At ten o'clock the following evening Orchid allowed Rafe to lead her out onto one of many terraces that surrounded Stonebraker House. She took a deep breath of the scented air and popped a flaky little pastry stuffed with spiced crabster into her mouth. It was her third in ten minutes.
She had discovered the pastries a short while ago after having worked her way through a buffet table filled with exquisitely prepared hors d'oeuvres. At first she had worried that she did not have any room left for the spicy crab-ster tidbits, but she had managed, with a serious effort of willpower, to find space.
All in all, Orchid was surprised to discover that she felt right at home at Alfred G. Stonebraker's birthday party. It was not all that different from the faculty receptions her parents used to drag her to back in Northville. She sensed the same subtle, behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the same political machinations, and the same family tensions hovering just beneath the surface.
The biggest difference here was that almost no one wore white.
The glass-walled room behind her was filled with elegantly dressed men and women who sipped expensive blue champagne while they discussed social gossip, business, and fashionable gallery openings. The strains of a tango-waltz played gently in the background. Down below the terrace a series of artfully arranged colored lanterns had turned the expansive gardens into a shadow-filled wonderland.
She glanced at Rafe. He was a solid shadow beside her. She had to admit that the man looked incredibly sexy in his formal black evening clothes. The austere style emphasized the aura of quiet power, both physical and paranormal, that was so much a part of him. The light from a jelly-ice lantern gleamed on his near-black hair and highlighted the fascinating sweep of his cheekbones. His eyes gleamed with the lazily watchful, enigmatic expression that betrayed the depths of his strat-talent nature.
His mouth quirked as he watched her munch the stuffed pastry. "Having a good time?"
"Food's great. And I like your parents. Remind me a little of my own. It's easy to see why they both wound up in the academic world. I can't envision your father working in a corporate environment."
"My father is a strong math-talent. I'm told that it was obvious from the start that he was not cut out to take over Stonebraker. That was why my grandfather put the pressure on me."
Orchid nodded. She had been introduced to Sarah and Glen Stonebraker shortly after they had arrived. They were a striking couple who wore the mantle of their education and intelligence with unselfconscious patrician ease, just as her own parents did. They had clearly been surprised by Orchid, but they had both been gracious and charming. There had been a lot of thoughtful speculation and even some relief in their eyes, but neither had been so rude as to grill their son's "agency date."
"You look much more like your grandfather than you do your father," Orchid remarked.
"I told you, the family considers me a throwback," Rafe said. "In more ways than one."
"I wish you wouldn't use that word."
"Throwback? Why not? Everyone else does." He put one foot on the terrace and leaned forward to rest his forearm on his thigh. "It's not entirely inaccurate. My grandfather and I are alike in a lot of ways. That's why we couldn't work together."
"Rafe, get real. You couldn't take orders from anyone, let alone your grandfather."
"That's the damn truth," said a deep, gravely voice from the direction of the open door behind Rafe. "Boy was as hard-headed, independent, and stubborn as an ox-mule from the day he was born. Always had to do things his way."
"Hello, Al." Rafe took his foot down off the low terrace wall and turned to look at his grandfather. "Enjoying your birthday party?"
"What's to enjoy?" Alfred G. strolled toward them. "So far I've been hit up for campaign contributions by three different Founders' Values party candidates. Your grandmother tells me I've got to dance the tango-waltz with her at midnight and Selby is acting like he already runs Stonebraker."
"Just another typical birthday party celebration for you," Rafe said.
Alfred G. narrowed his eyes in a calculating expression that reminded Orchid of his grandson. "Why don't you go mingle or something, Rafe? Give me a chance to get to know your friend, Orchid, here."
An extremely cautious expression crossed Rafe's face. "I'm not sure it's a good idea to leave you alone with Orchid."
Alfred G.'s perfect white teeth flashed in a charmingly dangerous smile. "She's not afraid of me, are you, Orchid?"
"Of course not, Mr. Stonebraker," Orchid said politely.
"There, you see?" Alfred G. beamed triumphantly at Rafe. "Run along. Let me have a little chat with your agency date."
Rafe looked at Orchid, brows raised in silent inquiry. When Orchid nodded in equally silent agreement, he gave an "on your head be it" shrug and started toward the door.
