Why kill me?" Sierra Raines said. "I''m just the go-between."
"I''m sorry, Ms. Raines," Parker Keegan said. He aimed the pistol at her. The weapon shook a little in his hand. Keegan''s eyes were wild with lust-not the sexual kind; a different sort of madness, but just as dangerous. "I''m afraid this is the end of our business association."
Another crazy, obsessive, paranoid collector, Sierra thought. Should have seen this coming. The problem was that most of her clients qualified as crazy, obsessive, or paranoid-usually some creepy combination of all three. If she avoided all the collectors and dealers in the hot artifacts trade who fit one or more of the three categories, she would be out of business in a day.
Keegan, however, was proving to be more of a problem than the majority of her clients. There was the gun, for one thing. Thankfully, very few of the collectors and dealers she did business with had gone so far as to pull out a pistol, although one or two had produced large knives, and there was the scary dude who had tried to lock her up in the trunk of a car that he intended to push off a pier on Lake Washington. Most collectors were thrilled to conclude a successful transaction and were eager to do more business with her. She was slowly but surely establishing a reputation as reliable and discreet.
It shouldn''t have come as a surprise that there were a few drawbacks in her new business. There had been glitches and major disasters in all of her previous attempts to discover her calling. She was starting to think of herself as a serial career killer.
They were standing in Keegan''s private gallery. Like the galleries of most collectors who were obsessed with artifacts that had an association with the paranormal, the room was a converted basement. There was no one else in the big house and the nearest neighbors were a mile down the road. If Keegan shot her, no one would hear the crack of the pistol.
"Don''t misunderstand, Ms. Raines," Keegan said. "I am very grateful to you for locating the artifact and delivering it so promptly and so discreetly. The problem is that you now know far too much about my collection and my business affairs."
Keegan was not particularly dangerous looking. Thin, short and middle-aged, he had the vibe of a fussy academic. But if there was one thing Sierra had discovered in the past few months, it was that when it came to collectors and dealers, looks were invariably deceiving.
Mirrors, however, never lied, not to someone with her talent. And there happened to be one-a large, elaborately framed nineteenth-century looking glass-hanging on the wall directly behind Keegan. When she jacked up her talent she could see the reflection of his energy field. Unstable was the only way to describe it.
Not that she had needed a mirror to arrive at that diagnosis, she thought.
"I''m a Vault agent, Mr. Keegan," she said, keeping her tone polite but firm. "You know as well as I do that Mr. Jones is not going to be happy if one of his go-betweens gets murdered on this job."
"I have considered the problem of Mr. Jones. Don''t worry, Ms. Raines, your body will never be found. I intend to tell Jones you failed to deliver the artifact. He will be convinced you stole it and disappeared with it."
"No," Sierra said. "He won''t believe it. You do not want to cross Mr. Jones."
"I''m not afraid of Jones," Keegan snapped.
But he sounded as if he were trying to convince himself rather than her.
"There is no reason to kill me," she said gently. "You''ve got the artifact. Mr. Jones has built a reputation for confidentiality. As long as his clients don''t try to cheat him, he keeps their secrets. So do his agents."
"Unfortunately, I have trust issues," Keegan said.
"No kidding. As it happens, I have a few myself." She gave him her flashiest smile and casually stripped off one of her sleek black leather gloves. "That is, of course, why I take precautions at every stage of the delivery."
Keegan frowned. "What''s that supposed to mean?"
Sierra raised her ungloved hand to the small locket she wore. She flipped it open to reveal the mirror inside. It was not a standard mirror, but rather a flat circle of highly reflective crystal.
"I won''t bore you with a lengthy explanation of how this works," she said. "That would involve some complicated physics. All you really need to know is that you''re about to faint."
"Faint? You''re crazy. Why would I faint? I''m in excellent health. I''m a vegan."
She focused quickly and channeled a little heat through the mirror crystal, reflecting the currents of Keegan''s energy field straight back at him. The rebounding waves sent the equivalent of an electrical shock through his aura, effectively short-circuiting it.
