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Chapter 11

She could not smell the smoke.

The realization struck her with blinding clarity. Flames billowed toward her, consuming the hallway, but she could not smell any smoke. It was thick in the air around her, but if she concentrated, she had no trouble filling her lungs with clear air.

Orchid released Morgan's ankle and forced herself to think. An old adage reverberated again and again in her brain. Where there's smoke, there's fire.

But what if there was no smoke? At least, none that you could smell?

Orchid closed her eyes. Instantly the room stilled. She could feel the kitchen floor beneath her knees, right where it should have been.

She was right. There was no smoke in the kitchen. Nor could she hear the roar of the flames in the hallway.

Illusion.

She kept her eyes closed, cutting off the vision of an inferno in the hall. Gradually her jangled nerves stabilized. In the absence of visual input, her other senses began to convey logical information once more.

She became aware of the sound of rain pounding on the roof. The storm had struck. Voices came from the front room. The same voices she had heard last night when she and Rafe had encountered the two men in the unnatural fog outside Theo Willis's house.

"It has to be here somewhere."

"We've turned the place upside down, Jink. Come on, we gotta get out of here."

"Keep looking. He won't like it if we don't find it. Let's check the bedroom."

"What about the woman?"

"Forget her. She won't give us any trouble. She's too busy having a nervous breakdown out there in the kitchen."

Orchid listened to the footsteps of the two men as they receded in the direction of Morgan's bedroom. Very cautiously she opened one eye.

The flames still consumed the hall. The kitchen writhed.

Orchid quickly closed her eye. The illusion-talent was strong. So was his prism. Together they were powerful enough to maintain the vision here in the kitchen while they searched the bedroom.

There was no way she could get down the hall and across the living room without the two men noticing. Her only option was the wall phone.

Unable to trust her visual sense, she kept her eyes firmly closed and tried to recall the exact location of the icerator. Directly behind her and a little to the right.

She turned, crouched, and began to crawl blindly across the floor. Thuds echoed from the bedroom. It sounded as if the intruders were pulling drawers out of a dresser.

Orchid knew she had found the icerator when she banged her head against it. Damn, damn, damn. But she managed not to cry out.

She used her sense of touch to guide her to her feet.

The icerator handle was reassuringly firm in her grasp. She clung to it with one hand and groped for the wall phone with the other.

A jolt of unwarranted relief raced through her when her fingers touched the receiver. Then she realized she would have to punch out the numbers without opening her eyes.

Where were the numbers on the phone?

Think. The number one was at the top on the left. The nine had to be last. No, that wasn't right. There were all those other little buttons. The pound key. The star button.

She risked opening her eyes long enough to squint at the number pad. A mistake. The keys swam before her, each digit moving in meaningless circles.

Hastily she closed her eye and stabbed at the key she thought might be the nine. Then she fumbled for the number one key. She punched it twice. Nothing happened. How hard could it be to dial 911 without sight? she wondered.

The answer was very hard. It took her two more tries before she got it right.

"New Seattle Emergency Center."

"Fire," Orchid whispered. She hoped that the driving rain would keep the men in the other room from overhearing her. "Shelter Cove Marina."

"Please speak up, ma'am. I can barely hear you."

Orchid raised her voice slightly, listening all the while for sounds from the bedroom. "There's a fire. At Shelter Cove Marina. Houseboat number four. Hurry, please."

"I'm dispatching help right now. Can you stay on the line?"

"No." Orchid fumbled the phone back into the wall cradle.

"Sonovabitch, Jink, she got to the phone. Probably called the cops. We gotta get outa here."

"Don't worry about it. We got what we came for. Let's go."

"Shit. I thought you said the illusion would hold her."

"Don't worry, she can't tell the cops a damn thing. She never saw our faces. Come on. Move it, man. I can hear a siren."

Orchid crouched on the kitchen floor and listened to the two men run from the apartment. When she heard their footsteps outside on the dock she opened her eyes very carefully.

