find that anyone who studies a martial art or mystic tradition can govern his thoughts. And those who have learned in more dangerous professions," she looked up at him through her lashes.
"A point in my favor, I see."
"More than that, I'd say. But look -- it's time to go back in."
She took his arm once more and they made their way back inside. In the press of people, a man jostled against her, knocking her into Kermit. The man excused himself hurriedly and pushed through the crowd before Amber could reply.
Later, in her apartment, she took a certain sensuous pleasure in the slow, appreciative way Kermit removed the evening's finery from her. She returned the favor.
Sunday evening, Amber and Jody had dinner and girl talk again, and were sitting on Amber's new sofa in their pajamas when Amber suddenly sat bolt upright. She stiffened, and Jody touched her to find every muscle locked fast. The alarm went crazy and five figures erupted through the stairway door. Jody put up a fight, kicking and punching with incredible precision, but she was outnumbered.
Amber could not move.
Jody shrieked and fought madly. Then one of the masked figures clipped her over the head with the butt of his gun and she went limp. Amber watched this in despair -- she could move her eyes now, but no more. She screamed as two of the men -- the same ones who had attacked her only a week ago -- lifted her from the couch and carried her toward the stairs. Unfortunately, the screams echoed in her own head, but no sound came from her lips. Two others had Jody, and the last looked around the apartment before following his comrades down the steps, calmly ignoring the cacophony from the still-shrieking alarm.
Amber watched, helpless, as Shang's men carried her and Jody down the steps and out the back door while the alarm screamed. She could not move, and Jody was still unconscious. She tried to reach out with her mind, to call Kermit or Peter, or even Caine or Lo Si, but found she could not do that, either. This frightened her even more than the unnatural physical paralysis. Amber could not remember a time when she could not touch other minds.
Outside, a man of obvious Chinese descent held open the back door of a dark sedan. Jody was dumped into the floorboards, while this new man slid into the back seat to sit over her with a gun. The men carrying Amber slid her onto the seat beside him, where she sat as placed. There was something familiar about the man beside her -- she thought he might have been the leader of those who had attacked her a week ago, but with her mind as locked up as her body she could not be sure.
One man got into the driver's seat. The other men were getting into another dark car. Just then Jody groaned, turning her head a little.
"Amber, you okay?" She rasped.
"Miss Adair cannot answer you right now, but she is fine," the man with the gun laughed softly. Amber knew that voice! He had been one of her attackers. "You would do better to worry about your own continued health, detective."
"What do you want with us?"
"Miss Adair has an appointment with Shang Kai Zeng," the man told her. "You are an additional bonus, no more. When we found you with the lady, we decided you might be a...bargaining chip. Miss Adair might be more amenable to our employer's suggestions if she understands it is not merely her own neck on the block."
Amber's heart sank. Whatever was going on here, she had done Jody Powell no favors.
Jody sank back down to the carpeting. It was not comfortable, but uncomfortable was better than dead, and she could do neither herself nor Amber any good by trying to take on the armed man in this car. She would just have to see where this was going and hope Amber recovered from whatever they had done to her soon.
The ride was not long, and Amber's spirits sank even further as she realized that these men did not care that she could see where they were taking her. This did not bode well for her getting out. The driver pulled the car up in front of a warehouse. The loading door rolled ponderously open and they pulled inside. As the door closed again, the driver climbed out and opened Amber's car door. The man with the gun got out on his side and roughly helped Jody out of the car.
"You're not really all that necessary," he told the blonde detective. "So you just watch yourself."
Jody nodded silently.
"Welcome to your new home, Miss Adair," a smooth voice came out of the gloom. A man stepped forward -- he was of middle age, with shiny black hair and hard eyes. His smile reminded Amber of a crocodile's. "You may get out of the car now."
Suddenly, Amber could move. She carefully slid out of the car to stand on concrete. She was still clad in her green pajamas, which left her feeling even more vulnerable. The chill of the floor seeped up through her slippers.
The man stretched out a hand. "I am Shang Kai Zeng. I hope you will approve of your new accommodations. We have gone to some trouble for you."
She let him shake her hand, numb with fear and confusion. So this was the man behind all of her troubles here in Chinatown. He seemed slippery somehow, too slick and cultured to have ordered his man to beat her on the street.
"Please, come with me, Miss Adair." He had a small black object in his hand -- it looked like one of those palmtop computers. Amber followed. Shang looked at Jody's captor, who still held his gun very close to her side. "Huong, you may bring Detective Powell, as well."
So Huong was the name of the man who had beaten Amber with his cosh. She would remember this, even though it might never do her any good.
Amber and Jody followed Shang silently, Huong bringing up the rear. Shang led them to a steel staircase and up to the second floor, which had a balcony running around to overlook the center of the cavernous downstairs area. Once upstairs, he led the women through a door and into the most ostentatious living room Amber had ever seen. She stood still a moment, blinking.
The walls were white with gilt trim. Someone had taken some trouble over the mural on the ceiling of a Chinese warlord oppressing some of his subjects on a field of battle. The furnishings had been crafted with an eye to conspicuous consumption. It all reminded Amber of one of those Victorian mansions Aunt Edith and Uncle Dougie had dragged her to one school vacation. They were supposed to be National Landmarks and very educational, but had only taught the young woman the evils of wretched excess. She shuddered and returned her attention to Shang.
"Please, ladies, have a seat." He waved negligently to a creamy little sofa on spindly legs. Amber sank onto it and Jody joined her. "I think you will be my guests here for some time."
Amber opened her mouth and was surprised to discover that she could speak. "Your men set off my alarm when they came for us."
He smiled. "Ah, yes. But I suspect your police friends will be unable to find you. You see, we left no clues for them to follow, and you cannot call for help, can you?"
She blinked again.
"Yes," he continued with a trace of smugness. "I have found a way to keep you from using your talent without my approval. That is precisely why you are here, my dear. I want you to work for me."
"But if you've blocked my ability, what use can I be to you?"
"I can allow you to use your talent when I wish for you to. Once you have agreed to my terms, I will allow you limited use of your psychic ability."
"And what of my friend?"
Shang shook his head with seeming regret. "When you agree to my employ, Detective Powell may remain here with you as your companion. She has seen too much for me to allow her to return to her job."
"And if I say no?"
