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Chapter 13

Rafe grabbed the phone before it had a chance to ring a second time. "Orchid, where the hell are you?"

There was a short, baffled pause on the other end.

"Uh, it's me, Whistler, Mr. Stonebraker. Here at the hospital guarding Mr. Lambert, remember?"

Rafe closed his eyes briefly and willed patience and control. This was insane. He was getting downright jumpy where Orchid was concerned. She was only a few minutes late, after all. She'd probably stopped to do some shopping or collect her mail.

"Sorry, Whistler. I was expecting someone else. What have you got for me?"

"Nothing's happening here but, y'know those guys you asked about? An illusion-talent and prism team who might do odd jobs if the money was right?"

"Did you find them?"

"Maybe. There's a talent-prism magic act working at a low-rent club in Founders' Square. They use knives in the show. Word is, the talent is pretty good with them. The special effects aren't all illusions, if you see what I mean."

"What about the odd jobs?"

"I hear that, for a price, you can hire them to do some rough work. A man I know says he thinks they've been working off the books a lot lately."

"Did your associate tell you who hired them?"

"He doesn't know who the employer is. Fact is, he didn't know much of anything. Whatever is going on, it's real hush-hush."

"What's the name of the club?"

"Place is called the Icy Dicey Casino." Whistler lowered his voice. "I'm not sure if these are your guys, but I can't turn up any other talent-prism team that fits the description you gave me."

"This sounds promising." Rafe heard a car in the drive. He got to his feet. "I'll check it out. Thanks, Whistler."

"What about my money?"

"The usual arrangements. You'll have it tomorrow morning. In the meantime, stay with Lambert."

"You got it."

Rafe slammed down the phone and went to stand in the door of the study. He would remain calm, he promised himself. Poised. Serene. Casual. He would not demand explanations for the fact that she was twenty minutes late. She would get nervous if he leaped down her throat every time she walked through the front door. The last thing he wanted to do was make her nervous.

The door opened. Orchid stepped across the threshold. She smiled wanly when she saw him.

"Hello, Rafe."

"Where the hell have you been?" He winced at the sound of his own harsh voice. So much for serene and casual.

"Charming greeting." She tossed her purse down on a side table. "Good thing we're business associates, not an engaged couple or else I might be tempted to walk back out the door."

The tension shimmered like an aura around her. He started forward. "What happened?"

"Nothing."

"Don't give me that. I know something happened. What was it?"

"Take it easy, Rafe. I had a short, informative conversation with your cousin, that's all."

He wasn't sure he had heard correctly. "No."

"No?"

"Selby wouldn't have dared." But he could see in her eyes that he had dared. "Sonovabitch. What did he say?"

"Among other things he said he doubted that you and I were a high-probability match. In fact, he's not altogether sure we're even a legitimate agency match. Can you imagine? Oh, yes, he also warned me against the risks of marriage to a strat-talent. And then he tried to buy me off."

Rafe was startled by the wildfire heat of his own anger. "Bastard." He did not realize he had lost control of his talent until he felt the familiar slight disorientation that occurred whenever he initiated a quest for a prism. His instincts revved to full throttle.

"Calm down, Rafe." Orchid watched him. She did not offer him a prism.

Rafe felt the uncomfortable heat rise in his face. Instantly he clamped down on his unquiet psychic energy. Until Orchid had entered his life, he had never had these problems. He had always been in full control of himself and his talent.

"I'll talk to Selby," he vowed. "He won't bother you again."

"He didn't actually bother me. He made me very curious, however. He's obviously as determined to wreck Stonebraker as you are to save it." She folded her arms and leaned back against the table. "Mind telling me what actually did happen to his father back when Selby was a kid?"

Rafe gripped the edge of the door. "He told you that old story about how my grandfather is responsible for his father's death?"

"He wouldn't give me the entire tale. Just enough to, shall we say, pique my interest."

Rafe felt as if the floor had fallen away beneath his feet. "You didn't believe him, did you?"

"I don't know what to believe. That's why I'm asking you for the truth."

Rafe watched her. "You're serious, aren't you?"