The kitchen was back in the right universe. The hallway was no longer filled with fire. She drew a deep breath, trying to quell the tide of adrenaline that was sending chill after chill down her spine.

She straightened slowly and picked up the phone a second tune to dial the emergency number.

"New Seattle Emergency Center."

"This is number four, Shelter Cove Marina again. We need an ambulance, too."

Then she called the one person she wanted to call most of all.

Rafe.

Fifteen minutes later, Rafe stood on the dock in front of Morgan Lambert's houseboat. He had one arm locked so tightly around Orchid that it was a wonder she could breathe. He was certain that he had set a record for the short trip from his hillside house to Curtain Lake.

Her phone call had come as both a relief and a terrible confirmation of the increasing unease he had been experiencing for the past hour. He had called her home phone every five minutes after the first trickle of restlessness had hit.

At first he had felt foolish. He knew as well as everyone else that there was no such thing as telepathy. But after the night he had felt the consuming need to phone Orchid and had awakened her from one of her psychic vampire nightmares, he had not been so quick to shrug off his intuition when it concerned her.

He watched the grim scene unfolding on the street above the marina. The rain had stopped a few minutes ago, leaving a damp sheen on the pavement. The medics were in the process of trundling the still unconscious Morgan into an ambulance. Two police cruisers were parked at odd angles. The uniformed officers were inside Lambert's apartment, taking notes.

"Are you sure you don't want to go to the emergency room?" Rafe asked Orchid for the third, possibly the fourth time. He had lost count.

"No, I'm all right, really. Just a little shaken. Rafe, the cops are going to want to talk to us after they finish inside the houseboat. You heard the officers. They're working on the assumption that Morgan overdosed himself on dirty-ice and got ripped off by some drug-dealing friends. What are we going to say?"

"There's not much we can tell them. As far as we know, that may have been exactly what happened."

She turned in the circle of his arm. Her eyes were steely green. "Morgan did not do hard drugs. He would never touch something as dangerous as dirty-ice."

"You want to tell that to the medics who just pumped out his stomach? One of them said it's a wonder he's still alive."

Her mouth tightened mutinously. "Those two intruders must have forced him to swallow the stuff. Maybe the illusion-talent made the drug look like milk or wine or something." She shivered. "It had to be the same talent-prism team we ran into the other night at Theo's house. I'm sure of it."

The bastards would pay for scaring her, he thought. But he had a hunch she would not want to hear about his plans for retribution just now. She was too busy worrying about her friend, Morgan.

"You said you think that the two men were after a letter Theo Willis sent to Lambert?"

"I heard enough to know that they were searching for something. It had to be the letter Morgan mentioned in the phone message he left on my answering machine.

Unfortunately, I think they found it. We won't know what was in it until Morgan wakes up."

"In other words, we don't have any hard facts to give to the cops."

"No. But we have to protect Morgan. Those two men wanted him dead. What if they try to get at him while he's in the hospital?"

Rafe considered the matter briefly. "I doubt that they'll risk attempted murder in a hospital. After all, Lambert can't identify them. But just in case, I know someone who will keep an eye on him. For a price."

"Who?"

"Whistler."

"Your street source? Is he also a bodyguard?"

"If the price is right."

Orchid brightened immediately. "Good idea. But that still leaves us with the problem of what to tell the cops. I know Dr. Brizo asked us to keep the stolen relic a secret, but how can we do that after what's happened?"

Easy, Rafe thought. He'd had years of experience keeping secrets. He did business under a long-established policy of protecting his clients' privacy. Furthermore, he knew only too well that if news of the missing relic hit the press, his small handful of leads would vanish. People who might know things would panic and drop out of sight. Time would be lost dealing with questions for which he did not yet have any answers.

"We've got nothing concrete to give the cops at this point," he said. "If we tell them what's going on, they'll probably assume that your friend, Lambert, is involved."

"But Morgan doesn't have anything to do with this. He's just an innocent bystander."

"Maybe, but how do you prove that? Given the few facts we have, it would be very easy to come up with a scenario in which Lambert plays a major role."

