with all my love.
Fallon Jones: three years earlier . . .
Paranormal fire burned in the darkness. Auroras of psi splashed across the ether. The night sky above San Francisco was ablaze with light from across the spectrum. Fallon Jones gripped the condo balcony railing with both hands, fighting to anchor himself to reality. There were spectacular patterns wherever he looked: wondrous, astonishingly intricate webs of connections and links that illuminated the path back to the heart of the universe.
The dazzling radiance of the midnight world was compelling beyond anything he had ever experienced. He was certain that if he only looked closely enough, he would be able to distinguish the light from the dawn of creation, perhaps even grasp a fistful of the raw power of chaos that fueled the forces of life and death.
“Good night for a walk, isn’t it?” Tucker Austin said.
Fallon turned to look at the figure silhouetted in the opening of the sliding-glass doorway. There was something wrong. Tucker looked as if he stood on the other side of a waterfall. It was impossible to focus on him. He held something in his hand but Fallon could not make it out.
“What are you doing here?” Fallon asked. He was vaguely aware that he sounded drunk. But he was almost positive that he’d had only one glass of wine with dinner.
“We both know why I’m here.” Tucker moved out of the doorway and went to stand at the railing a short distance away. He kept the object in his hand out of sight against his left leg. “The magic lantern really slammed your senses, didn’t it? That’s one of the interesting side effects of the device. The higher the level of talent, the greater the impact. You are literally off the charts on the Jones Scale. That makes the lantern the ideal weapon to destroy you without arousing any suspicions. By now you’re lost out there on the paranormal plane. There’s no coming back from this trip.”
“You came here to kill me,” Fallon said. A simple statement of fact, nothing more or less. It was good to know he was still able to think logically.
“I did warn you that one day your talent would be the death of you.” Tucker sounded amused. “I’m not alone in that opinion, as I’m sure you’re aware. Fortunately, a lot of people are convinced that a chaos theory-talent as powerful as you is doomed. And there have always been those rumors about the men in your family who inherit that aspect of the founder’s talent. Everyone knows that Sylvester Jones was a paranoid whack-job at the end.”
“Sylvester died more than four hundred years ago,” Fallon said. “No one knows what really happened to him at the end. And rumors are, by definition, not facts.”
“But as you have often pointed out, an interesting rumor always has more influence than a boring fact.”
Fallon shook his head once and blinked a couple of times, trying to bring Tucker into focus. The small motion caused the universe to shift around him. The disorientation was so fierce now that he had to clench his hand around the balcony railing to stay on his feet.
“Why?” he asked. It was a foolish question. He knew the answer. But for some reason he wanted to hear Tucker put it into words. Then again, that had been the problem all along. He had wanted to believe Tucker Austin.
“I’m afraid there’s no other way out.” Tucker rested both elbows on the railing and contemplated the night. “It’s either you or me this time. Survival of the fittest and all that. The magic lantern has certain hypnotic effects. In addition to creating those fascinating hallucinations you’re currently viewing, it makes you vulnerable to suggestion. For example, you feel like taking a walk off this balcony, don’t you?”
“No,” Fallon said again. He tried to move, but when he took a step he stumbled and went down to his knees.
Tucker gestured toward the building across the street. “You know what you should do, Fallon? You should cross that crystal bridge. Halfway over, you’ll have a terrific view of the heart of the universe. How can you resist?”
Fallon tightened his grip on the railing and hauled himself upright. He tried to focus, but the crashing waves of the auroras that lit up the night were too distracting.
“What bridge?” he asked.
“Right there.” Tucker pointed. “It leads from this balcony to the roof of the building across the street. Just step over the railing and you’ll be on your way.”
Fallon looked down. Strange machines moved on the street below. Lights glowed and flashed. Cars, some part of his brain whispered. Get a grip. You’re fourteen floors above the street.
“Don’t you see the bridge?” Tucker asked. “It leads to all the answers, Fallon. You just follow the crystal brick road to find the wizard.”
Fallon concentrated. A crystal bridge materialized in the night. The transparent steps were infused with an internal light. He pulled harder on his talent. The bridge brightened and beckoned. But a tiny sliver of awareness sliced through the wonder of the scene.