Now he did look as though he regretted what he was about to say. "That would be unfortunate for both of you, I am afraid. That decision would bear rather painful and fatal results." He turned to Jody. "It was perhaps a poor choice on your part to spend this particular evening with Miss Adair."
Amber felt like crying. She could not reach out of her own head -- was this how `normal' people felt all the time? After a lifetime of trying to keep her mind to herself, she now desperately wished she could reach out. She would not waste any thought on the morality of invading another now if only she could call for help. She thought of Kermit, of Peter and Skalany and Caine, of the luncheon she would now miss tomorrow with Jim Willard and Karen Simms. The face of Lo Si, that charming little man who had welcomed her and made her feel a part of the Chinatown community, rose in her mind. She wanted to scream, to break furniture and hit her captor. None of this would do any good, however, and might cause Shang to punish Jody. She made herself sit still.
"Some of my men will make sure you have more...appropriate clothing in the morning. For now, why don't you ladies try to get some sleep?"
Shang rose and they followed suit. He showed them to a bedroom off the living room. It, too, was plush. There were two double beds, a dresser and wardrobe and a large writing desk. Shang waited until they were both in the room, then said,
"I do hope the accommodations are acceptable," and closed the door.
Jody leapt to the door as they both heard the click of a deadbolt lock. "Damn," she said. "It's a steel door under all this white paint."
Amber went over and peeked into the lavish bathroom. "No windows. Not even a skylight."
Jody nodded. "Guess he wants to make sure we can't go anywhere."
"There's not much we can do tonight," Amber said. "And whatever he's done to me, I doubt I will be any help to you. I'm trapped in my own head, and if we tried to get away, I guess he'd just lock up my muscles the way he did earlier tonight."
"Well, maybe if we can get some sleep, we'll have some more ideas in the morning." Her friend sighed.
Kermit pulled up outside Amber's building. It seemed the entire 101st precinct had turned out. The alarm had alerted Kermit and Blake, and Peter and Skalany were there, as well. Captain Simms screeched to a halt out front. Blake immediately walked through the open door and turned the screaming alarm off. He then reached down to a metal box below the console to remove a roll of film.
"I'll get this developed and see if we have anything," he said. "If you don't need me here, Captain?"
Simms nodded. "Let us know the minute you have something."
Kermit ground his teeth. "I'm going up."
"I see Powell's car. Where is she?"
"She was staying over with Amber. I don't know if she's here."
Peter and Simms followed Kermit up the stairs to Amber's apartment. He made a complete tour, coming back with an expression of disgust. "No sign of either of them. Jody's bag was up in the guest room. Her gun's still in it."
Peter met his eyes gravely. "There's not much sign of a struggle. The rug's been mussed, and the pillows from the sofa are tossed around."
At that moment the fingerprint men arrived.
"Maybe they walked somewhere, forgot about the alarm?" Peter tried.
Kermit merely glared at him through the glasses. Peter dropped his eyes. "Okay, I don't believe it, either."
The Captain looked at them. "Shang Kai Zeng?"
"We'll find out," the ex-mercenary ground out. "If so, that man has a lot of answers I want."
"He's taken one of my detectives, Griffin," she returned firmly. "I think I'll want some of those answers, too."
Monday morning Karen Simms found herself trying to explain to Jim Willard why Amber would not be joining them for lunch. Jim was a big man, built heavily. He looked as though he wanted to break something. Karen couldn't blame him. Not only was Amber gone without a trace, but so was one of her detectives. She would not stand for this.
"You know, I just can't understand why anyone would want to hurt Amber. She doesn't always work within the rules I tried to give her, but all she's ever done is help people. She and I might have gone around a time or two about proper procedure, but she's got a good heart. People just like her -- they don't want to hurt or kidnap her."
Simms gave him a brief smile. "Yes. She wooed over my whole department in a matter of seconds -- even my chief and one detective I thought was immune to that kind of thing."
Jim laughed curtly. "Half of my men fell in love with her on sight. Now, that passed quickly, but she made a lot of friends. I can't go back to Cleveland and tell them she's vanished."
"We're working on it," Simms sighed. "We all want her back, too. Not to mention that one of my best detectives seems to be with her."
"That tears it. This Shang took one of your people and Amber? I can't leave. I hope you don't mind, but I want to stick around and help out if I can. I'll stay out of your way, of course, but I want to be here."
"I'll take all the help I can get. I'll introduce you to the detectives on the case. They're my best men."
She led the big man to Kermit's office and rapped at the glass before opening the door. Kermit's attention was fixed on his computer screen as he tapped furiously. Peter stood over him, looking over his shoulder. Both men looked up as Captain Simms cleared her throat.
"Detective Caine, Detective Griffin, I would like you to meet Captain Willard of Cleveland PD. He stopped by on his way to a conference, but he's a friend of Amber's. He'd like to help us find her."
Kermit grunted, but nodded. "Friend of Amber's? Good to meet you." He didn't sound like it was all that good.
Jim shook the hand Peter proffered. "Miss Adair worked with my department a few times. My men would lynch me if I went back to them with only the news that she's gone. We have to find her, or I can't go back to my precinct."
Peter gave him a wry grin. "Amber's got a way with her, all right. We'll get her back, Captain Willard. She's got a lot of friends here, too."
Kermit was still focused on his screen. "We certainly will. We'll get Jody back, too."
Karen asked, "Any word?"
Peter told her; "Word on the street is that Shang's got her, just like we thought. Nothing specific, but Shang's got a reputation for wanting every tool he can use. He's not been above stealing relics that he thought might have some arcane power, and he has been known to seek out psychics in the past. So far, he hasn't been able to get his hands on a real one. The few con artists he has gotten to before usually suffer at his hands or end up dead. Always without a scrap of evidence to pin it on him. Donny Double D heard that Shang was planning to get Amber into his stable after chasing her out of town or killing her failed."
Simms nodded brusquely. "Good start. Blake is working on getting blowups of the pictures from Amber's alarm system. So far it's mostly useless, but the camera caught a few face shots. We normally wouldn't even be able to call it a missing persons case yet, but since a police officer is missing, I think we can move a little early."
Kermit looked at her through the dark glasses. "That's good," he said neutrally.
She gave him a mirthless smile. "Because you'd be working on it anyway."