"What do you mean?"

"He was a relatively close acquaintance of Theo Willis's. One of the few friends Willis had, apparently. It would be reasonable to assume that Lambert helped Willis stage the theft of the relic."

"No. Absolutely impossible."

"I'm not so sure." Rafe wanted to his own logic. "Maybe they had a buyer for it. Maybe Lambert got greedy and decided he no longer needed Willis. Maybe he killed Willis and then tried to do the deal on his own. Hell, maybe he tried to raise the price and the buyer got pissed and sent that talent-prism team to get the relic."

"That's ridiculous. If Morgan was involved in something shady regarding the relic, why would he call me to tell me he had a letter from Theo?"

"Maybe he was trying to draw you into a trap. He may have suspected that you knew too much."

"Rafe, that's just plain crazy."

"The bottom line is, there's no hard evidence that Willis's letter even exists."

Orchid groaned and reached up to massage her temples. "Good lord, I never thought of that. You're right. If I tell them what I know, the cops might leap to the conclusion that Morgan is mixed up in this."

"He is mixed up in it." Rafe watched a medic close the ambulance door. "We just don't know how, yet."

"I refuse to believe that Morgan had anything to do with—" She broke off as one of the medics walked toward them.

He was a young man with earnest eyes and a crisp, clean-cut appearance. The name stitched on the pocket of his uniform was Paulsen. He gave Orchid a reassuring smile.

"I think your friend will be all right, ma'am. Lucky you found him when you did, though. Judging by that half-empty packet of dirty-ice, he took a major overdose. Another hour or two and he'd have been gone."

"Dead," Orchid whispered.

"Yeah." The medic nodded. "As it is, he won't wake up for at least twenty-four, maybe thirty-six hours and he'll be pretty groggy for a while after that but with luck, he'll make it. Hope he has the sense to get himself into syn-psych drug rehab. Next time he may not be fortunate enough to have you around to save him."

The medic turned and walked back to the ambulance. Orchid stared at his retreating figure. Then she looked at Rafe.

"They really did mean to kill him," she said.

"Maybe," Rafe agreed quietly. He did not share her conviction that Morgan Lambert did not do hard drugs.

Orchid clenched her hands at her sides. "I'll bet they're the same ones who murdered Theo."

"Willis's death is still an open question. Don't forget, the police have ruled it an accident."

"It was murder. I'm sure of that now." She clenched her hands at her sides. "Rafe, I don't like the fact that two of my old crowd from the ice-prism research group got tangled up with this missing relic thing."

"Three," he corrected softly.

"What?" She shot him a quizzical glance.

"All three members of your old research study group got mixed up with the case. Willis, Lambert, and you."

"I see what you mean." Her brows drew together in a troubled frown. "It is sort of a weird coincidence, isn't it?"

"Very weird. And given the fact that one of the old gang is now dead and the second nearly got himself iced today, I think I'm going to keep a very close eye on you, partner."

Rafe left two more messages with Quentin Austen's gum-snapping secretary, but Austen returned none of the calls. The investment ploy was not working as well as it usually did. Time to try a different approach.

He was working on the new angle when the phone finally rang.

It was not Austen. It was Hobart Batt.

"I contacted Affinity Associates, Mr. Stonebraker," Hobart said stiffly. "Apparently you were misinformed. There is no Miss Orchid Adams registered with that agency."

Rafe tightened his grip on the phone. "Are you positive?"

"Absolutely. I spoke with one of the counselors. He very kindly double-checked the firm's files. He assured me that he has no record of her registration. None of the three counselors who work there remember her, although—"

"Although, what?"

Hobart sighed. "One of the counselors who was with the firm until a couple of months ago left to take a position in New Vancouver. It's possible, I suppose, that she was the one who worked with your Miss Orchid. But even if that were the case, the file would have remained with Affinity Associates after she left. Someone else would have been assigned to handle Miss Adams."

"Handling Miss Adams is easier said than done," Rafe said before hanging up the phone.