"I'm assuming there's a logical explanation here. I'd like to have it."

He stilled. "It's a family thing."

She gave him a humorless smile. "Yes, of course. It always is, isn't it? And I'm not family."

"It's not that." He broke off. "Okay, it is that."

"If you want my help on this family thing, you'd better tell me the whole story."

He hesitated and then made an executive decision. "I don't know the whole story, myself. My grandfather has never talked about it. But a few years ago, I got curious. I did some checking."

"What did you discover?"

Rafe shoved a hand through his hair, turned, and walked into the library. He heard Orchid's footsteps behind him. When he stopped and glanced back at her he saw that she was watching him very closely. Too closely.

It occurred to him that she had no real reason to trust him on this or anything else. He was surprised by how restless the knowledge made him. He had no claim on her loyalty, he reminded himself. As far as she was concerned, he was only a business associate and a temporary lover.

Depressed by that thought, he sank into one of the deep chairs in front of the cold hearth.

"Selby's father was named Perry Culverthorpe. The Culverthorpes are cousins on my grandmother's side."

"I figured that much out for myself." Orchid took the seat across from him. "Go on."

"At one time the Culverthorpes were a lot more powerful than the Stonebrakers. But things changed. Perry Culverthorpe never really accepted the reversal of fortunes that gave the Stonebrakers the more prominent role in the New Seattle shipping business. He felt he'd been somehow cheated of his rightful heritage."

"What happened?"

Rafe met her eyes. "My grandfather put him in charge of the New Vancouver office. There were some problems. A series of thefts occurred. It became obvious that someone was bypassing the jelly-ice seals on the cargo containers. The only one who had the code was Perry Culverthorpe."

"Did your grandfather accuse him of stealing valuable freight?"

"Not exactly. From what I was able to discover, Alfred G. went to New Vancouver to find out what the hell was going on. Perry was furious. He felt he'd been humiliated by my grandfather's lack of trust. He and Alfred G. had a major blow-up. Alfred G. removed Perry from his position as head of the New Vancouver office."

"Perry must have been enraged."

"Yes. In an effort to prove that he was innocent of the thefts, he set a trap for the thieves. He succeeded in surprising them, but he was killed in the process."

"How awful."

"When it was all over, the real thieves were caught, but Perry's wife never forgave my grandfather. She blamed him for Perry's death."

"And she taught Selby to blame him, too."

Rafe shrugged. "She taught him to blame all the men on my side of the family. Aunt Elizabeth was very ill for a long tune. It affected her mind. By the time she died, she had convinced herself that if Perry had lived, he would have taken my grandfather's place at the helm of Stonebraker Shipping and Selby, ultimately, would have followed in his father's footsteps. Selby grew up believing that."

"I see."

Silence descended. Rafe listened to it while he watched the play of emotions across Orchid's face. It should not have mattered so much that she believe him, but it did.

It did.

"How sad," Orchid said eventually.

Rafe relaxed slightly. "From Selby's point of view, maybe it's sad. From mine, it's a major pain in the ass."

She startled him with a grin. "Rafe, you were born to deal with major pains in the ass. In fact, I'll bet you're bored stiff when you're between pains in the ass. What do you do to amuse yourself when you don't have a pain in the ass to keep you busy?"

"Recently I've experimented with having an affair with an ice-prism."

She gave him an ingenuous look. "Talk about a major pain in the ass."

"On the plus side, I'm never bored."

"Sounds a bit like dating a strat-talent. What did you accomplish on the home front today?"

Rafe's spirits were rising so quickly that he spoke before he considered his words. "I think I found the talent-prism team who tried to kill your friend Lambert yesterday."

Her eyes widened. "Really?"

"Yes." Rafe was chagrined to realize how much he enjoyed the blatant admiration in her eyes.

"That's fantastic." Orchid leaped out of her chair and tumbled into his lap. She wrapped her arms around his neck. "Brilliant work. You really are good at this kind of thing. Tell me everything."

He grunted as her soft weight settled on his thighs.

She made an extremely pleasant lap-full but her enthusiasm warned him that he had possibly made a serious miscalculation. He had intended to handle the illusion-talent and the prism accomplice by himself. Now, he suspected, that was going to prove difficult.