"Good luck," he said as he walked past his grandfather. "But don't come whining to me if the little chat doesn't turn out quite the way you expect."
Fifteen minutes later Rafe noticed that neither Alfred G. nor Orchid had come in from the terrace. A trickle of unease slithered across his nerve endings. He broke off a conversation with a sixteen-year-old cousin who yearned to go to the Western Islands. Turning, he made his way back through the crowd to the open glass doors.
Alfred G.'s voice boomed out of the shadows.
"What the hell do you mean, you're going to vote for Christine Bellows? She'll run this city-state straight into the ground with her tax-and-spend ways. Daria Gardener is the woman for the job."
"Gardener is a Founders' Values candidate," Orchid said crisply. "I wouldn't vote for her if she was the last politician on St. Helens."
"Anyone who doesn't vote a straight Founders' Values ticket is an idiot and a radical to boot."
"Anyone who votes only for Founders' Values candidates is a narrow-minded, hidebound, short-sighted traditionalist."
"What's wrong with being a traditionalist?" Alfred G. roared. "This planet was colonized by traditionalists."
"We can't go back to the time of the first generation Founders, no matter how much some folks would like to return to the good old days of no jelly-ice and no paranormal abilities. We have to move forward. It's the only path for a civilization that intends to survive. And that means we have to think about the future, not the past."
"Now, you listen to me, young woman. I've had a lot more experience in the real world than you have and I'm here to tell you—"
Rafe winced and moved swiftly away from the door. He had no inclination whatsoever to go out onto the terrace.
When he turned to retreat back into the crowd, he found Selby blocking his path.
"Hello, cousin." Selby's blue eyes were calculating behind the lenses of his glasses. "I must say, I'm surprised to see you here tonight. This is the first Alfred G. birthday party you've attended since you left for the Western Islands."
Rafe eyed him thoughtfully. He and Selby were less than a year apart in age but Selby had always been a little taller and more heavily built. His light brown hair was cut by an expensive stylist at one of the city's most exclusive salons. He had the pleasant, open, rugged features that characterized the males on the Culverthorpe side of the family.
Selby had the sort of face that made people want to trust him within five seconds of meeting him. Sometimes it seemed to Rafe that he and his grandfather were the only ones who ever noticed the razor-sharp glint of vengeful bitterness in Selby's eyes.
It was not the sort of observation one could make aloud to others, Rafe reflected. He knew exactly what would happen if he told the rest of the family or the Stonebraker Board that loyal, hardworking cousin Selby was bent on destroying the company. If he tried, Rafe knew that he would probably get a stern lecture warning him not to let his primitive strat-talent nature influence his common sense and family bonds. Selby, unlike certain other ungrateful members of the clan, had devoted his entire career to Stonebraker.
Selby cast an ironic glance toward the terrace. "Is Uncle Al terrorizing your date?"
"My date can take care of herself."
Selby chuckled, but there was no amusement in his eyes. "You must be picking tough ones these days."
He had never liked Selby, Rafe reflected. Not even when they had been young playmates together. Selby was a tech-talent. He had been the kind of kid who could construct a miniature catapult with the new erector set he had received for Christmas before Rafe could figure out what insert part A into slot B meant. And then, after Rafe had finally succeeded in building a small, rather shaky fort with his own erector set, Selby had used his catapult to knock down the walls.
Things had not improved when they got to high school where Selby had always outshone Rafe in math and science. Underneath the uneven rivalry had been a simmering resentment on Selby's part. Rafe had not understood why his cousin disliked him so much until his parents told him what had happened to Selby's father. By then it was too late to mend the breach. In any event, Rafe had already made plans to head for the Western Islands. He and Selby had seen almost nothing of each other in the intervening years.
Selby swirled the vintage blue champagne in his glass and cast a speculative eye toward the door. "You don't seem overly concerned about defending your companion."
"When did you develop such a keen interest in my private life, Selby?"
"The whole family has an interest in your private life. Especially since you surprised everyone by showing up here tonight with an agency date in tow."
Rafe did not bother to correct the small misunderstanding. He wanted everyone to believe that Orchid was from a marriage agency, not a focus agency. "Why does that come as such a big surprise?"