Keegan stiffened. His eyes fluttered and closed. The gun fell from his hand and he sank to the floor without so much as a groan.
There was a sharp crack as the handsome nineteenth-century mirror on the wall fractured into a spiderweb of fissures.
Control was everything, Sierra reminded herself. She was pretty good when it came to channeling energy through the crystal, but when she got nervous, stuff sometimes happened. It was a pity in this case because the old mirror had definitely had a paranormal vibe. In good condition it would have been worth a lot of money on the underground market.
She had bigger problems, however. Her fingers burned. She flicked her hand several times in an instinctive but utterly futile attempt to cool the singed sensation. Hastily she pulled on the leather glove.
"Shit," she muttered. "Shit, shit, shit."
She took a few deep breaths and gritted her teeth until the burn began to fade. Using her talent at full throttle always gave her an unpleasant psychic jolt, but lately the experience was more painful than usual because she had not yet recovered from the severe burn she had received on the last job. Her senses tended to overreact to anything with a disturbing psychic vibe. She had never been comfortable coming into physical contact with strangers because she never knew what to expect from their energy fields, but these days the simple act of touch had become an extremely fraught experience.
Her mother had suggested the leather gloves. They had been made for her by a family friend who knew a lot about the physics of the paranormal. Leather was a reasonably good insulator. Not as good as steel or glass, of course, but definitely more fashionable. Walking around with chain-mail gloves or a pair made of glass would have drawn a lot of unwanted attention.
Sierra closed the locket and hurried across the gallery. She crouched beside Keegan, unwilling to take off a glove to touch his throat to check for a pulse. Luckily his chest was rising and falling in a normal fashion. He was alive but unconscious. There was no way to know how long he would remain in that state or what he would remember when he woke up.
It didn''t matter. The deal was off as far as she was concerned. She had done her job. The buyer had failed to hold up his end of the bargain. It was bad enough that he had tried to murder her. The bastard hadn''t paid his bill. Jones would not be happy about that. Keegan would not be able to purchase the services of a Vault agent in the future.
In addition, she would make sure the news that Keegan was both dangerous and a deadbeat went out on the rumor network that linked the freelance go-betweens who worked the Pacific Northwest market. Keegan would find it difficult if not impossible to hire another reliable transporter. He would be forced to deal with the raiders, who were far more dangerous than he was.
She moved to the display stand and winced when she picked up the vintage desk calendar she had just delivered. She could feel the vibe even through the leather glove. The thing was really hot. Definitely a lost lab artifact. It had absorbed some serious paranormal radiation from the office in which it had been used decades earlier. She detected a whisper of panic, too. Whoever had left the calendar behind had been terrified. It was not an uncommon kind of heat in the lost lab artifacts she transported. She had come to think of the residual emotions as a psychic signature of relics connected with the government''s secret Bluestone Project.
She inserted the desk calendar back into the leather bag she had used to transport it and headed for the door.
"I''ll see myself out," she said to the unconscious Keegan. "And just to be clear, you and I will not be doing any more business in the future."
She went up the basement steps to the ground floor of the big house and hurried along the darkened hall to the back door. When she had arrived she had deliberately parked behind the mansion to reduce the possibility of her car being noticed by a passerby. She had covered her license plates as an added precaution.
She had also driven a complicated, circuitous route to Keegan''s house, making certain she had not been followed. Raider crews sometimes tailed go-betweens like vultures, hoping to swoop in to grab the relic before it could be delivered to a client.
Outside she hurried through the light rain to her black SUV. The vehicle looked like a gazillion other SUVs on the road in the Pacific Northwest, but she was proud of it. The car represented her biggest investment to date in her new career. She would be making payments on it for a long time. It wasn''t as if she''d had a choice. A go-between couldn''t operate without a sturdy, reliable vehicle. The SUV was specially equipped with a steel lockbox in the cargo compartment. Steel was an effective insulator. It blocked most paranormal energy.