"Whistler called a few minutes ago. He says there are a couple of guys who could be the ones we want working at a club in Founders' Square. I, uh, thought I'd go down tonight and catch their act. See if they're the right ones."

"Good idea. When do we leave?"

"Not we," he said deliberately. "Me."

"You'll need me," she said complacently. Then she frowned as a thought apparently struck her. "We've only seen these guys in their ski masks. How will we recognize them on a stage?"

"That won't be a problem," Rafe said. "I'm a strat-talent, remember? I'll recognize them."

The Icy Dicey Casino was located on one of the darker side streets of Founders' Square, well away from the brightly lit strip. On an average night Rafe would have had serious misgivings about escorting a lady into this part of town. But tonight the Founders' Day celebration was in full swing in the square. The maze of seedy lanes and shadowy alleys were unusually crowded with loud, raucous revelers.

A street band played bad ice rock on the corner. More music poured from the open doors of a nearby syn-sex club. Clusters of people dressed in first generation costumes thronged the street, making their way from one bar to the next.

As he guided Orchid through the milling crowds, he automatically assessed the attire of those around them. Without consciously thinking about it, he checked to be certain that he and Orchid fit into their surroundings. His strat-talent instincts favored camouflage and shadows.

Neither he nor Orchid wore the homespun, colonial costumes many of the revelers favored, but Rafe was satisfied that he, at least, did not stand out in the crowd. In his dark jacket, black open-throated shirt, and black trousers he knew that he could fade into the shadows of any convenient alley on a second's notice.

He was less content with Orchid's appearance. Theoretically she should have been as unobtrusive as himself in her jeans, black T-shirt, and rumpled blazer. But he knew that he could never overlook her in a crowd or an alley and he worried that no one else could either.

He brought Orchid to a halt in front of the casino and glanced at the poster advertising the magic act of one Mr. Amazing. It was a full-color shot of a man with the too-pretty look of a fashion model. He was dressed in a snug-fitting, blue, spangled body suit and a red satin-lined cape.

The magician's flowing hair fell in rippling waves to his shoulders. Rafe figured he probably went to a high-priced hair salon. There was no way that particular shade of blonde could be natural on a man.

"Hmm." Orchid peered closely at the center portion of the larger-than-life picture. "Mr. Amazing is pretty amazing, all right."

Rafe realized that her attention was on the large bulge clearly revealed by Mr. Amazing's skintight blue pants. "Don't forget, he's billed as the Master of Illusion."

"You mean I can't believe everything I see?" she asked innocently.

Rafe chose to ignore the amusement in her eyes. "We're here on business, if you will recall. I want your word of honor that you will do exactly what I tell you to do."

"Sure."

The too-glib response worried him. "We have an agreement, remember?" he said as he shoved open the glass doors of the casino.

"Sheesh, calm down, will you? I've promised you three times already that I'd let you take the lead tonight." She gave him a sidelong glare. "What's the matter with you? You sound nervous."

"I am not nervous." The sensation he was experiencing at the moment was merely a wholly justifiable sense of caution, Rafe told himself.

There was no reason to expect any trouble tonight. This was, in effect, a simple reconnaissance mission. They would be here only long enough for him to identify the illusion-talent and the prism while both were safely occupied on stage.

Rafe eased Orchid through the mob that clogged the gaming floor. The artificially cheerful clang and tinkle of gambling machines mingled with the reverberating throb of the music.

When they reached the entrance to the shabby show lounge, Rafe tipped the usher enough to ensure that he and Orchid would get seats reasonably close to the stage, but not in the front row. The darkness of the chamber as well as the fact that the magicians on stage would be working with the lights in their eyes would provide ample concealment, he decided.

"Do you suppose this will be one of those magic acts in which the magician chooses someone out of the audience to assist in the show?" Orchid whispered.

"Do me a favor. Don't volunteer for anything. Things could get a little awkward if the illusion-talent selects you from the audience, realizes who you are, and decides to make you disappear."

She smiled demurely. "Would you look for me?"