Selby took a long swallow of champagne and then slowly lowered the glass. "There are some who think you may have decided to play the prodigal grandson. They have a quaint vision of you returning to the fold to take control of Stonebraker."
"Don't worry about it."
"I won't." Selby's mouth curved with cool certainty. "It's too late to stop me, cousin. I've got everything in place. In two months I'll be the new C.E.O. of Stonebraker."
"You sound very sure of yourself."
Selby's conviction resonated on the metaphysical plane. Rafe had no trouble picking up traces of it. His cousin believed every word he was saying.
Selby's wife, Briana, appeared at her husband's side. She was an attractive blonde with a social polish refined by three generations of family money. She smiled politely at Rafe but he could see the troubled look in her eyes.
"Hello, Briana." Rafe inclined his head. "Nice to see you again."
"How are you, Rafe?" Briana took Selby's arm in a gesture that was curiously protective. "It was good of you to come tonight. I know your grandmother is very happy."
"I'm glad someone is," Rafe said.
Briana slanted a glance toward the terrace. "Is this your first agency date with Miss Adams?"
"No," Rafe said. "We've gone out together several times this week. The agency thinks it's a good match. We've got a lot in common."
Ten minutes later Rafe drifted past the open terrace doors a second time. The argument outside still raged, although the subject had shifted.
"Why in five hells should Stonebraker increase the size of its charitable endowment arm?" Alfred G. snarled.
"Companies the size of Stonebraker have obligations to the community," Orchid said crisply. "The Stonebraker Foundation is puny, given the size of Stonebraker Shipping."
"Our only obligation is to stay profitable."
"Nonsense. You are a part of the community. Your precious profits are made possible because of it and you, in turn, have responsibilities to it."
"I'm not going to give away any more money than I already do."
"Talk about your basic first generation values," Orchid retorted. "The Founders understood that if a society is to be successful there must be a harmonious, synergistic balance between corporate profits and civic philanthropy. Why they even went so far as to—"
Rafe started to slink off toward the buffet table. What was taking place out on the terrace was an accident waiting to happen. He did not want to be the first one on the scene.
"Rafe?" Alfred G. bellowed. "Is that you? Come on out here. I'm having trouble talking sense into your agency date."
Alfred G.'s booming command stopped Rafe in mid-slink. So much for trying to slip away unnoticed. He occasionally forgot that his grandfather was also a strat-talent, albeit not as strong as himself.
Reluctantly, he went through the doorway. He did not need the lantern glow to see the bright gleam in his grandfather's eyes. Alfred G. practically hummed with energy. He was enjoying himself.
Orchid smiled cheerfully. There was a sparkle in her eyes, too, Rafe noticed.
"Didn't want to interrupt your conversation," Rafe said warily.
"What conversation?" Alfred G. snapped. "We're arguing like a couple of cat-dogs. Where in blazes did you find her, Rafe?"
"I told you. An agency."
"Which agency?" Alfred G. demanded.
"It's called Psynergy, Inc.," Orchid murmured.
Rafe gave her a warning look. She shrugged one shoulder and munched another canape.
"Never heard of it," Alfred G. said.
"That's hardly surprising," Rafe said smoothly, "given the fact that you've been married for over fifty years to grandmother. You haven't needed a matchmaking agency."
"Which reminds me, grandmother is looking for you. She said something about you having promised her a dance."
"Don't remind me." Alfred G.'s gaze slitted. "What have you been up to while Orchid and I chatted out here?"
"Selby and I renewed our childhood acquaintance."
"I'll bet seeing you here tonight gave the little twerp a jolt, eh? He must know now that you've come back to save Stonebraker from his confounded merger plans. Give him something to sweat about for the next few weeks."
The fact that Alfred G. spoke so freely in front of Orchid gave Rafe considerable pause. He glanced quickly at her and saw that she was completely unfazed.
She probably did not realize the significance of what had just happened, he thought. Alfred G. had as good as announced aloud that he had accepted her as a suitable bride for Rafe.
Waves of energy the color of old blood slashed across the psychic plane, questing for a prism with the relentless ferocity of a true predator. The vampire was close, so close.
Tonight was the night. He would find her this time. She could no longer hide. There was no point resisting any longer. She would only exhaust herself.
