A rare book. An ancient code. A new trilogy that “starts off with promise” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) from the New York Times bestselling master of passion and the paranormal.
Within the pages of very rare books some centuries old lie the secrets of the paranormal. Abby Radwell’s unusual psychic talent has made her an expert in such volumes—and has sometimes taken her into dangerous territory. After a deadly incident in the private library of an obsessive collector, Abby receives a blackmail threat, and rumors swirl that an old alchemical text known as The Keyhas reappeared on the black market.
Convinced that she needs an investigator who can also play bodyguard, she hires Sam Coppersmith, a specialist in paranormal crystals and amber—“hot rocks.” Passion flares immediately between them, but neither entirely trusts the other. When it comes to dealing with a killer who has paranormal abilities, and a blackmailer who will stop at nothing to obtain an ancient alchemical code, no one is safe.
A crazy man and a gun was never a good combination. A crazy man with paranormal talent and a gun made for a very bad start to the day.
Abby Radwell watched the terrifying scene taking place in the library from the shadows of the doorway. The intruder holding the pistol on Hannah Vaughn and her housekeeper could not have been older than twenty-one or twenty-two. His eyes were fever-bright. His long hair was matted and disheveled. His jeans and ragged T-shirt looked as if they had not been washed in a very long time. He was becoming more agitated by the second.
The intruder’s voice rose. “I’m not playing games, lady.” He waved the pistol in an erratic pattern. “I know The Key is here in this room. You have to give it to me, and then she has to unlock it.”
“You are welcome to take The Key,” Hannah said, somehow managing to maintain a calm, soothing tone. “But I can’t unlock it for you. I don’t know how to do that.”
“She’s supposed to unlock it,” the intruder said.
“Who are you talking about?” Hannah asked. “Surely you don’t mean my housekeeper. Mrs. Jensen doesn’t know anything about unlocking encrypted books.”
“Not the housekeeper,” the intruder said. He used the back of his arm to wipe the sweat off his forehead. “The woman who is working for you here in this library. She knows how to unlock hot books.”
“I don’t understand,” Hannah said. “Mrs. Jensen and I are the only people in this house. Please, take my copy of The Key and leave before this situation gets out of control.”
Hannah was doing a magnificent job of lying, Abby thought. But the situation was already out of control.
Hannah Vaughn was eighty-two years old and confined to a wheelchair. She was helpless against the armed intruder. She was doing her best to defuse the mad tension in the room, but her tactics were not going to work. Mrs. Jensen was pale and shaken. She looked as if she was about to faint.
Abby’s senses were wide open. Her intuition was screaming at her to rush back downstairs and out onto the street. The intruder was not yet aware of her presence. She could call nine-one-one once she was safely outside. But by the time the police arrived, it might be too late for Hannah and Mrs. Jensen.
Abby spoke quietly from the doorway. “I’ll get The Key for you.”
“What?” The intruder whirled around to face her, eyes widening in shock. “Who are you?”
“My name is Abby. I’m the one you’re looking for, the woman who can unlock The Key.”
“Huh.” The intruder blinked several times and shook his head as if to clear it. He was shivering, but he managed to steady himself somewhat. He gripped the gun with both hands, aiming it at her. “Are you sure you’re the right woman?”
“Yes. What’s your name?”
“Grady.” The response was automatic.
“All right, Mr. Grady . . .”
“No, my name is Grady Hastings.” Grady looked confused for a few seconds. He wiped his forehead again. “That’s all you need to know. Get the book. Hurry. I don’t feel too good.”
“The book you want is encrypted?”
“Yes, yes.” Excitement heightened the fever in Grady’s eyes. “The Key to the Latent Power of Stones. They told me you could unlock it.”
“It’s in the crystals section, up on the balcony,” Abby said.
“Get it. Hurry.”
“All right.” She walked into the room and headed toward the small spiral staircase that gave access to the balcony that wrapped around the library. “How did you know that it was in Mrs. Vaughn’s collection?”
“The voices told me. Just like they told me that I needed you to break the code. I have to have that book, you see. It’s vital to my research.”
“You’re doing research on crystals?” Abby asked.
“Yes, yes. And I’m so close to the answers, so close. I gotta have the book.”
“Okay,” Abby said.
Mrs. Jensen whimpered softly. Hannah had gone very quiet. She watched Abby with a sharp, knowing look. Her anxiety was a palpable force in the room.