Monday morning Lo Si opened his eyes, disturbing Caine's meditation as well. "We must go see our friends at the precinct, Kwai Chang Caine."
The other priest gave him a questioning look.
"Amber is in trouble, my old friend." He elaborated.
"I have...felt no such trouble," the taller man said.
"Yes, I see that...but I know she is in great danger. I cannot feel her mind, which tells me that she is in need."
Caine rose gracefully from his lotus position and waited for the Ancient to stand as well. "Then we must go."
"But first," the little man told him, "we should visit her store."
Mai Wang was running the shop with the help of one of the part-timers. As the two Shaolin entered, her eyes told them of her concern. "Amber is missing."
Lo Si patted her hand. "Yes. We will find her. I must see her apartment, child."
"Of course. You know the way, Ancient. I would go with you, but we have to keep `The Unturned Page' running for her."
"That is well. She will be pleased to know of your dedication. I will need only a few minutes. You and Joseph keep the store operating -- you know what to do. We will have her back soon."
Mai nodded. She was unconvinced, but dared to hope now.
Caine followed his old friend up the steps. The apartment was not sealed off, as the police had done all they could last night, but come up empty. Lo Si went into the great room and sank to the floor in a lotus position. Caine sat facing him, reaching out to take the old man's hands in case he should need to call on Caine's chi. The Ancient smiled briefly, then closed his eyes.
A few minutes later, he opened them again, nodding decisively. "Thank you, Kwai Chang Caine. There is something very powerful blocking Amber's mind. I needed some of your strength to find what I sought. We must go see the police now."
They walked the blocks to the precinct in silence. As they reached it, however, Caine stretched out a hand to stop his old friend. "Master, I must ask..."
Lo Si smiled gently. "How I know that she is in trouble when you do not?" Caine nodded once and the Ancient continued. "I have formed a bond with Amber. After the attack on her last week, I grew more concerned, and so initiated a connection to her. If our situations were reversed, she could find me. It is just a little harder now with her mind blocked."
Caine bowed his head. "I should have realized. Perhaps I might have done the same."
"I do not think so. You have already the responsibility of so many souls, Kwai Chang Caine. It was right that I shoulder this task. When we have her back, I shall take the time to instruct Amber further in her gift."
Caine bowed his head once more and the two men mounted the steps to the station.
Kermit looked up. "What the hell? Oh -- it's you." He hated the way these two Shaolin could sneak up even on him. No one should be able to walk so softly. "We're a little busy right now."
Lo Si nodded at him benignly. "Yes. You are trying to find our young friend Amber. I believe I can help."
Kermit gave him a sharp look, then included Caine in that gaze. "You know where she is?"
Caine shrugged. "I...do not. Lo Si believes he can help you find her."
The Ancient said gravely, "I have sensed something that prevents her from reaching out and calling us for help. I may be able to trace that...difference in her mind, follow that which blocks her."
"Let me get my gun."
Amber sat in the desk chair in that gilt bedroom, staring blindly at the walls. Jody was on her bed, both still clad in pajamas. The tap at the door startled them both. Huong came into the room carrying a large tray. Another man followed, with a big shopping bag in one hand, ugly snub-nosed gun in the other. Shang himself brought up the rear.
"I trust you slept well?" He asked smoothly. Amber merely looked at him.
"Here is your breakfast, ladies. And we have provided clothing more suitable for daytime wear." The man with the bag dropped it on Amber's bed. Huong set the tray down on the desk, brushing past Amber. Shang continued, "I hope you enjoy your meal. Then, after you've had the opportunity to clean up and change, I will return to continue our discussion."
The three men left, locking the door behind them. Jody came over to check out the breakfast tray. There were several dishes with lids, which she raised to peek under.
"Well, it's apparent Shang doesn't want us to starve," she observed. "I really am hungry."
"You don't think he drugged the food, do you?"
The detective shrugged. "I can't see why he would. He's got us right where he wants us! You can't even try to escape and he knows I'm not going to try anything without a clear opportunity -- the only way I would leave you is to get help. So this is probably part of the service, like the too-plush accommodations."
Amber had to agree. They fell to and finished off the food. She hated to eat what Shang had provided, but she was starving, and if they were to have any chance of getting out of here, they would both need their strength.
They took turns showering in the big bathroom, and then put on the clothing provided. Jody's was a blue pants suit; Amber's a green and amber patterned shirtdress. Shang had thoughtfully provided undergarments, stockings and shoes, as well. They had finished and were sitting once more when the bolt turned and Shang returned.
"I do trust the clothing fits and you are more comfortable," he began. Neither woman responded. "We must talk now. Miss Adair, I am pleased to see that you seem to have recovered from the...unfortunate incident of last week."
She met those hard, glittering black eyes without comment. "I cannot tell you how sorry about that I am. Huong has been disciplined."
"For failing to kill me?"
The expression on his face was terrifying for a moment -- then he regained control. "Huong acted on his own that night, my dear. I would never order you harmed -- surely you see that. I merely wanted him to ascertain whether or not you were a true psychic. There are so many charlatans in the world," he sighed. "He was merely to find out if you really had talent. When you felled two of his men using only your mind, it was proof positive you were the woman I wanted. Huong seems to have had his own reasons for not wanting you to work for me. Fortunately for him, we have, shall we say, changed his mind."
Amber did not reply -- what could she say to this?
"Now, on to the business at hand. As I told you last night, you have a choice to make. You can work for me, in which case, you and Miss Powell may live here in comfort together. Everything you require will be provided."
"Except freedom, or time in the sun."
"I think that once you have become accustomed to my rules, we might arrange for time out on the roof, where you could bask in the sunlight."
Amber snorted. Jody had remained silent through all this. She did not trust herself to reply.
"And if I refuse, you kill us?" the young psychic asked.
Shang sighed with feigned sadness. "I am afraid that would be necessary. You would die slowly and painfully, but not before I made you watch your friend die before you, also slowly and in great pain. But now, I do not ask for your decision right away. You have today and tonight to think about it. Talk it over. I will come ask you for your choice in the morning."
"Before you go," Amber put in quickly. "Would you at least tell me how you've managed to block my ability?"
Shang smiled beatifically. "I cannot see what possible good it would do you to know. However, I also cannot see what harm the information can do me. You remember your little mishap at the opera?"