Fear lanced her. She knew that if even a flicker of her own power revealed itself the creature would seize it in jaws of raw energy. She would be trapped forever.
Closer. Closer. Why not have done with this terrible game of hide-and-seek? Why not surrender to her fate? It would be so much easier that way.
She felt the powerful draw of the vampire's talent. It reached into the smallest hiding places on the metaphysical plane, searching for prey. She saw one of the tentacles of para-energy unfurl toward her with hungry intent.
Tonight was the night.
"Orchid. Damn it, wake up. Now."
Rafe's voice cut through the unnatural darkness of the dream, cleaving impossible shadows with the blazing efficiency of a sword.
Orchid opened her eyes to the natural shades of night that filled her bedroom. Moonlight spilled across the bed. She could feel the dampness of perspiration under her breasts and on the back of her neck.
She looked up into Rafe's taut face. His hands were clamped fiercely around her shoulders.
"Sorry." Her voice sounded thick. She swallowed a couple of times and tried again. "The dream. Bad. Very bad."
He hauled her into his arms, cradling her against his bare chest. "The same one?"
"Damn." She dashed the back of her hand across her eyes to get rid of the tears of frustration that welled there. "I didn't have it last night at your house. I was so sure that the stupid dream had finally finished."
Rafe rocked her gently. "I guess this blows my theory that great sex is a sure cure for nightmares."
She gave a choked cry, half laugh, half sob, and wrapped her arms around his hard, warm body. "It was a good theory while it lasted."
"Yes, it was. One of my best." He stroked his fingers through her hair. "Maybe it's time to see a doctor."
Orchid tensed. "No."
He eased away from her and searched her face. "Why are you so averse to getting some help?"
"Two reasons. The first is that I don't think there's much a syn-psych shrink can do about weird dreams."
"What's the second reason?"
She bit her lip. "I think I know the advice I'd get. I wouldn't follow it, anyway, so there's no sense listening to it in the first place."
"What advice would you get?"
"The first thing a doctor would do is consult my para-psych profile."
"As soon as he or she discovered that I'm an ice-prism, I'd be referred back to that research lab where Theo and Morgan and I went through all those stupid tests."
Rafe framed her face in his hands. "What makes you so sure of that?"
"It's only logical. No one knows much about ice-prisms. The folks at that lab are considered the leading experts in New Seattle. They've got all my old records. Any syn-psych doctor worth his or her diploma would suggest that I go back there for help."
"And you won't go back there, not even as a last resort to get rid of the nightmares?"
"No." She curled her hands very tightly until she could feel her nails biting into her palms. "I wouldn't go back there if my life depended on it."
"Take it easy." Rafe held her head still and kissed her.
It was a gentling caress, not a passionate overture. Orchid felt some of the cold evaporate from her chilled body. She relaxed slightly.
"How do you feel about eating leftovers at three o'clock in the morning?" she said against his mouth.
"I can eat leftovers at any time."
She smiled. "I think I have some lasagna in the freezer. We can thaw it in the ice-wave."
"I'm drooling already. But then, I do that a lot around you."
The following afternoon Orchid stood on the gently bobbing dock that functioned as a front walk for Morgan Lambert's shabby houseboat and leaned on the front doorbell. There was no answer.
She stepped back and glanced around at the small, floating community. The neighboring houseboat was several yards away. There was no sign that anyone was home there, either.
Beneath her feet the dock heaved. Overhead gull-fins wheeled and soared ahead of the approaching storm. Heavy, dark clouds pressed down on the city.
Orchid could see a sheet of ram sweeping across the downtown highrises. It would reach this sheltered section of Curtain Lake in a few minutes. She wanted very much to be inside Morgan's houseboat before the deluge struck.
She pressed the doorbell again.
Still no answer. To ward off a sense of growing unease, she reminded herself that Morgan was an artist. He kept strange hours. Chances were good he was sound asleep inside.
She knocked loudly. "Morgan? Are you in there? It's me, Orchid. I got your message."
She had found it waiting for her on her answering machine when she walked through her front door forty-five minutes ago. He had left it earlier in the day while she had been out grocery shopping. After watching Rafe polish off her leftover lasagna last night, it dawned on her that she ought to keep more food in the icerator while he was around.