"Yes. But you would not be happy to see me when I found you. I would not be in a good mood."

The show lounge filled quickly. When Rafe took the seat next to Orchid on the aisle he could feel the excitement simmering in her. He was mildly annoyed to feel echoes of that same excitement in himself.

Orchid leaned close to murmur in his ear. "I can see why the illusion-talent and his pal are taking on part-time work. Judging from the looks of this place, they aren't making their fortunes in the magic business."

Rafe briefly surveyed the theater. The jelly-ice lights were turned down low for reasons other than atmosphere. The gloom hid some of the threadbare quality of the curtain and disguised the fading paint on the walls. The thin velvet cushions on the seats were stained with several years' worth of spilled drinks. He did not need para-sharpened senses to smell the underlying odor of stale beer, cheap green wine, and the unique aura of frenzied desperation that seeped in from the gambling floor.

The lights faded all the way to black. A spot blazed in the center of the red and gold curtain. An expectant hush settled over the audience. The small band struck up a brisk musical introduction. A man garbed in a flashy tux trotted out from an opening on the left-hand side of the stage.

"Happy Founders' Day, everyone," the announcer roared at the small crowd. "The Icy Dicey Casino is proud to present our own master of illusion, Mr. Amazing with his special Founders' Day extravaganza. Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to be ... amazed."

The spotlight winked out. When it came back on a few seconds later it revealed Mr. Amazing in all his spangled glory. His long hair cascaded in thick waves to the high standing collar of his sparkling red cape.

Rafe leaned forward and rested his folded arms on his thighs. Right size, right build. He even moved the right way.

"Rafe? Can you tell if it's him?"

He did not look at her. He was too intent on studying his quarry. "Got to be certain. Link."

He sent out a short, probing pulse of psychic energy. His strat-talent senses fluttered. He felt the familiar wave of brief disorientation that always accompanied an initial quest.

Orchid said nothing but out on the psychic plane the very special prism took shape. Crystal clear. Powerful. Unique. Made just for him.

With an intense feeling of satisfaction that was equaled only by the sensations he felt when he made love to Orchid, Rafe sent power through the prism.

Psychic energy sharpened all of his senses. The quality of the atmosphere around him altered. Suddenly he could see in ways that he could not explain, ways that felt utterly natural.

Ways that he had never been able to savor for more than a few seconds at a tune before he met Orchid.

The darkened showroom assumed countless new dimensions. Objects that had been little more than shadows in the gloom could now be clearly discerned, not just through sight but in another, less easily described fashion. Smells sharpened and separated, revealing subtle nuances. The perfume worn by the woman in the next row made Rafe wrinkle his nose. He tuned it out. At the same time he was intensely aware of Orchid's nearness. It felt right to have her at his side, not just because they were temporarily linked on the metaphysical plane but because . . .

Because it felt right.

Rafe made himself push the awareness of Orchid and all of the other sensation in the lounge into the background. He concentrated on his quarry.

On stage Mr. Amazing raised his gloved hands high in a dramatic gesture, lowered them quickly and suddenly a curtain of what appeared to be crackling bands of energy materialized on the stage behind him. It shimmered grandly in an invisible breeze. Sparks snapped in the darkness.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Mr. Amazing announced in a deep voice augmented by a hidden microphone, "I give you, the Curtain as it must have looked to our noble Founders just before it closed forever."

The semi-inebriated audience was suitably awed. Oohs and aahs rippled across the rows of seats.

Rafe listened to the voice of Mr. Amazing with para-sensitive hearing. He filtered out the distortion created by the microphone.

The same voice. He was sure of it.

"And now," Mr. Amazing intoned, "let us see what our Curtain reveals."

The magician moved his hands in a melodramatic gesture. A woman with long green hair materialized out of the Curtain. She wore only a silver thong and a matching bra made of translucent silver mesh. The audience was treated to the sight of a pair of enormous breasts tipped with gaily painted nipples.

"Talk about an illusion," Orchid muttered.

Rafe ignored the comment. The woman's breasts did not interest him. His quarry was the only thing that mattered. He sifted through the scents that flowed around him in a vast sea, searching for one that was familiar.