The Chinese man who had bumped into her!
"I took the liberty of arranging that. The gentleman used the opportunity bumping you provided to deposit a few microscopic robots into your ear. I must say it was kind of you to wear your hair up that night. It made his job that much easier."
Both women stared at him, disbelieving. He continued. "These little robots have worked their way into your head. They prevent you from using your talent, make you receptive to my commands, and can keep you from moving if I wish it. You have seen the proof of that."
Amber laughed without mirth. "You're talking science fiction, Shang."
"Ah, no. I have a rather large network of operations, my dear Miss Adair. One of my investments several years ago was a highly secret laboratory devoted to nanotechnology. The little things inside your head are the product of millions of man-hours, more time and effort than you can imagine. Many scientists have worked and died to create the very robots that now make you my prisoner."
"Then why don't you just force me to work for you?" She challenged.
"Alas, the control is not so fine yet. These are the first generation of nanites not to kill their host immediately. I can force you to remain still, can keep you from defending yourself or helping your friend, but I cannot force you to do anything active. If I were to issue the command for the robots to replicate anywhere near enough to accomplish that, the sheer pressure of them inside your skull would likely kill you. In fact, that is exactly how you will die if you refuse me. I will issue the command, and the last sound you hear will be your own screaming. You will want to kill yourself, but I will lock every muscle in your body as I enjoy each lingering moment of your agony."
Amber shuddered as Shang politely bowed and left.
Jody rose and went to her. "It's all right. We'll be all right. The others will come for us."
Amber felt tears of frustration threatening. "How will they know where to find us? I can't reach anyone, and Shang's men were fast. I don't think anyone saw them take us!"
"Come on, you know Kermit and Peter are probably combing Chinatown for us. I'll bet Kermit's burning up the net looking for possible places Shang could have us. Your alarm was going crazy when we left. The whole precinct was probably at your shop minutes after we left."
"I'm sorry you're in this with me, Jody. It's not much of a choice, is it? Either we're prisoners here for life or we die."
"Agree to work for him, Amber. That will buy us time for the others to find us."
Amber sighed explosively. "I don't know if I can! This goes against all the training my family gave me. First Mother, then later Aunt Edith -- I don't know if I can even pretend to go along with him!" The idea of being kept a prisoner in this gilt cage was beginning to make Amber panic. She felt her stomach knot up, felt her shoulders tensing as she struggled against Shang's lock on her mind.
Jody patted her arm gently. "We'll take things one at a time. We have all day for you to work yourself up to lie to him. Maybe you could be too sick to do anything for Shang for a few days. You tell him tomorrow morning that you'll work for him, but then you collapse and he'll have to let you rest for a while."
"Play sick?" Amber managed a weak grin. "I'm not sure I'd have to pretend. I feel like I could throw up already."
"That's a girl," the blonde detective returned. "Might as well use this case of the nerves to our benefit."
Amber felt a little better now, having some kind of plan. The faces of those she had come to care about haunted her, though. Peter -- she had only just found him again. She did not want to lose their recently rekindled friendship. His father and Skalany, Jordan and Blake, Karen Simms...they were all important to her life now. The Wangs -- they would surely be able to handle the store without her, but she missed them. And Jim Willard! She was supposed to have lunch with him and Captain Simms today! He must be wondering where she was. Then there was Kermit Griffin; the man with the green glass walls who had begun to let her past those defenses. She could not face never seeing him again. And dear little Lo Si...his image rose in her mind, and somehow she felt suddenly calmed, as though the little man had put a comforting hand on her shoulder. She felt reassured. Even the thought that Aunt Edith and Uncle Dougie might never know what had happened to her seemed to fade quietly away as Amber felt the serenity Lo Si's image radiated. A spark of hope flickered deep inside her.
Things had not gone as quickly as Kermit wanted. He had indeed gotten his gun, but just then Peter walked in.
"What are you doing here, Pop? You know something about Amber?"
"I do not. But Lo Si does."
Peter looked sharply at the old man. "You know where she is?"
"No. But I will."
"Let's go see the Captain," Kermit led the way across the bullpen. He stopped himself just short of storming in -- knocked instead.
The former spy led his little party in. "Captain," he saw Jim Willard slumped in the corner. "Captains, that is...the Ancient has some information for us."
Lo Si made a little bow to Captain Simms. "Not precisely information," he corrected. "But if someone were to take me to `The Unturned Page' in a car, I think I can find Amber's trail."
Jim stood up. "What are we waiting for?"
Simms stood, too, but with a restraining gesture. "We can't just go haring off. Here comes Blake with his pictures."
The man beetled into the Captain's office, looking around the group nervously. "I have some pictures. They're not very good, but we have gotten two ID's from them."
He put four blowups on Simms' desk. "These two," he indicated "are Paulie Ton and Modo. They've been charged before with assault, racketeering and a few other things."
Peter stepped over. "Word is they work for Shang. These other two are harder to see, but I think that one is Huong Long. He's definitely one of Shang's men."
Karen Simms nodded. "I'd say we have enough for a search warrant. I'll get to work on that. With this information and the fact that one of my people is missing, I think the judge will be disposed to listen, but it's going to take me some time."
Kermit ground his teeth. He couldn't sit idle while she tried.
"We've got to find where they have Amber and Jody," Peter put in softly. "I want to make sure we can get in there without putting them in any more danger."
Everyone turned to stare at the young cop. Kermit even pulled down his glasses to give his friend a look of disbelief. Simms asked with a half smile,
"You feeling all right, Caine?"
Peter looked around. "What?" He demanded.
Kwai Chang Caine smiled. "It seems your training has modified your impulsiveness, my son." He gently punched at Peter's jaw.
The young man looked abashed. "Those are two of my best friends Shang's got. If we go charging in there unprepared, someone may get overexcited and shoot them."
Lo Si spoke. "Perhaps if Detectives Caine and Griffin were to take me to the shop, we could find where our friends are being held and decide how to best proceed from there."
Simms nodded decisively. "Go on, gentlemen. Captain Willard and I will go see the judge as soon as you give us an address. Blake, you'd better come along with those photos."
Kermit led the way again, giving in to the need to be moving. He called to the others, "We'll take my car."
