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Author: Gwen Hunter (aka Faith Hunter)
Reissue Edition
Retail: $15.95US

5.5"x 8.5" Trade Paperback
ISBN 978-1-62268-081-8 print
ISBN 978-1-62268-084-9 ebook
LCCN 2015934287



Icy water dripped off my fingers as I turned the jagged stone into the light. I tilted the bucket that displayed uncut, unpolished rocks and lifted a block of greenish rough from its water bath. There were striations in the rough that might make it unstable. I flipped open my jewelers loupe and studied the colors that swirled through the mottled bronzed petzite. It was lovely rough, but felt friable. It wasn't worth the risk to purchase it for cutting, carving and shaping unless I could get it cheaper than the rock hound was asking. A lot cheaper. I named a rock bottom price and when the owner was offended, I moved on.
    Across the makeshift aisle in the old convention center, a man in a brown plaid shirt and khakis moved with me. He'd been in my area several times since I arrived at the rock and gem show, and I adjusted the backpack that was slung across my shoulder. Though there was little chance of a light-fingered theft in the crowded room, it paid to be cautious. And in such a crowded space, I couldn't draw on my natural gifts to read him. Too much emotional interference. The man in brown stopped at a display and lifted two uncut agate nodules.
    Maybe I was being paranoid, but I was glad I'd left the spring designs in the hotel safe. Security for the patterns was something new for all of us, but since the Oscars last year, we'd had to be more careful. Bloodstone Inc. became the hottest jewelry design company on the East Coast after Evelyn Crosby wore one of my ruby necklaces when she accepted her award. We were making money and competitors weren't shy about trying to get advance notice of our concepts.
    I smoothed down the Velcro closures on my pack and checked the strap hooking it to my belt. As if he knew he'd been seen, the brown man drifted away, but I got a good look at his face. Scruffy. Ordinary. Medium brown color scheme from hair to eyes to clothing to boots, as if he'd been designed for dull. He ducked his head as he moved into the aisle near the outer door.
    In the next booth I caught a glimpse of something different. The fine hairs along my arms lifted in excitement. At the bottom of a white plastic bucket was a large lump of dark charcoal-tinted stone with one bluish nub where the owner had polished out a nickel-sized spot. When I pulled the double-fist-sized hunk of rock from its water-bath into the light, I found I was holding a slab of labradorite. Its color was an unexpected deep shade of finely mottled blue, deeper than lapis with pale blue swirls like water in the Mediterranean Sea. The color softened into water-green, swirling around the blue like a lover's arms, hues soft and satiny.
    I kept my face impassive, but put my canvas backpack on the display case and hefted the hunk of stone from hand to hand, turning it slowly. It was free of cracks and showed no evidence of damage from the elements. With a corner of a cloth attached to my jeans belt loop just for that purpose, I wiped the slab, scrubbed at its craggy surface. The blue swirled through and through.
    "How much of this you got?" I asked before I even bothered to look at the booth proprietor.
    "For you, Tyler, much as you want."
    I looked up quickly. "How you doin' Rett?" I asked easily, hiding my disappointment. I figured the price had just gone up dramatically. That seemed to happen a lot now as rock hounds followed the money to Bloodstone's successful door.
    "Good 'nuff, I reckon. You can have that at a reasonable price, long as you give me a good deal back on a necklace and earrings set for the wife, cut from that bluest part right there," Everett Longworth nodded to the polished blue nub and scratched his belly with one hand while punching numbers into a 1970's adding machine with the other. "Emily Sue likes your work and I got me a twenty-five year anniversary coming up in September. Lez you and me dicker some," he said with relish. Rett loved to dicker over stones. Any way he could get out of paying sales tax or reporting earnings to Uncle Sam was good by him. And Rett was enough of an emotional projector that I knew he liked me. That always helped.
    We dickered. We settled on three lumps of rough labradorite for me and a good price—a really good price—for Longworth's sterling silver and labradorite anniversary gift in a design that would be created just for Emily Sue, his longsuffering wife. Once we agreed on a price, Rett threw in several polished cabs of a lovely gray kyanite I could easily use and some freshwater blister pearls in the same shade as the cabochons. Two of the pearls were larger than the pad of my thumb and had a spectacular shape, flat and freeform. Noelle would flip over them. It was nice to know at least one of the rock hounds of my acquaintance wasn't trying to take me to the cleaners.
    Deal concluded, a promissory note for an anniversary gift in Rett's hands, I pulled the backpack to me to add in the twenty pounds of well-wrapped rough and cabs, and unhooked the pack from its strap. I'd done well.
    Pain slammed into me. In a single instant, time snapped and stretched. I lurched, hurled slowly forward across the labradorite. The world tilted. My breath grunted out, a shocked spasm. I caught myself with both hands. Buckets of rough flew, stone and water in the air. A second blow made a one-two punch of pure agony. Piercing pain blossomed from both kidneys. Paralyzing. My knees collapsed. The display table smashed down beneath me. Air shot from my lungs. I had a glimpse of the brown man's face as I twisted in midair and landed on the concrete floor in a puddle of icy water, clattering stones, and a nearly electric misery. I saw a boot coming at me.
    Everett shouted and surged forward. My backpack and canvas tote seemed to hang in midair for a single moment. Then they whipped away. Bodies blurred by pain sped by. Time wrenched back as I curled up on the floor, tried to remember how to breathe, and wondered whose blood was on my hands.
    It was mine.