“Think I’ve seen that bridge before,” he said.
“Yeah?” For the first time Tucker sounded slightly disconcerted. “Where?”
“In the movies. Damn silly plot but the special effects were mildly entertaining.”
Tucker chuckled. “Leave it to Fallon Jones to come up with a logical explanation for a perfectly good hallucination. Well, it was worth a shot. But if you won’t do this the easy way, I guess we’ll have to go with Plan B.”
He moved suddenly, bringing up the object in his hand. Fallon tried to raise one arm to block the blow, but his muscles would not obey. Instinctively he twisted aside, instead. He lost his balance and went down hard on the tiled floor.
The object Tucker wielded was a hammer. It struck inches away from Fallon’s head. He heard the crack of the tiles. The entire balcony shuddered with the force of the blow.
Somewhere in the night a woman started screaming.
“You crazy son of a bitch,” Tucker said. He raised the hammer for another blow. “You’re supposed to be out of your head by now.”
Fallon rolled away and reached for more talent. The hammer struck the floor of the balcony again.
He managed to scramble to his feet. The sparkling, iridescent night spun wildly around him.
Tucker charged him in a violent rush. The promise of imminent death sent another rush of adrenaline through Fallon, producing a few seconds of brilliant clarity.
He finally succeeded in getting a focus. For an instant the familiar features of the man he had considered a trusted friend were clearly visible in the light from the living room. Tucker’s face was twisted with a maddened rage. Fallon realized that he had never known the real Tucker until tonight.
The shock of being so terribly, horribly wrong brought another dose of clarity. People had died because of Tucker Austin, and Fallon knew that he was, in part, to blame. He summoned up the full, raging force of his talent, reached into the heart of chaos and seized a fistful of fire. He hurled the invisible currents of paranormal radiation into Tucker’s aura. Not exactly Zeus with the lightning bolts but good enough to get the job done.
Tucker grunted once, clutched at his heart and instinctively reeled backward to escape the onslaught of energy. He fetched up hard against the balcony railing. He was a tall man. The barrier caught him at mid-thigh. The force of his momentum sent him over the edge.
He did not scream, because he was already dead. But Jenny’s scream went on forever. Fallon knew he would hear it for the rest of his life.
Isabella: one month ago . . .
She was not expecting the killers to come for her in the lingerie department.
She was always especially alert at night after work when she walked through the mall’s deserted parking garage. She never entered the cheap motel room that she rented by the week without checking for the telltale paranormal fog indicating an intruder. When she shopped for groceries, she was careful to keep an eye on strangers who invaded her personal space, and she never, ever ordered in. No one had an excuse to knock on her door.
But for some reason Isabella had felt reasonably safe selling women’s underwear in the discount department store for the past week. The sight of the two men loitering across the aisle in women’s sportswear sent a frisson of electricity across the nape of her neck. When you were psychic, you paid attention to your intuition.
She heightened her talent cautiously, bracing for the unpleasant chill of awareness. She possessed the ability to perceive the unique energy generated by those who kept secrets. Everyone harbored countless mysteries, small and large, however, so it was a given that if there were people in the vicinity, there would be a lot of fog.
Her coworkers and the shoppers around her were abruptly surrounded by misty auras. She wrestled with her talent for a few seconds, concentrating on those two men. Although she was prepared, the sight of the hot, seething energy around the pair made her go cold to the bone. Definitely talents of some kind, probably hunters.
You’re the one they’re hunting, her intuition whispered. Run. Sure, like she could outrun two trained men who would be as quick and ruthless as a pair of wolves.
She struggled to maintain her outward composure. Panic would get her killed as surely as any gun or knife.
The middle-aged woman standing directly in front of her tossed three pairs of lacy thong panties onto the sales counter with a defiant air.
“I’ll take these,” she announced, daring Isabella to object.
The customer displayed all of the visible hallmarks of a woman who had just gone through a nasty divorce. Isabella did not need the psychic side of her nature to pick up on the cues: a pale white line where the wedding ring had been, eyes too wide and tight from a recent surgical lift, new haircut, fresh dye job, trendy, tight-fitting clothes. The woman’s life had recently crashed and burned.