Interesting, he thought. What were the odds of Orchid's file getting lost in a small agency such as Affinity Associates? Probably vanishingly small. Unless, of course, someone had deliberately seen to it that the file went missing.

As far as he could tell, the only person who had a reason to lose Orchid's marriage registration file was Orchid herself.

He was still mulling over the problem of Orchid's mysteriously missing file that night as he stood in the darkened hall outside the offices of Dr. Quentin Austen.

Orchid watched as he used a pick to deactivate the ice lock on the glass-paned door. "Are you sure Dr. Austen is out of town?"

"I found out late this afternoon that he suddenly canceled all his appointments for the next couple of weeks and took an impromptu vacation. His receptionist doesn't know where he went."

"Hmm." She glanced up and down the hall again. "What if there's an alarm?"

"There isn't. I checked."

"How?"

"Called the building manager's office this afternoon. Pretended to be a sales rep for an alarm company. Said I'd make it worth his while if he'd supply me with the names of tenants in the building who might be potential clients. Austen's name was on the list."

"Meaning that he did not already have a system?"

"That was the obvious assumption."

"What if your assumption is wrong?" she asked.

"I'll think of something."

"My, this is an exciting hobby you've found for yourself."

"Beats the heck out of stamp collecting."

He heard the faint hiss as the jelly-ice dissolved temporarily inside the lock, releasing the bolt.

He eased the door open and waited for a few seconds, listening with all his senses.

Nothing. Austen's offices were deserted for the night.

"All right, here we go," he said softly. "Watch your step. We don't want to make any noise that would attract the night janitor's attention."

"I'm surprised there is a night janitor. This isn't exactly a high-rent office building. Guess Austen isn't the world's most successful syn-psych shrink."

Orchid followed him into the outer office and gently closed the door behind her. "What, exactly, are we going to look for in here?"

"I'm not sure. I'll know it when I see it."

There were two sets of file cabinets in the outer office. The drawers in the one nearest the receptionist's desk were not locked. Those in the larger cabinet on the other side of the room were. Rafe started with them.

There was no trick to deactivating the simple drawer locks. He opened the one that contained the files of patients whose last names began with Q through Z. He played the narrow beam of the flashlight over the names on the folders.

There was no file for Theo Willis.

Orchid peered over his shoulder. "I suppose that would have been too easy."

"Probably."

He closed the drawer and walked into the inner office. It was furnished with two padded leather chairs, one of which had a side table standing next to it. There was a box of tissue on the table. The client's chair, Rafe decided. The prints on the walls were nondescript designs in pale pastels. Probably intended to be soothing, he thought. They looked dull and lifeless to him. The rug was the shade of discreet gray that was guaranteed not to show stains for years. The desk was a cheap reproduction of an Early Exploration period piece.

Rafe aimed the flashlight at the top of the desk. The only items on it were a telephone, a leather blotter, and a fountain pen in a wooden stand.

"A little too neat, if you ask me," Orchid said. "I never trust anyone who maintains a perfectly clear desk."

"I'll remember that. Here, hold the flashlight while I go through it."

She stood over him and aimed the light while he quickly went through the desk's four drawers. Nothing caught his eye until he opened the last one on the bottom left-hand side and discovered a stack of garishly colored magazines.

"Well, well, well." Orchid bent down for a closer look.

Rafe glanced at the bulging nude breasts that filled virtually the entire cover of the first magazine in the stack. He lifted it and looked at the second one. It contained an enlarged closeup of a woman's naked buttocks.

"Looks like Austen has a few fixations of his own," Rafe said.

"Do you suppose the good doctor uses these magazines for therapy?" Orchid asked.

"More likely he uses them to jack off with in the men's room down the hall when he gets a break between clients." Rafe closed the drawer. "Damn. They've got to be here somewhere."

"What?"

"The billing records."

Ten minutes later he found what he was looking for in one of the unlocked file cabinet drawers next to the receptionist's desk. Satisfaction stirred in his gut when he found a file labeled Willis, T. There was a partially filled out billing log inside.