SUNDAY, 11:42 A.M.

I was patched up in first aid, the big red cross painted on the wall next to the security sign. Spitting mad, I was left sitting on a stretcher in a sterile cubicle, my hand in a bowl of icky-looking brown cleanser instead of me being out on the convention center floor looking for my assailant along with the security officers.
    I was so mad I couldn't pick up anything from anyone around me, even the EMS guy only two feet away. It all was an emotional and mental haze. So much for the St. Claire family gift. Psychics-R-Us had failed me again. As usual, being a receptor for the mental and emotional feedback of others hadn't saved me from danger or prevented bad things from happening.
    I'd cut my palm as I fell, most likely on a jagged piece of rough. I didn't tell the EMT that I'd been kidney punched in addition to the flesh wound. He might have made me go to the hospital to pee in a cup, and I figured I could tell all by myself if my urine turned red and bloody.
    The head of security, a pompous off-duty cop with the unlikely name of Tommy Thompson, stepped in from 'reviewing the crime scene' as he'd called it when he slogged out the door ten minutes earlier. "You're lucky, little miss." He wiped his shiny forehead and huffed two quick breaths, winded by the thirty yard walk. "He could have used a knife on you."
    He could have used a bazooka too, I thought, but I didn't say that.
    "I've determined that the in-ci-dent took place in a location not covered by the se-cu-rity cameras. And further, that your backpack and canvas tote are both gone." He spoke as he pulled a form from his desk and started writing. I'd guess detailing his startling observations for posterity.
    "Oh. Really?" I said.
    "You could use a stitch or two," the paramedic on duty said, grinning into my face as if he had read my mind. Now wouldn't that be a change around. "But if it was me, I'd just make do with the butterfly strips, ointment and a bandage, and take it easy."
    "I'll take the latter."
    "Your call." He gathered supplies and dried the icky-looking stuff off my hand prior to applying butterfly bandages. I hissed a breath when he pulled the first weird looking adhesive strip across my flesh and closed the wound. It hurt like heck. The second strip wasn't any less painful.
    "You had seen the man several times today, you said?" Tommy asked, dropping his bulk into a tired-looking chair and peering up at me from under his brows. When I nodded, he said, "And all you can tell me is he was medium height, medium weight, and brown. Wonder why you didn't report him to the se-cu-rity department? That's what I'm wondering."
    "I saw several people various times today. It's a pretty small crowd in an enclosed space." You idiot. "You want everyone here paranoid and reporting all the multiple sightings? It's a show for pity sa— Ow!"
    "Sorry," the paramedic said, teeth showing in a grin. But he pulled a white elastic mesh tighter still as he wrapped my hand.
    "How much you think he got?" Tommy asked.
    "My money is in a wad in my jeans, along with my drivers license and credit card." I shrugged my shoulders to rearrange the wet shirt across them. It was cold in the room and the cloth was chilling. "But the value of the gems and rough exceeds $7,000."
    Tommy whistled.
    "If you'll let me see the tapes I'll be able to point him out. I'm sure," I said.
    "This it?"
    I looked up to see an elderly man in the doorway, the red cross bright on the wall behind him. His bald head seemed to rise out of a too large collar, the security uniform making him look like a kid playing dress-up in daddy's cop clothes. He was holding up my canvas backpack, the straps dangling.
    "Yes!" I leapt down from the table, strawberry blond braid flying, unsuccessfully trying to hide a grimace of pain. The paramedic sighed, a longsuffering sound that said he knew I was hurt worse than I had claimed. He finished wrapping my hand as the tiny security man dumped out my belongings on the stretcher.
    "Good work, Lionel," Tommy T said.
    The tiny man grinned. "I fount em in the men's room in section D. In the back stall. I gathered em up and brung em here."
    "Anything missing?" Tommy T asked.
    I plundered through the pile. The papers and notebook were still in the back pocket, which was surprising. The receipts for the precious metals I'd ordered from a rep I'd bumped into were still there. And the rough I had purchased earlier, and which would have been harder to replace than ID or mere money, was all tumbled in the backpack, including a hunk of green turquoise with vibrant colors I had paid way too much to obtain. The double-fist-sized hunk of rare African bloodstone rough was safe, still in it's newsprint wrappings. More surprising, the small bag of ruby cabs and predrilled stones I had picked up for a paltry $5,000 was here as well. Relief washed through me. Forgetting my discomfort, I counted the cabs. All fifteen were still in the pack. Either the thief had been chased off before he finished looking or he hadn't known what he had.