Caine followed his old friend, saying nothing. As they left the squad room, Karen Simms was briefing Skalany and Strenlich on the situation. When the four men reached the Corvair Kermit raised an eyebrow at Caine, but silently allowed him to slide into the back seat with Lo Si.
Peter hopped into the front seat and Kermit peeled out of the lot before he got himself back under iron control.
"I can see Shang wanting Amber for her abilities," the man grumbled. "But why would he take Jody, too?"
Lo Si replied gently. "Can you see Amber letting any harm come to a friend? I am sure they took Detective Powell as incentive for Amber to behave herself."
"I've got a few things to say to Shang Kai Zeng," Kermit replied. Peter nodded his agreement.
The ex-mercenary pulled in behind `The Unturned Page'. "All right, what now?"
The Ancient closed his eyes. Even seated, Caine seemed to hover, concern for his friend written on his face. Lo Si spoke, "I am beginning to feel the traces of her passing."
After a moment, eyes still closed, he ordered, "Pull out forward and take a left at the end of the alley."
Kermit drove slowly, following the Ancient's directions. He kept his frustration to himself, and was surprised when the old man told him, "Here. Pull over here."
It had not taken very long -- how could Shang keep Amber so very close, and at the same time so inaccessible?
Lo Si opened his eyes and pointed to a warehouse. "There. That is the place where Shang Kai Zeng is holding our friends."
It looked almost abandoned -- there was no sign of anyone coming or going from the building. Someone, though, had pressure washed the place and the big steel loading doors gleamed.
"You're sure about this?"
Caine spoke now. "There are...many men inside. I believe they are armed. It will take me a few minutes to tell you more."
"Right," said Peter. "I'm calling it in."
Kermit chafed at the delay, but made no move. Peter had been right -- they could not endanger Jody and Amber any further by charging in without backup. He felt that his eyes might burn holes in the walls as he glared at it, trying to get any sense of where Amber might be. He was worried about Jody, too, but she was a good cop with a solid right cross and good self-defense instincts. Amber was a civilian and a gentle soul. Could she defend herself if they stirred everybody up by charging in? Lo Si answered his unspoken question.
"Shang has done something to Amber to control her. She will be unable to help us when we go in to rescue her. Jody Powell, on the other hand, is coiled and ready to strike. She has no weapon, but as soon as we give her the chance, she will act."
Caine opened his eyes. "There are perhaps...twenty of them. And Shang Kai Zeng is inside. He is on the second floor, which is where I believe...Amber and Jody to be."
Peter was relaying it all to Captain Simms over his cell phone. He snapped it shut and turned to Kermit.
"We sit tight and keep watch. In fact, maybe we ought to go around the block and find a less conspicuous spot. Captains Simms and Willard are going to the judge now to get a warrant. They'll come meet us with backup."
The older man nodded once. He pulled away from the curb and went around the block.
Peter added, "Let's get a cup of coffee, and maybe something to eat while we wait for the others." The younger cop had seen Kermit's hand twitch once. As controlled as Kermit was, that could only mean he needed something to help occupy him while they waited. Peter found this a refreshing change -- usually it was Kermit trying to coax him into being patient and waiting for backup.
Kermit stopped in front of a coffee shop and Peter jumped out to return a few minutes later with a cardboard cup holder and a bag. He handed two Styrofoam cups to the back seat. "Tea for you and Lo Si, Pop. It's probably not very good, but I thought you'd like it better than coffee."
Caine accepted the cups and handed one to his friend. The Shaolin priests sniffed at the tea suspiciously. Then Caine shrugged and took a sip. "Thank you, my son. It is...not bad."
Lo Si snorted as he sipped. "Yes, it is, Kwai Chang Caine. But thank you, Peter. You are right. It is better than coffee."
"And I got some food, too. Thought we could use a snack while we wait."
"Not doughnuts," Kermit said warningly.
Peter laughed. "Would I do that to a pal? Doughnuts on a stakeout? No, they had some fresh muffins."
They parked a little further away from the warehouse this time, but still with a good view. Caine closed his eyes for a moment. "Nothing has changed. The men there are the same. No one has...departed or...arrived since we left."
Kermit watched the building intensely as he methodically picked apart the apple-bran muffin.
Caine said, "I notice you have not tried to convince us to...go elsewhere while you rescue Jody and Amber."
The man snorted. "I seem to remember how you have ignored such suggestions in the past."
Peter's father smiled.
Lo Si added, "Besides, you know we can be of help to you."
"I'm counting on you to help us find them, Lo Si."
"Pop, you know what I'm going to say. I want you to be careful."
I know, my son. I am always...careful."
It was Peter's turn to snort.
When Peter's phone finally rang, he jumped. Kermit did not, but Peter could have sworn the man had wanted to.
"Caine." He listened for a long time, and then said, "Gotcha, Captain."
He flipped the phone shut. "We're to wait here for the others. It's almost dark now. As soon as it is, they'll come up here and we'll go in."
Kermit's gun hand flexed once.
Caine said softly, "There are twenty armed men in the warehouse. I sense much tension."
Lo Si added, "The ladies are still upstairs." He smiled fondly. "Jody is very tense. She is not happy with this enforced inaction. Amber is still holding herself together."
"She won't have to for much longer." Kermit pulled out his desert eagle, checking it over quickly. He patted his pockets -- extra clips ready. Good. Peter was checking his own weapon. Caine merely slid into breathing exercises, but both cops knew that he would be as ready as anyone.
Peter called Simms back, relaying the numbers and deployment the two Shaolin had given him.
"No, Captain, I don't think there's any chance they'll stay out of it. Lo Si is set on getting Amber out of there, and you know my Pop."
"All right," he turned to address the others. "They're around the corner. They're coming up on foot -- be here in a minute. The Captain wants to talk to us all, and then we go in."
The ex-mercenary checked his gun one more time and holstered it.
"You know, Kermit, I'm just as worried as you are. Jody is a friend and a good cop, and Amber may be your girl, but she's been a friend of mine for a long time. We're going to get them out."
"My girl? Did I say anyone was my girl?" Kermit tried half-heartedly, old defenses springing into action.
Peter clapped his shoulder. "You didn't have to. I'm not all that stupid, my friend."
The older cop sighed. "All right, she's my girl. And you're damn right we're going to get them out. Both of them."
Lo Si was grinning happily in the back.
