Jonas braced one hand against the .steel windowsill and nodded. "Having met your father, I'm inclined to believe you. All right, here goes. Have you ever heard of something called psychometry?"
Verity was silent for a moment. This wasn't what she had expected to hear. She had thought there would be some long explanation about nightmares and the reason behind them. She had been prepared to listen to a tale of real-life terror that still haunted Jonas.
"You mean the psychic thing?" she finally asked cautiously. "That claim that some people can touch an object and sense stuff about its history?"
"Yeah." He ran a hand through his hair. "The psychic thing. I've got the ability, Verity. In spades. You accused me once of walking away from my talent, but I swear the ability I have is no talent. It's a curse."
Verity frowned, turning the concept over in her mind. She had never paid much attention to the so-called paranormal. She had always considered such things a matter of fad. Fads came and went. They might be interesting, but that was no reason to take them seriously. Jonas was the last person she would have thought would believe in psychic powers. It was disconcerting to find out that he did.
"What makes you think you have a gift for psychometry?" she asked cautiously.
"I don't think I've got it," he rasped, "I know it."
"Please, Jonas, don't snap at me. I'm trying to understand."
He muttered something and sighed. "I know. Verity, I don't have any good, easy, simple way of explaining this."
"When did you first begin to think you might have this, uh, ability with psychometry?" she probed gently.
"You don't have to treat me as if you think I suffer from delusions. I started wondering if there was something wrong with me during my junior year in college. It was no big deal at first. Just a flicker of awareness when I handled something that was very old or had a lot of violence associated with it."
"Something like an old rapier?"
He nodded grimly. "I hadn't been exposed to museums or collections of old objects much when I was growing up. In my neighborhood you worried more about the present than the past. My mother raised me by herself after Dad split. She worked as a secretary and money was always short. As a result, I grew up focusing on the present and the immediate future. The big questions in life revolved around matters such as whether the power company was going to turn off the lights if the electric bill went unpaid another month."
"I know what you mean," Verity said with sudden, unexpected empathy. "That kind of lifestyle tends to focus one's attention on the here and now, all right. Dad never worried too much about money. Not that there was ever enough of it around to worry, except when he sold Juxtaposition. Even that went pretty fast, as I recall. When I was growing up I was always the one who had to figure out how to put the landlady off for another month or so."
Jonas gave her a brief, wry smile. "I'm not surprised. That explains some of your current problems."
That annoyed her. "I don't have any current problems except the one I'm trying to figure out at the moment, which is what happened to you tonight."
He held up a hand. "Sorry. As I was saying, I don't know whether my gift, as you call it, was something that I always had and it just hadn't had a chance to come into full bloom because of a lack of stimulus or whether it was a naturally late-developing ability. That question was one of many the guys in white lab coats were trying to answer at Vincent College."
That interested Verity. Maybe there was more than Jonas's imagination involved here. "You were tested?"
"Over and over again. Some eccentric alumnus of Vincent, a guy named Elihu Wright, gave a huge endowment to the college and stipulated it had to be used for psychic research. The trustees were horrified but they weren't about to turn down cold, hard cash. At any rate, research flourished for a while. Where there's money, there's never a lack of researchers ready and willing to spend it, no matter how bizarre the subject matter. While it lasted, Vincent's Department of Paranormal Research was the best equipped in the nation. But then, there wasn't much competition."
"While it lasted?"
Jonas's mouth twisted sardonically. "I heard they dissolved it a couple of years ago. Wright died and the college was losing other sources of funding because too many people thought any school that was wasting money on paranormal research must be a flaky sort of institution. All in all, I guess the trustees decided to junk the project. No loss, as far as I'm concerned. Those researchers were a bunch of ghouls."
"Go on," Verity said when he stopped talking for a long moment.
"The problem with the testing I was undergoing was that it seemed to be directly influencing the development of whatever ability I had," Jonas said at last. "I got picked for the test program because I showed a few vague traces of psychometric ability. By the time I got out of the program I had a full-blown talent."
"How did you get chosen as a subject?"
"The researchers routinely tested all students and faculty, looking for subjects who showed hints of paranormal talent. I agreed to be tested because I was curious, myself. As I said, in the beginning, all I could do was pick up a faint sense of awareness when I was given something to touch that had a violent history and that dated from an era to which I'm attuned. But as the testing continued, my ability got stronger."
"You think the testing process was honing it and developing it?"
"That was the only explanation anyone could think of. It caused quite a furor in the department. I started getting nervous because I could feel something very strange was starting to happen every time I ran through a test. But no one cared about my concerns. Every researcher in sight wanted a piece of me. I was the most important thing to hit the lab since they'd bought their first bunch of white mice. As things progressed I had about as much say in the research being done on me as the mice did."
"That would have irritated me severely," Verity avowed feelingly.
"I was irritated, all right. In fact, I raised hell a few times. But I always came back for more. I couldn't resist. I started losing sleep and missing meals and classes. My social life was almost nonexistent. I admit that at that point, I was as fascinated as everyone else was. I wanted to know what was going on. More than that, I wanted to learn how to master this weird ability I had. Hell, it was part of me. I had a vested interest in finding out what it was all about."
"What do you mean, master it?"