Morgan's message had been short and to the point and it had sent a jolt of alarm through her.
Orchid, this is Morgan. Listen, something kinda weird just happened. I picked up my mail on the way in a few minutes ago. You aren't going to believe it, but there's a letter from Theo. It's dated the same day that he drove off that cliff but the postmark is from yesterday. It says in the letter that he left it with a neighbor. Told the guy to mail it if he didn't contact him in a couple of days.
I'm not sure what to make of it. It's sort of typical Theo, you know, a little paranoid. Maybe I should turn it over to the police or something. But before I do anything like that I need to talk to you. Maybe I'm overreacting.
Give me a call when you get in. I don't care what time it is. Feel free to wake me up.
But awakening Morgan Lambert was proving difficult. Orchid wondered if any of his neighbors had a key. There was a deserted feel to the small houseboat marina. It was a few minutes past two o'clock in the afternoon. Everyone was either at work or out running errands.
She rapped sharply one last time.
Still no response. Tentatively she put her hand on the doorknob. It would be too much to expect that Morgan had forgotten to lock his door.
The knob turned easily.
Cautiously, half expecting an alarm to sound, she pushed open the door. "Don't panic, Morgan. It's me, Orchid."
She put her head around the edge of the door.
And caught her breath at the sight of the small, cluttered living room.
It was a shambles. Ripped cushions were scattered on the floor. Books had been pulled willy-nilly from the shelves. They lay in a small heap next to an overturned lamp. The drawers of the desk had been yanked out and emptied on the carpet
"Oh, my God."
Orchid started to step quickly back out onto the dock. She froze when she noticed a shoe lying in the short hall that connected the living room with the kitchen.
It was a man's shoe. There was a foot in it. The leg disappeared around the corner.
Ignoring all the sound advice she had ever heard about entering a residence that had been recently burglarized, she hurtled through the door.
It was Morgan who was sprawled on the kitchen floor. A small plastic envelope half-filled with gritty gray crystals lay on the table. Next to the envelope was an empty glass. There was a filthy gray residue at the bottom.
She knelt beside Morgan and fumbled desperately for a pulse.
He was still alive. She glanced up, saw the phone on the wall near the icerator, and started to get to her feet.
Before she could move something scraped in the hallway behind her. She whirled around and found herself confronting a man in a black ski mask. He held a burn-hag jelly-ice candle. As she watched, he casually tossed aside the ice-match he had just used to light it.
"So you wanna play with fire, do you, bitch?"
Orchid opened her mouth to scream, but at that moment the walls of the hall and kitchen twisted in an impossible manner, curving and bending around her. The floor sank away beneath her feet. Her stomach reeled. She reached out to clutch the table to steady herself, but it was not where her eyes told her it should be. Instead it was tilted at a wildly improbable angle. She could not reach it.
It was as though she had stepped into a bizarre carnival funhouse. Or another universe. Voices came out of the spinning void that was the kitchen hall.
"Shit, Jink, it's her. The one who was with that guy at the house we were watching. The one who kicked me."
"It's all right. She's alone today. She won't give us any trouble. The illusion will keep her occupied while we finish the job."
Orchid thought she heard a man's laughter. She could not be certain. Her world had narrowed down to the small, horribly convulsing kitchen. She felt as if she were on a roller coaster. Every time she tried to orient herself, the place shifted around her.
"Watch this," someone said out of the void in the hall.
She saw the flame of the jelly-ice candle grow larger. It was the only thing in her field of vision that did not waver. She stared at it with desperate concentration. For an instant she thought the world steadied. Her hand finally made contact with the edge of the table.
Then the flame exploded into a great conflagration. Fire filled the void. Waves of brilliant orange flames lapped at the kitchen.
Panic seared her senses. She had to get out. Now. Fire blocked the hall. That left only the window.
She groped for and finally found Morgan's ankle. She tried to tug his unconscious body across the undulating kitchen toward the window. It was impossible to make any progress. The walls flowed into new configurations every time she took a step.
She thought she heard more laughter. It was followed by a woman's scream. She thought it was her own but in that wild, chaotic kitchen-universe, she could no longer be certain of anything.