"What's so funny?" Kermit snapped.
"Nothing. I am just pleased that you have admitted your feelings for my young friend."
The ex-mercenary wisely let that pass.
In the gathering darkness, Karen Simms tapped on his window. "All right, people. Let's get set to move out."
Amber sat on the bed now while Jody paced the length of the room. The blonde detective was restless. Amber was trying valiantly not to fall into depression. Every time she had tried to reach out with her mind, her spirits seems to sink lower. The panic that rose each time she failed threatened to overwhelm her until Lo Si's image would again rise in her mind. A thought occurred to her. Could Shang be trying to use his little robots to influence her this subtly? Perhaps it was he, convincing her that her position was hopeless, that her only option was to agree to be his prisoner and tame psychic. This time, Lo Si's image seemed to dispense resolve as well as calm. If that were Shang's game, she would not give in to it. She might have to pretend to go along with him in the morning, but she would not give in to the despair. Kermit would find her.
"You think Shang's forgotten about us?" Jody demanded.
Amber had to laugh. "Not hardly. But I suspect we won't get dinner until they're sure we're hungry. Shang wants to make sure we know who's in charge. Make sure I know just who controls our lives. Jody, I can't get you killed. I'm going to agree to work for him."
"Right. Just like we planned."
"I know Kermit will find us." Her face flamed. "I mean the others will find us."
Jody grinned. "Maybe, but I think you said what you really meant the first time. He'll find us. You know he'll tear apart Chinatown brick by brick if he has to."
The honey-haired woman tried to smile. "I hope so. I know I would, if it were him."
The blonde patted her shoulder. "I've seen the look on his face. He won't give up until we're out of here."
Kermit looked around. Karen Simms wore a dangerous-looking gun on her belt holster -- she was a sharpshooter. He felt much better about the whole thing knowing she was taking charge of the rescue. He knew he could count on his Captain. He scanned the other faces. Skalany was there, along with Frank Strenlich and Kelly. Even Blake had joined them -- the man who had not willingly left his desk in years. There were a few uniformed officers, as well.
"Who's minding the shop?" Kermit asked Strenlich.
"Oh, we left a few folks behind to answer the phones and explain why crime has to stop for the night," the chief of detectives drawled.
Simms cleared her throat. Jim Willard stood just behind her, waiting patiently. She said, "Caine tells us there are twenty men in there, plus Shang. Sixteen on the ground floor, four upstairs with Shang and the prisoners. Let's keep it simple. We're here to get Miss Adair and Detective Powell. The search warrant gives us the right to look for them and to get them out. We're not here," she looked directly at the man in the green glasses, "for revenge or punishment. We'll get the women out if they're in there, arrest their captors and get out."
Kermit nodded slightly in acknowledgement. He wanted revenge, that was certain. He knew, though, that Simms had gone out on a limb to get them this far, and he would not cause her any trouble by taking vengeance tonight. He would wait for that.
Karen Simms looked around at her people. Lo Si stood in front of Kermit, looking at her with an odd little smile. He gave her an encouraging nod. Caine regarded her gravely. Clearly, neither civilian was going to leave or stay outside. There was nothing she could do about that now. She gave a brisk nod.
"All right. I'm going to try to serve the warrant first. Remember, proceed with caution. We don't want Miss Adair or Detective Powell harmed." Everyone nodded. "Then, let's go."
Lo Si caught at Kermit's sleeve. "You stay with me. Let the others handle the fighting this time. We will make directly for the second floor where our friends are. I am concerned about what has been done to Amber. She may even fight against her own rescue, if Shang has that much control over her."
Kermit looked down at the old man, wanting to argue. He abruptly changed his mid, nodded his agreement. He was here to get Amber back, and the best way to do that seemed to be to stick with Lo Si.
Captain Simms strode to the side door and knocked. "Police!"
"Police! Open up! We have a warrant."
Caine stepped forward, wiping his hands together in preparation. Simms stepped back, eyes widening as Caine touched the lock and she heard it turn. She looked over at Peter and Frank, who nodded and stepped up. Peter met his father's eyes. Caine nodded to his son and opened the door, stepping out of the way as the cops stepped through, guns level.
"Police! Freeze!" Franks snapped.
That was when the first shots rang out, and the cops crouched, sidestepping inside as the others came forward to cover.
Amber and Jody exchanged glances as they heard the muffled sound of gunfire. Suddenly Amber went stiff again. She was once more paralyzed. Jody had no time to worry about her now -- she had to be ready when her chance came. If this was a rescue, she would help her fellow officers, and they could deal with Amber once Shang and his men had been subdued.
The bolt turned and the door opened. Huong stepped through, gun at the ready. Shang was right behind him.
"It seems, ladies, that your friends are more resourceful than I thought. Miss Adair, I regret the necessity of incapacitating you, but I cannot risk you running to them." He pulled the palmtop from his pocket. "Stand up, Miss Adair."
Woodenly, she obeyed. Amber's green eyes pleaded for Jody to do something, but Huong was holding his gun firmly on the blonde woman.
"The control program for the nanites is housed on my network." Shang told Amber conversationally. "This little toy will suffice until we can get to another of my computers. Come along."
They stepped through to the living room. Jody followed Amber, conscious of Huong's watchfulness behind her. There were shouts from down below and heavy running footsteps on the steel stairs. Huong was distracted for just a moment -- it was all Jody needed. As the sounds of struggle on the balcony raged, Jody whipped her elbow back into her captor's midsection, bringing her other hand around to snatch the gun. Turning, she clipped him over the ear with the butt. He sank silently to the floor.
The detective turned again, aiming at Shang. His hard eyes did not react, and he merely said, "Miss Adair, stop her."
Amber stepped toward her friend. Then she stopped, turning back towards Shang. The look on his face told her he had remembered that he could not force her to act, only to refrain from acting. Shang paused in consternation as he cast about for his next move.
The door burst open and Kermit stepped into the room, the big ugly gun trained on Shang. Blake, Skalany and Lo Si were behind him.
Then Shang laughed, a hollow, chilling sound. He backed away toward a shadowy hallway.
Suddenly Blake darted forward, running for him. The two men disappeared down the hall.
Kermit and Skalany watched in shock. Was this their old friend Blake? Lo Si stepped past them to Amber.