    "What's missing? What's them?" Tommy T asked, and poked the felt bag that held the rubies.
    "Cabochons," I said, which was the truth as far as it went. I pocketed the bag and pawed through the pile again. "The card key for my room. It's gone." And why would anyone take only a room card key unless they knew exactly what it was and where it should be used?
    "Maybe I better call your ho-tel and talk to se-cu-rity there to keep an eye out." Tommy T picked up the old-fashioned phone. "What's your ho-tel and room number?" I told him and he dialed out.
    I looked at my watch. Over 45 minutes had passed. I had deliberately chosen a hotel close to the old convention center so I could walk back and forth to the rock and gem show. If the thief had wanted into my room he'd had plenty of time to be in and out by now.
    Within minutes, Tommy discovered that my room door in the hotel was hanging open and the place had been tossed. "Spit and decay," I cursed as I listened to the conversation, cuss words from my youth.
    "We'll bring the little miss right on over," Tommy said. "You'll meet us in the room with the po-lice? We got an assault to report to them boys anyway. Yeah. Good 'nuff. Hang on and I'll step in the hallway a sec." Tommy T carried the phone into the hallway and closed the door.
    "Important cop business," the EMT said. "Not for the likes of us lesser creatures."
    I grinned at the man and read his nametag. "I like you, Winston."
    "Ditto, little miss."
    I punched his arm and we both laughed. Engaged in small talk as he secured the trailing end of the white elastic mesh wrapped around my hand.
    Tommy T reentered, hung up the phone and looked at me hard. "You wadden by any chance carrying any drugs, was you, little miss?"
    "No," you caricature of a hillbilly cop, I wanted to add.
    "No. Not that I'd be stupid enough to tell you if I was, but no. I'm guessing he was after the spring designs. I'm Tyler St. Claire, of Bloodstone Inc. in Connersville. And there are certain competitors who might resort to theft if they thought they could get away with it."
    "Uh huh."
    "The designs are in the hotel safe."
    Tommy T just looked at me hard, hands on his ample hips. I thanked the EMT, shook Lionel's hand for finding my bags, and shouldered my belongings.
    "My patrol unit is right outside the front entrance. I'll be taking you to the ho-tel. Here, let me carry that for you." Tommy reached for the backpack.
    I jerked it out of his way. The pack was staying on my person from now on. Tommy's face hardened and I mentally backpedaled at his expression. "I'd rather you run interference and, uh, keep your hands free to draw your gun if needed," I said. And found a sweet smile to go with the ridiculous words. It must have been the proper "little miss" thing to say because Tommy's face cleared, he nodded, adjusted his utility belt, and secured the butt of his gun in response.
    Well goody. Big cop-man on the scene. "Okay if we stop by the booth where I was attacked and pick up the rough I had just bought?"
    "I reckon I can keep a watch-out for you for a couple minutes. But you tell me if you see your brown man again. He might be back."
    "Thank you, Captain," I said, padding his rank. I wanted to barf at my tone, but I had to use what worked. Feminine dependence and obsequious servility were the tickets to Tommy T's heart. And I didn't have time to be as sincerely irate as I wanted nor to give the man a class in behavior modification.
    "Just a sergeant in the Sheriff's Department, little miss. But we aim to protect."
    I smiled, bit my tongue, and led the way to Rett's booth. I was cold, wet, starting to hurt, and an old-fashioned, red-neck, chivalrous man could be useful. I happened to need a man with a gun and an entree to the po-lice for safety. A ride to the hotel was mighty handy too, but I had a feeling that if he knew I considered him a free taxi, Tommy T would have balked at the lift.
    Back on the convention center floor, it was short work to convince Everett that I was fine, collect my extra twenty pounds of rough and walk to Tommy's car. I settled into the rear of the cop car without demur and laid my head back for the short ride, thinking of a hot shower and clean, dry clothes. Rather than talking, Tommy T whistled a breathy tune as we drove and it was almost pleasant.
    The hotel room was another matter entirely.