I know the feeling, Isabella thought. Sort of. The truth was, she had never actually had a real life. Still, for a while during the past six months she had come close, so close, to feeling normal. Face it—you weren’t born to be normal.
She managed a polite smile and picked up the panties. “Great buy, aren’t they?”
“Yes.” The customer was somewhat mollified now that she was assured she wasn’t going to be mocked for buying the thongs. “That’s why I bought three pairs.”
“Good idea. The price will go back up next week after the sale,” Isabella said.
She watched the two men in women’s sportswear out of the corner of her eye while she rang up the panties. The hair on the back of her neck was standing on end. Goose bumps covered her upper arms. A cold sweat formed between her shoulder blades. Her senses were screaming. Her pulse was pounding. Get out of here. Now.
Viewed in normal light there was nothing to mark the two hunters as anything other than what they appeared to be, bored shopping escorts waiting for their companions to come out of the dressing rooms. But Isabella noticed that customers in their vicinity edged away from them. The two were probably really cranked, preparing to close in on their prey. As a result they were giving off so much energy that even people without any measurable talent sensed the threat on a subliminal level.
“Excuse me, I’m in a hurry here,” the woman on the other side of the counter snapped.
“Sorry.” Isabella smiled apologetically. “Cash register is a little slow today.”
She pushed the credit card slip and a pen across the counter. The woman scrawled her name and grabbed the shopping bag containing the thongs.
Isabella forced herself to smile at the next customer in line, a young mother with a baby in a stroller.
“Can I help you?” Isabella asked. Run.
“I want to buy this.” The customer put a pale blue nightgown on the counter and leaned down to pick up the small plush toy the baby had tossed out of the stroller.
“This is such a pretty color,” Isabella remarked, falling back on the one day of training the department store had given her at the start of her employment. Always compliment the customer’s good taste. She folded the nightgown in the precise way she had been instructed and reached for a sheet of tissue. “Such a beautiful shade of blue.”
The woman straightened, brightening immediately.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s my favorite. Good price, too.”
“You were smart to get here early for the sale.” Isabella started to wrap some tissue around the nightgown and paused, frowning. “Hmm.”
“There’s a small spot on this gown,” Isabella said.
Alarmed, the woman leaned over the counter. “Where?”
“Right here.” Isabella whisked up the nightgown, careful to hold it so that the customer could not see the mythical spot.
“It’s the last one in blue in my size,” the woman wailed.
“Don’t worry, I think I’ve got one more in the back room, same color and size. I’ll only be a moment.”
Nightgown in hand, Isabella turned and went quickly toward the discreet door directly behind the counter.
She knew the hunter-talents saw her go through the door into the stockroom, but with luck they would not realize that she had spotted them. Even if they were suspicious, they were unlikely to follow her. One of the clerks would be sure to call Security.
She dropped the nightgown onto a table and started toward the door that opened onto the emergency stairwell. Darlene, one of her coworkers, emerged from between two rows of floor-to-ceiling shelving crammed with boxes of undergarments. She had a stack of lacy bras in her hand.
“Annie, are you okay?” Darlene asked, frowning in concern. “You look like you’re not feeling well.”
“I’m fine, thanks,” Isabella said.
She had used the name and ID of a nonexistent woman named Ann Carstairs to get the job in the department store. There was only one individual on the face of the earth who knew her real name. In the past week she’d been forced to face the possibility that that person, her grandmother, might be dead. If no one knows your real name do you even exist ? she wondered.
That’s it, she thought. Stop right there. Negative thinking will get you nowhere. Until it was proven otherwise, she was going to go with the assumption that her grandmother was alive. Meanwhile, her job was to keep herself breathing. That meant avoiding the two hunter-talents.
“You look a little shaky,” Darlene said.
“Low on caffeine,” Isabella replied. “I’m going on break. Thought I’d use the stairs to the coffee room. I need the exercise.”
“Huh.” Darlene hurried toward the door to the sales floor. “Seems to me we get plenty of exercise during a sale. My feet are killing me. I’m going to be exhausted by the time we get off work tonight.”
“Me, too,” Isabella said. “Would you mind taking the blue nightgown out to the counter? There’s a customer waiting for it. Tell her there was no spot, after all. Just a trick of the light.”