In the world of para-heightened awareness, scent was one of the most reliable of all stimulieasily identified, virtually impossible to disguise. The magician was already sweating in the glare of the stage lights.

A second later Rafe caught the unmistakable taint of an illusion-talent. A talent that was strikingly similar to the one he had fought the other night outside Theo Willis's house. It had to be the same man who had trapped Orchid in Morgan Lambert's kitchen with the fire illusion.

This was the enemy.

Eagerness coursed through Rafe. A deep yearning to give chase came over him. He recognized the instinct and squelched it quickly. It probably would not be a good idea to bound up onto the stage and pound Mr. Amazing into the floor in front of Orchid and the rest of the crowd. A little too primitive.

"Rafe?"

He sensed the aura of Orchid's sudden unease and knew that she had picked up some sense of his elemental desire to bring down his quarry. He hoped she wouldn't hold it against him. She was more understanding than anyone else he had ever met when it came to the nature of his psychic talent. Nevertheless, he was pretty sure she would take a dun view of him entertaining himself with a little happy mayhem.

"It's him," he muttered, feeling somewhat defensive.

"You're sure?"

"Of course I'm sure."

"You don't have to snap at me."

"I didn't snap at you."

"Yes, you did."

Before Rafe could think of a suitable rejoinder another assistant walked out on stage. A man this tune. He was slightly shorter and not as solidly built as Mr. Amazing. His features were thin and sharp. He wore his dark, curly hair cropped close, and his costume resembled formal black evening wear.

Rafe concentrated intently for a few seconds. A sigh of anticipation escaped him when he caught the telltale traces of a familiar scent.

"The prism," he said very softly.

The music swelled as the assistant displayed a case of throwing knives. The lady in the translucent brassiere arranged herself in an artful pose against a colorful target. Mr. Amazing selected a knife and threw it with confident skill. The point sank into the target near her head. The audience gasped. The woman smiled.

Mr. Amazing selected another knife.

Rafe cut the focus link.

"What do we do now?" Orchid whispered.

"We leave."

Under cover of a burst of applause, Rafe reached out, took her hand, and got to his feet. He led Orchid back up the aisle to the curtained entrance of the show lounge.

They stepped out into the frenetic activity of the gaming floor.

"We're going to follow Mr. Amazing after he finishes the show, aren't we?" Orchid asked.

Rafe smiled at the enthusiasm in her voice. She was not a strat-talent, but she definitely had a few primitive instincts of her own. "The thought had crossed my mind."

"Then what?"

"Depends." Rafe drew her through the throng of eager gamblers toward the front of the casino. "The dressing room entrance is in the alley. We can keep an eye on it from outside."

The street in front of the Icy Dicey was even more crowded now than it had been earlier. The few cars that had ventured into it were trapped by the milling revelers. No one seemed to mind.

The decibel level had escalated. Another street band had joined the ice rock group on the corner. Rafe heard Orchid crunch a discarded noisemaker underfoot. Streamers drifted through the night.

He found a spot near a doorway that offered shelter from the jostling crowd and a good view of the alley entrance. A street vendor dressed in a Founders' Day costume held out a large paper bag.

"Popped nut-corn. Get 'em while they're nice and hot."

"Sounds good." Orchid fished in her pocket, found some change, and handed it to the vendor.

She accepted the brimming bag, took a handful of popped nut-corn for herself, and offered some to Rafe.

He scooped up a fistful of the salted nut-corn and shoved it into his mouth. Using his talent for extended periods of time heightened all of his appetites, he reflected.

"I love Founders' Day." Orchid surveyed the cheerful crowds as she dug into the bag for more nut-corn. "I know we're here on serious business, but it's actually turning into a fun evening. You know how to show a girl a good time, Mr. Stonebraker."

"Glad you're enjoying yourself."

"Are you going to give up this private investigation hobby of yours when you take control of your family's firm?"

The question stopped him cold. "I hadn't thought about it, to tell you the truth."