“All right,” Grady said. “That’s good. Okay, then.” He seemed to regain a measure of control. “But I’m coming with you. No tricks. You have to break the code. The Key is no good to me unless you unlock it. That’s what the voices in the crystal told me, you see.”
“I understand,” Abby said soothingly. She started up the spiral staircase.
Grady gave Hannah and Mrs. Jensen a quick, uncertain look and seemed satisfied that neither of them would cause him any trouble. He followed Abby up the staircase. Abby was aware of his heavy, labored breathing. It was as if he was exerting enormous energy just to hold the gun on her.
“You’re ill,” Abby said. “Maybe you should leave now and go to the emergency room.”
“No. Can’t leave without the book.”
“What sort of crystal research are you doing?” she asked.
“Know anything about latent energy in rocks?”
“Not a lot, but it sounds interesting.”
“So much power,” Grady said. “Just waiting for us to figure out how to tap it. I’m almost there. Got to have that book.”
Abby reached the top of the spiral steps and walked along the balcony to the section of shelving that contained Hannah’s fine collection of volumes devoted to the paranormal properties of crystals. Many of the books were filled with the usual woo-woo and occult nonsense. Hannah said she collected those volumes for historical purposes. But a few of the titles contained the writings of researchers, ancient and modern, who had done serious work on the power of crystals, gemstones and amber.
The most valuable book in the Vaughn collection was Morgan’s The Key to the Latent Power of Stones. Written in the eighteenth century, it was locked in a psicode that added enormously to its value. In the world of antiquarian and collectible books that had a paranormal provenance, encrypted volumes were the rarest of the rare.
Abby stopped and ran her fingertips along the spines of the books on the shelf.
“Quit stalling,” Grady said. The gun shook in his hand.
“Here it is.” She pulled out the old leather-bound volume. The energy locked in the book whispered to her senses. “Morgan’s Key.”
Grady eyed the worn leather cover warily. “Are you sure that’s the right one?”
“Do you want to see the title page?”
“Yes. Show me.”
Cradling the heavy book carefully in one hand, she opened the cover. Grady took a step closer and looked at the title page. He frowned.
“I can read it.”
“Yes, you’re lucky it was written in English. A lot of the old alchemists used Latin.”
“No, I mean I can read it. The Key to the Latent Power of Stones.” Grady reached out and gingerly turned a page. “I can read this page, too. This isn’t the right book. The voices in the crystal told me that the book I need is encrypted.”
“Oh, right,” Abby said. “You think that because you can read the text the book is not locked in a code. But that’s exactly how psi-encryption works. It camouflages the real text in subtle ways, just enough to distort and conceal the true meaning. You could sit down and read this book cover to cover and think you were reading the original text. But in the end, it would be just so much gibberish.”
“Break the code,” Grady demanded. “Let me see if the text really does look different.”
Abby braced herself for the inevitable shock and focused on the layers of energy that shivered around the old book. Few sensitives possessed the ability to lock a book or other written material in a psi-code; fewer still knew the oldest and most powerful techniques. Talents like her who could crack such codes were even more scarce. The whole business was a dying art. Encrypting a book or a document required physical contact with the item that was to be encoded. In the modern world, people tended to store their secrets in digital form in cyberspace, a realm where old-fashioned psychic encryption did not work.
It figured that she had chosen a career path that was fated to go the way of buggy-whip manufacturing, Abby thought. But she hadn’t been able to help herself. The old books filled with ancient paranormal secrets called to her senses. And those wrapped in psi-encryption were irresistible.
She found the pattern of the code. It was not the first time she had unsealed the old volume. She was the one who had acquired it for Hannah’s collection in the first place. She had unlocked the book twice already, once to verify its authenticity and again to allow Hannah to make some notes. Hannah had requested that the book be relocked after she had read it, in order to maintain its value.
“Done,” Abby said. “I broke the code.”
“Are you finished already?” Grady eyed the book with a dubious expression. “I thought psi-encryption was tricky stuff.”
“It is, but I’m good.”
“I can still feel a lot of hot energy coming off that book.”
“Strong encryption energy leaves a residue, just like any other kind of energy,” Abby said.
“So I can read the real text now?”
“Yes. Take a look.”
She held the book out. Grady’s hand closed around it. The physical contact was all she needed. She channeled the darkly oscillating currents of the encryption energy into Grady’s aura.