She vaulted up into the driver''s seat, dumped her backpack and the leather bag onto the passenger''s seat, fired up the engine and drove down the long, narrow driveway to the main road.
When she was well clear of the house, she stopped long enough to toss the pistol into the lake. There was no point leaving the gun around, because it was evidence that might lead to questions about her presence in the house. Worst-case scenario was that Keegan would go to the cops and accuse her of being an intruder, although that was unlikely. Collectors avoided the authorities for the same reason others in the artifacts trade did: no one wanted that kind of attention. But you never knew for sure how an irate collector would react. They were all unpredictable.
Once the gun had vanished into the lake, she uncovered the SUV''s license plates and got back on the road.
Satisfied that she did not have a tail, she motored sedately across the 520 Bridge, heading toward the bright lights of downtown Seattle. It was after midnight and there was very little traffic. Seattle was a boomtown these days thanks to the tech industry, but it was still a relatively quiet place in the wee hours of the morning. That worked out well for her because a lot of her business was conducted during those hours.
She drove straight to an alley in Pioneer Square, the old, historic section of the city. The narrow lane between two brick buildings was lit only by a weak yellow bulb over an unmarked door. It was the sort of location sensible people intuitively avoided, especially at night.
She parked directly in front of the unmarked door. A burly figure dressed in a dark jacket and a knit cap detached itself from the shadows of the vestibule and ambled around to the driver''s side of the car. He opened the door.
"Valet parking, Ms. Raines?" he asked in a voice that had been dug out of a rock quarry.
"No thanks, Brick. I won''t be here long tonight." Sierra grabbed her pack and the leather bag and jumped down to the pavement. "I just need to drop off a return and then I''m going home to get some sleep. It''s been a long night."
She handed over her keys and a few bucks.
"No problem," Brick said. "The car can sit right here until you get back." He glanced at the black bag. "A return, huh? Mr. Jones won''t be happy."
"Neither am I."
She followed Brick up the three steps to the entrance. The door was clad in wood and covered in peeling paint. Looking at it, you would never know that under the veneer was a solid steel plate. Of course, looking at Brick, you wouldn''t know he was wearing a holstered gun under his jacket.
Okay, maybe you would have a hunch about the gun.
"How did the date with Deandra go?" she asked as she watched Brick open the door.
Brick lit up like an LED sign. "It went great. Did the old-fashioned thing like you suggested. Dinner and a show, and afterward we went somewhere and talked about the movie. Deandra knows a lot about films. Got another date lined up this weekend after we get off work here at the Vault."
"That''s wonderful. I''m so glad things went well."
"Thanks to you pushing me to ask her out," Brick said. "It took all the nerve I had. When she said yes, I could hardly believe it."
"I had a hunch the two of you would get along together. Good luck."
Brick ushered her into the shadowed hall. The two men running the security scanner were lounging in a couple of folding chairs. One was middle-aged and bald. The other was much younger and on the twitchy side. They got to their feet and grinned in welcome.
"Good evening, gentlemen," she said.
"Why do I have the feeling the delivery didn''t go well?" the bald guard asked.
"You must be psychic, Clyde," Sierra said.
"Do you know how many times a night I have to listen to that joke?" Clyde snorted. Energy shifted in the atmosphere around him. He was a very high-level intuitive talent. It made him an ideal security guard. His brows rose when he saw the leather bag. "Well, well, well. Looks like the buyer is returning the purchase."
"Unsatisfied customer?" Twitch asked with a knowing look.
"More like an unsatisfied go-between," Sierra said. She put the leather bag and her backpack on the scanner belt. Next she stripped off her leather jacket, sat down on a handy stool and pulled off her leather boots.
Most go-betweens wore a lot of leather. It had become the unofficial uniform of the profession, but it wasn''t a fashion statement. Go-betweens wore leather for the same reason bikers did-protection. When you worked in a business that involved a lot of paranormal artifacts, you had to be prepared for the occasional super-charged surprise. Brushing up against the most innocent-looking relic could send a staggering shock across the senses. Leather muted the jolt.