"Come, child. You are safe. We have you."
She could not move. She wanted to sink to the floor in weary relief, but her muscles were once again locked fast. Blake reappeared carrying Shang's palmtop computer. He sat heavily in a fragile-looking chair and began to shake.
"Why didn't somebody stop me?" He demanded.
"What's wrong with her?" Kermit snapped at Lo Si.
Jody shook her head, stepped out of Skalany's worried embrace. "Shang said something about controlling her -- he said he's put nanites in her ear. You know what those are?"
Kermit looked at the blonde detective with stunned disbelief. "You've got to be kidding." He pulled off the shades to meet her eyes. "That's crazy. Nanites are purely theoretical."
Blake looked up from the floor. "Maybe, but people have been working on them for years. Did he give you any details?" He rose, handed the palmtop to Kermit. "Shang got away from me, but he dropped this when he jumped into the freight elevator."
Jody thought for a minute. The sounds of fighting were fading away downstairs. It sounded like the others had things well in hand.
Caine appeared in the doorway. He took a look around and went immediately over to Lo Si, who was carefully checking Amber over.
"That seems to fit with the sense I am getting from her," the old priest stated. "There seems to be some kind of...machine?...controlling her."
Jody said, "He said there were microscopic robots in her head. They make it so she can't use her talent and so he can keep her from doing things."
"This is not good." Kermit told them all. "If she's actually got those nanites in her head, we have to shut them down, get them out of her."
The blonde detective told him, "Shang was using that," she pointed at the palmtop in his hand, "to control her. He said the control program was on his network and that would suffice until he got her to another computer."
Kermit and Blake ran down the hallway, leaving the others to wait. Karen Simms found them like that a minute later. "What's going on here?"
Skalany tried to fill her in as Jim Willard and Peter joined them.
Tears filled Amber's eyes. Only Lo Si saw. "Jody, if Shang gets to another of his computers, what could he do?"
Jody looked suddenly stricken. "Oh, no! He said something about a limit to how many nanites Amber could safely have in her head. I'm afraid he's going to make them multiply -- kill her by overloading her brain!"
Lo Si gazed at the immobile young psychic gravely. "We must find Kermit and warn him that there may not be much time."
Simms threw up her hands. "As if Shaolin mysticism were not enough! Now I have microscopic robots to worry about? I'm going back downstairs to make sure all this gets mopped up. Let me know what happens."
Peter said, "I'll go with you, Captain. I called for paramedics and the police transport van."
The two left the room. Skalany was still standing with Jody. "Are you okay?"
"Someone's got to find Kermit and Blake," the blonde was insisting.
"No need. We found Shang's local computer," Kermit announced. Jody hurriedly told him of her fears.
"Right. We're on it. First things first," he tapped at the palmtop and spoke. "Green Eyes, you should be able to move now. Can you speak?"
She drew in a deep, shuddering breath. "Thank you," she managed. Her eyes told him how much more than that she meant. "Can you get them out of me?"
"Oh, yeah." He took her arm gently. "Come on. We'll go exterminate your little pests."
"Thanks, Mercenary Man," she whispered.
"Don't thank me yet," he told her. "Let's get you fixed up first, and then you can thank me all you like."
Only the tightness around his jaw revealed the anger and uncertainty. He drove away thoughts of failure by thinking of the retribution he would take on Shang Kai Zeng. Of all the people in the world working toward the realization of nanotechnology, for Shang to have succeeded, and put it to this use...Kermit wanted to break something. But there would be time for that later. Right now he had to get to work and shut down those nanites.
Lo Si followed right behind the pair. The old man was not about to let Amber face this without his support, though he could do nothing to help save hold her hand.
Caine went to join his son, knowing that Lo Si would be well looked after with these cops. Peter might need him, though.
Jim Willard, Jody and Mary Margaret followed Lo Si into the office, where Amber was already watching intently as Kermit sat in the chair. Blake had pulled up another seat and was looking over his colleague's shoulder.
"See, Kermit, it's a radio-controlled system. The radio waves emit from here," he indicated a square black box. "And the nanites receive them."
"Right. Now we just have to get into the program and tell them to shut down."
Amber stood by. She was free to speak now, but could think of nothing to say. She was still terrified. Kermit had found her -- Kermit and Lo Si. But it could still all come to nothing if her lover could not crack the system in time.
The Ancient sensed her distress. He moved to her side and took her hand. She squeezed it briefly in gratitude and found her voice.
"Lo Si, how did you find me?"
"Yes, Master. I would...like to know that, as well." Caine had come silently into the room, followed by Peter.
"I felt that you were in trouble," Lo Si told Amber. "When I went to your apartment I could feel the difference in your mind. I merely focused on that difference and we found you."
Caine bowed with respect. "I...should have thought of this, myself."
Impulsively Amber kissed the old man. "You really are my little Chinese angel," she told him softly. "Every time I thought of giving up, of giving in to Shang, you came to me and calmed my fears."
He grinned like a child. "I am glad I was able to help. When all of this is over, young lady," he gave her a mock-stern glare. "You and I are going to have some lessons."
"Yes. I believe I can help you to become even better, stronger in your gift."
"Yes, Ancient One," she did not add that this could only happen if she survived the next few minutes. Lo Si had saved her life twice now: if Kermit made it three, she would happily accept any lessons the old man wanted to teach her.
"He's in the operating system now," Blake announced. Amber would have slid around to look, but she feared that would serve no purpose. It was up to the two experts now. She could not help them help her.
Kermit had abandoned the mouse when he'd gotten into the OS. He was tapping furiously now. It really was ludicrous, the passwords people used: Shang had made his own birthday his secret code. The ex-mercenary was hacking into the nanites control program. What made him frantic was not knowing whether Shang was even now at another terminal, accessing the program himself to try to hurt or kill Amber.
"Damn!" He growled. This was the second time he had received this error message. One more try and he'd have to think of something else. Amber was watching him, her hand still in Lo Si's. She had such a look of trust in her green eyes; Kermit could not let her down. He pushed the green glasses farther up on his nose, took a deep breath and tried again.
"I'm in," he cried. Now he only had to find the settings and change them. There -- the menu was before him. Wonder of wonders, there was a `shutdown' option. He quickly selected it and slapped the enter key with a resounding thwack.