SUNDAY 12:22 P.M.

My room had been ransacked. I dropped the heavy pack in the doorway and surveyed the mess. The hotel manager and a city cop were standing in the middle of the room and met my eyes with anger and suspicion. I just shook my head and closed my mouth. I'd be looking at me like that now too, if I wasn't in my own shoes.
    The tiny fridge had been left open, its contents on the carpet, the small unit turned on its side. The television set was pushed across the bureau, about to fall to the floor. The microwave was hanging open. The one comfortable chair had been upended, the bed had been stripped, the mattress half off, sheets in the corner. My clothes had been ripped from suitcase and closet and thrown across the room. One of my favorite red cowboy boots was on the mattress, the other nowhere in sight.
    The room safe had been ripped out of the closet and was split open. It looked like someone had attacked it with a log splitter and maul. It was in pieces of shattered plastic and hacked metal. I was glad I had put my good emerald earrings and my favorite necklace in the hotel safe along with the designs. The emerald pendant alone was insured for nearly 5,000 bucks, but the replacement value would be much higher. I usually just stored them in the room. That would never happen again. As it was, the amethyst nuggets I had bought on the first day of the show and stored in the room safe were clearly goners.
    A female officer with a dog on a leash entered and the manager went to stand in the doorway. The mutt was a black terrier mix with long legs and a tendency to quiver. It couldn't have weighed twenty pounds, and started to tour my room instantly. My eyes narrowed and I glared at Tommy T who backed up a step. I had flown often enough to know a drug-sniffing dog when I saw one. "You have got to be kidding."
    "Nobody took your valuable cab-o-chons. Must a been looking for something," he defended himself.
    "I told you—"
    "I know what you tole me. Won't take us but a few minutes to check out your story."
    I rolled my eyes and moved into the room, righted the chair and sat. The cloth of my wet shirts and jeans stuck to the upholstery, a cold slime against my skin. This was ridiculous.
    "Anything missing?" the manager asked.
    I spotted my other red boot under the bedclothes and my other pair of jeans. Two sweaters, a jacket I hadn't worn to the show because the temps had risen overnight. Undies. I traveled light. Bending forward in the chair, I leaned over the safe to verify it was empty. I sighed. "Some amethyst I got yesterday. Maybe six hundred bucks worth. I have a receipt somewhere."
    "And why was they in the room safe and the other stuff in the hotel safe?" Tommy asked.
    I scrubbed my face and counted to ten. Remembered to breathe past the irritation. "Convenience," I said. "Laziness," and refused to say more.
    Tommy made a snorting sound. "Might want to check out the backpack too, while we got Omar here. Little miss was greatly interested in keeping it to herself. And she says nothing was stolen from it. Mighty strange, you ask me."
    "You are a moron," I said distinctly. Tommy's face darkened, but the female dog-handler snickered, as if she might secretly agree. Omar just went on sniffing, showing no particular attention to anything.
    After ten minutes, the deputy brought Omar to me. "Sorry, but would you let Omar sniff you?"