"We're in luck. Whoever removed the patient file on Theo Willis did not remember to take the financial stuff," he said.

"Or didn't think that there was anything important in that file." Orchid studied the log as Rafe removed it from the cabinet. "After all, what can you tell from it except that Theo was one of Dr. Austen's clients? We already know that."

"But this is our proof. And the fact that Willis's patient file is missing is a good indication that someone, probably Austen, did not want us to be able to link him to this office."

"In other words, the fact that there's no file on Theo tells us more than if we had found one."

"That's it in a nutshell. You know, I think you're getting the hang of this detective business."

"I told you, I have a flair for it."

Rafe scanned the list of payments. "Two months of therapy. It fits with what we saw on his calendar. He was going five times a week during the last two weeks before he died."

"Poor Theo. He must have been in really bad shape there at the end."

"Looks like it." Rafe started to drop the billing record back into the drawer. Something caught on the edge of the file folder. He turned the record over and saw a small, pink sticky note.

"What is it?" Orchid stood on tiptoe, trying to see over his shoulder. "What did you find?"

"Nothing much. Looks like someone, Austen's receptionist, probably, jotted a note to remind herself to send a thank-you for the patient referral. It's common practice for one doctor to thank another who refers a patient to him."

"Oh, right." Orchid dropped down off her toes and turned away. "Well, that's that. We know that Theo was getting some very intensive therapy shortly before he died. Looks like we'd better find Austen, doesn't it?"

"Yes." Rafe dropped the log into the file and shut the cabinet door. "I think the doctor will be able to tell us a great deal. The fact that he decided to take a sudden vacation today makes me even more interested in what he has to say about Willis."

"Rafe?"

He glanced over his shoulder and saw that Orchid had walked back into the inner office. She had her small flashlight aimed at a row of framed certificates that hung on the paneled wall.

"What is it?"

"Dr. Austen's diploma and professional certificates."

"What about them?" He went to stand in the doorway. "Most doctors hang their credentials on the walls of their offices."

"One of these papers is his paranormal talent certificate," she said slowly. "Rafe, Austen is a class-seven hypno-talent."

He frowned. "That's rather high for paranormal hypnotic ability, isn't it?"

"Extremely high. As a professional prism, I can tell you that it's almost unheard of to have such a high level of hypnotic talent. A lot of syn-psych therapists have some hypno-talent, of course. It's one of the things that makes them suited to the field of synergistic psychology. But the normal range is class three or four, at the most. Austen is no off-the-chart vampire, but he is exceptionally powerful."

"Strong enough to have manipulated Theo Willis with hypnosis?"

Orchid lowered her flashlight and turned to look at him. Her expression was shadowed. "Theoretically, no one can be hypnotized into doing something against his will. But Theo had a lot of syn-psych problems. He was fragile."

"In other words, there's no telling what a clever, powerful, trained hypno-talent could do once he got his hands on Theo's para-psych history and figured out which buttons to push."

"Yes. Even working without a prism, a class-seven hypno-talent could do a lot of damage to a person as delicate as Theo." Orchid's eyes grew bleak. "I've been saying all along that Theo was no thief. But I hadn't considered the possibility that he could have been hypnotized into stealing the relic."

"So now we have a means." Rafe said. "Austen may well have hypnotized Willis and convinced him to steal the relic."

"We don't know that for certain."

Rafe ignored her caveat. Things were finally starring to feel right. He had long ago learned to trust his hunter's instincts at times like this. "What we need to do next is nail down the motive. I see a couple of possibilities."

"Austen either had Theo steal the artifact for him, which means the doctor is a secret, eccentric collector of alien relics—

"Or Austen acted as a broker. He could have arranged for Willis to steal the relic for someone else."

"There's a third possibility," Orchid pointed out.

"What's that?"

"Dr. Austen has got an even more screwed-up para-profile than Theo had."

"Believe me, the fact that Quentin Austen may be crazy has not escaped me."


Chapter 10 | Orchid | Chapter 12



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