He closed his eyes, removed his glasses, and looked up at Amber. "Green Eyes, try your talent now."
She drew in a deep breath, let it out shakily and closed her eyes. Tentatively, she reached out with a tendril of thought. Lo Si was almost dancing with delight! Jim and Jody waited tensely to see if she was going to be all right. Caine and Peter were beacons of calm assurance, trusting in Kermit's ability. Kermit -- was wound as tightly as a Swiss watch and seemed ready to explode if she did not respond soon.
Amber Adair laughed a real laugh, spinning in a little circle in sheer joy. She threw her arms around Kermit's neck. "You've done it! I'm free!"
He grinned, slammed his dark glasses back on, sliding the other arm around her waist. "Oh, yeah. Now, you'll have to let go for a minute. I have to finish off this program so Shang can't reactivate it before the nanites break down in your bloodstream."
She reluctantly straightened and stepped away to give him room. Then she hugged Jody, Peter, Caine and Skalany. Jim Willard looked stunned when she wrapped her arms around him in turn. "Thank you, Jim," she said. "You don't know what it means to me that you came, too."
"Hell, Amber, you know the boys at the 216th wouldn't let me back in the building if I told `em you'd been kidnapped and I hadn't helped to get you back."
She turned to Blake and kissed his cheek. "You! You scared me half to death! What were you thinking going after Shang like that?"
The electronics man squirmed, pleased. "Well, someone had to try for him. Good thing he got away, though. I don't know what I'd have done if I'd caught him."
She turned back to Lo Si. With another hug and a kiss on his cheek, she said, "But you...you managed to find me, even though Shang had locked me within my own mind."
The old man said with a shrug, "When you are looking for something that has been changed, you must seek the change rather than the thing itself."
Caine laughed softly. "A lesson I should have remembered."
Kermit rose. "I've fragged the nanites program, but I've also started downloading Shang's files onto my box back at the precinct. We'll have to go down there to file reports, anyway. But now maybe we'll have something to pin on Shang next time we see him."
Jody looked at Amber. "We'd better get moving along, anyway. If we don't, Amber's likely to start crying."
Amber shot a look at her friend, but the other woman was right. She could not remember two weeks when she'd cried so much -- not since her mother's death.
Kermit put an arm back around Amber. "Let's go, people. Captain Simms will be expecting paperwork out of all of us. Jody and Amber will have to make statements, too."
Amber was grateful for her lover's arm around her waist. She was very tired, and rather than resting his weight on her, he seemed to be holding her up.
She let him help her into the Corvair, Lo Si slipping into the back seat. Caine and Peter opted to ride with Skalany, and Jody and Jim went with Captain Simms. Amber merely closed her eyes and let Kermit drive, rolling down the window to enjoy the fresh air.
At the 101st, she found herself in a flurry of people. Everyone wanted to make sure that she and Jody were well and unharmed. Karen Simms finally stepped in, steering the two into her office. As she shut the door, Amber breathed a sigh of relief.
"Too many open minds for you, Amber?" Jim drawled from his corner.
She laughed softly. "You know me well. They're all very kind, but I'm so tired."
Karen told Amber and Jody to sit. "Now, before we go any further, I do need to know if we need medical exams. Was there any..."
"Rape? No, Captain," Jody put in. "Shang was quite the gentleman when he was not threatening us with painful deaths."
"Good. In a few minutes, I want you to go back out there and give your statements. Then go home. I assume you'll be pressing charges?"
Amber had to be honest. "I'll press charges against the ones I recognize, but I didn't see many of them."
"That's all right," Simms reassured her. "There are plenty of other charges against them, but since it was the kidnapping that we used to get the warrant, we do need to charge some of them with that."
Jody nodded. "You can count on me, too, Captain."
"I knew I could. The abduction of a police officer is a crime most juries take a dim view of. Now, are you both up to giving statements?"
"Thank you. Then you can both go home."
"My car!" Jody remembered.
"Is right outside," Simms told her. "Skalany brought it over for you earlier. Your bag and keys are in your desk, as well. Do you need anyone to stay with you?"
"No, thanks, Captain. I think I'm going to triple lock my doors and sleep for a week."
"Take tomorrow off, Detective. I'll look for you Wednesday morning."
"Make lunch on Wednesday, Amber?" Jim put in.
"You've got it."
"Great. See you then. You take it easy, young lady."
Amber rose and followed Jody back into the fray with a parting smile for the Captains.
Kermit emerged from his office and made for the coffee looking like the cat who'd found the cream sitting out on the counter. "Got Shang's files safe and sound. We have got plenty on him now!"
Lo Si approached Amber. "You are safe and well now."
"Thanks to you."
He waved that off. "You will come and see me Thursday."
She gave him a little bow. "Yes, Master."
The Ancient patted her cheek. "You are a good girl."
Caine stepped away from Peter's side and the two Shaolin said their farewells.
Peter waved Amber over to sit by his desk. "Ready to give me your statement?"
She smiled. "This precinct knows how to give a girl personal service." She grew serious and recounted the whole story for him.
"Great," he said finally. "I'll get this typed up. Can you come by tomorrow and sign it?"
She agreed. "Thanks, Peter."
"Go home and get some rest."
Kermit took her hand and helped her up. "Don't worry about that, Caine. I think I'll see to it myself."
"See?" Amber grinned. "Personal service."
Outside, she drew in a lungful of clean night air. "I thought I'd never see the outdoors again."
He laughed softly. "A bird in a gilded cage."
"I almost gave up. And I wasn't even there all that long."
"But you didn't give up."
"I kept thinking of Lo Si. And you." She turned to face him in the moonlight.
"I'm glad." He slid his glasses off and bent to kiss her gently. She slipped her arms around his neck and gave in completely to his kiss, grateful to be back in his arms. Had it been only two days? It felt like a lifetime.
"You know I'm going to have to leave town," she finally murmured into his chest.
Kermit pulled away, turned to look back at the precinct replacing his sunglasses. "You're leaving?" His voice was flat.
She chuckled softly. "Only to visit my Aunt and Uncle," she told him. "I thought you might come with me."
He looked at her, removing his glasses once more. "You want me to meet your family?"
"Would you like to?"
"Oh, yeah." She found herself swept into his arms again.
With another soft laugh she kissed him soundly. "Why don't you take me home?"