    I sighed but slid to the floor by the chair and held out my arms for the small dog. The deputy appeared surprised by my action and maybe she hadn't intended for me to get on the floor, but it seemed the quickest way to get this nonsense over with. And besides, my back was really beginning to hurt. I propped against the chair and Omar sniffed all around me, paying particular attention to my shoes, but not acting very excited about them. Which just proved that he was a male dog, because they were the latest sport wear by Lorenzo Banfi and any self-respecting female animal of any species would have been impressed.
    "Nice shoes," the dog handler said.
    I held up a foot and rotated my ankle to show off the lace-up. "Thanks."
    When Omar was done, I asked permission, then ran a hand down his body and told him he was a good dog. And he was. A sweet-tempered mutt with happy black eyes that looked into mine with adoration. A dog who had never met a stranger or an enemy. I could put away my hope that he'd pee on Tommy T's leg for me. Omar went back to work.
    "We'd like permission to see your belongings stored in the safe," Tommy T said.
    My temper shot into the royally PO'd stage in a single instant. My mouth took over before I could think. "And if I say no?" Tommy T's face went permanently harsh, and I figured that meant he was tired of my glaring and immune to any womanly wiles I might have faked had I not been so mad.
    "I'd be forced to ask a judge to provide a warrant. And we'd likely find the need to hold you overnight for questioning."
    "Let me get this right." I levered myself up from the floor. My back was stiffening and I was not exactly graceful, but anger gave me strength I might not have had otherwise. "I'm attacked in a public place and I'm the one being investigated?"
    "Attacked. Hotel ransacked. Nothing taken. Or not much. Mighty strange, you ask me." He hitched his utility belt for emphasis.
    My mouth opened to argue. I wanted to tell Tommy T he'd rue the day he took me on. I really wanted to slap him silly, but that would land me in jail. Instead, I blew out a hard breath. The cop was bigger than I was both figuratively and literally. Fighting him would take time and resources I didn't have at the moment. And I had to face the fact that it did indeed look weird to have been attacked and so little taken. I reined in my temper, counting slowly to twenty with my eyes closed.
    When I could speak without telling him off, calling him a red-neck, under-educated, inbred hillbilly, and getting myself into double trouble, I said, "Let's go." When he started to reply, I said, "You call me little miss again and I'll write a letter to the city or county board about your needing a course in social adjustment or whatever the heck they call it." The female cop laughed, a startled burst of sound. I figured she agreed that a moment of politically correct timeout would do the burly cop good. Tommy T just glared.

copyright ©Gwen Hunter

Author: Gwen Hunter
Reissue Edition
Retail: $15.95US

5.5"x 8.5" Trade Paperback
ISBN 978-1-62268-081-8 print
ISBN 978-1-62268-084-9 ebook
LCCN 2015934287

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read an excerpt

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cover detail

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