The atmosphere was suddenly charged. Grady reacted as if he had touched a live electrical wire. His mouth opened on a silent, agonized scream. The gun dropped from his hand. His eyes rolled back in his head. He stiffened for a timeless moment. Then he shuddered violently. He tried to stagger back toward the spiral staircase, but he collapsed to the floor of the balcony. He twitched several times and went still.
There was a moment of stunned silence.
“Are you all right, Abby?” Hannah asked.
“No. Yes.” Abby took a deep breath and silently repeated her old mantra, Show no weakness. She gripped the balcony railing and looked down at Hannah. “I’m fine. Just a little shaken up, that’s all.”
“You’re sure, dear?” Hannah’s face was etched with concern.
“Yes. Really. Breaking a code is one thing. Using the energy in it to do what I just did is . . . something else altogether.”
“I knew you were strong,” Hannah said. “But I hadn’t realized that you were that powerful. What you just did was extremely dangerous. If that sort of energy got out of control . . .”
“I know, I know,” Abby said. “I couldn’t think of anything else to do.” She glanced at the housekeeper, who was crumpled on the floor. “What happened to
“She fainted. There was an awful lot of energy flying around in here a moment ago. Even a nonsensitive could feel it. What about that dreadful man? Is he
Dear heaven, had she actually killed someone? Horrified at the possibility, Abby went to her knees beside Grady. Gingerly, she probed for a pulse. Relief swept through her when she found one.
“Yes,” she said. “He’s unconscious, but he’s definitely alive.”
“I’ll call nine-one-one now.”
“Good idea.” Abby drew a deep breath. She was already starting to feel the edgy adrenaline-overload buzz that accompanied the use of so much psychic energy. In a couple of hours she would be exhausted. She focused on the immediate problem. It was major. “How on earth am I going to explain what happened here?”
“There’s nothing for you to explain, dear.” Hannah rolled her chair to the desk and picked up her phone. “A mentally disturbed intruder broke into my home and demanded one of the rare books in my collection.
He appeared to be on drugs, and whatever he took evidently caused him to collapse.”
Abby thought about it. “All true, in a way.”
“Well, it’s not as if you can explain that you used psychic energy to take down an armed intruder, dear. Who would believe such a thing? The authorities would think that you were as crazy as that man who broke in here today.”
“Yes,” Abby said. A shuddery chill swept through her, bringing with it images from her old nightmares, the ones filled with an endless maze of pale-walled corridors, sterile rooms and locked doors and windows. She wasn’t going to risk being called crazy, not ever again. “That is exactly what they would think.”
“I have always found that when dealing with the authorities it’s best to stick with the bare facts and not offer too much in the way of explanations.”
Abby gripped the railing and saw the understanding in Hannah’s eyes. “I came to the same conclusion myself a few years ago, Mrs. Vaughn. Those are definitely words to live by.”
Hannah made the call and put down the phone. She glanced up at Abby.
“What is it, dear?” she said gently. “If you’re concerned that word of what you did with that encryption energy might get out into the underground market, you needn’t worry. I won’t ever tell anyone what really happened here, and Mrs. Jensen passed out before she witnessed a thing. Your secret is safe with me.”
“I know, Hannah. I trust you. Thank you. But there’s something about this Grady Hastings guy that is bothering me.”
“He is obviously mentally unbalanced, dear.”
“I know. But that isn’t what I meant. He was sweating so hard. He seemed on the edge of exhaustion. It was as if he was struggling against some unseen force.”
“Perhaps he was, dear. We all have our inner demons. I suspect that Grady Hastings has more than most people.”
The new nightmare started that same night.
She walked through the strange glowing fog. She did not know whom or what she was searching for, only that she desperately needed to find someone before it was too late. Time was running out. The sense of urgency was growing stronger, making it hard to breathe.
Grady Hastings materialized in the mist. He stared at her with haunted, pleading eyes and held out a hand.
“Help me,” he said. “You have to help me. The voices in the crystal told me that you are the only one who can save me.”
She awoke, pulse racing. Newton whined anxiously and pressed his furry weight against her leg. It took her a few seconds to orient herself. When she did, she was horrified to realize that she was no longer in bed. She was in the living room of her small condo, looking out the sliding glass doors that opened onto the balcony. The lights of the Seattle cityscape glittered in the night.
“Dear heaven, I’ve started sleepwalking, Newton.” She sank to her knees beside the dog and hugged him close.
The first blackmail note was waiting for her when she checked her email the next morning.
I know what you did in the library. Silence will be maintained for a price. You will be contacted soon.
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