"You probably won't have time for this kind of thing once you start running a big company like Stonebraker," Orchid said conversationally. "But I think maybe I'll start specializing."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I like this kind of work," she explained. "There must be other private investigators, maybe some who actually have a license, who need the services of an ice-prism. I think I'll tell Clementine that I want to limit my practice to working with them."

Rafe's gut tightened. "You intend to work with other private investigators?"

"Why not? Clementine wants us to think exclusive. What could be more exclusive than a full-spectrum ice-prism who helps conduct discrete private investigations?"

The thought of Orchid working in a dangerous situation with another talent sent a chill through Rafe. He had a sudden, clear vision of her standing on a street corner on a warm summer night munching popped nut-corn with another man while staking out a person of interest. A fierce sense of denial raced through him.

She was his. They were meant for each other. Didn't she understand that?

"I don't think that would be a good idea," he managed in what he hoped was a reasonable tone.

Her brows rose as she took another handful of nut-corn. "Why not?"

"Uh, because you don't really have any experience in investigation work."

"Sure I do, thanks to you." She shrugged. "And I'll get more as I go along."

"Orchid, this is not the kind of work you go into on a casual basis."

"You're the one who called it a hobby." She munched nut-corn. "How did you get started, anyway?"

"I did a favor for a friend shortly after I returned from the Western Islands. Found something that had been lost, something valuable. A few weeks later one of his friends called. Asked me to find something else. One thing sort of led to another."

"Sounds pretty casual to me. No training, no apprenticeship with a private investigation firm, no license. You only take referrals. You only take jobs that interest you. You only work for people who, for one reason or another, can't or won't go to the police."

"Damn it, Orchid, if you think you can just blithely go to work as a prism who does private investigations" He broke off as he caught sight of a shadow emerging from the alley. "There he is."

"Mr. Amazing?" She spun around to stare at the alley entrance. "I don't see him."

"Not Mr. Amazing. His prism. But he'll do." Rafe took the half-full bag of popped nut-corn out of Orchid's hand and tossed it into a nearby garbage can. "In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think it would be a good idea to start with him."

"Why?"

Rafe smiled as he took her arm and plunged into the crowd. "Because he's the weaker one."

Easy prey.

"Do you think he's headed back to his car?" Orchid asked.

"I doubt it." Rafe kept his eye on the curly haired man. "He's acting as if he's late for an appointment."

There was something nervous and hurried about the prism's movements. He did not glance back over his shoulder, however, so whatever he anticipated lay ahead, not behind.

Rafe found it simple to pursue his quarry through the crowd. The prism was the only one who was walking purposefully along the sidewalk. Everyone else was either strolling, ambling, or dancing.

Rafe and Orchid followed the prism at a discreet distance. After a block and a half they passed the last tavern on the street. The crowd thinned rapidly.

Rafe dropped back a few more paces. The prism had yet to look over his shoulder, but if he chose to do so now that there were fewer people about, there was a chance he would notice his tail.

In the middle of the next block, the magician's assistant slowed his pace. Rafe got the impression that whatever the appointment was, it was not one the prism wanted to keep.

Something was wrong. The nervousness Rafe had detected in his quarry was increasing. He looked more agitated. There was a stiff, tense set to his shoulders. His strides became almost jerky. He began to fiddle with something under his coat. A knife?

Rafe's driving curiosity was suddenly tempered with caution.

"Link," he ordered softly.

"What's wrong?" Orchid supplied the prism even as she asked the question.

"I don't know." He shoved power through the crystal prism. "I just want all the information I can get."

The night shifted around him. Awareness infused his senses. He sorted through the new array of sounds, smells, and sights.

He picked up the mix of sweat, unwholesome, adrenaline-fed excitement, and a trace of anxiety and recognized the indefinable essence of bloodlust.

Not the prism, Rafe thought. Someone else. A predator waited in the darkness of a side street up ahead.

He saw that his quarry was moving even more slowly now than he had been a moment ago. But the prism kept going forward.

Rafe realized the curly haired man was going to turn down the side street where the predator was waiting.

"Oh, shit." Rafe released Orchid's hand. He shoved her into the shadows of a darkened doorway. "Stay here. Don't follow."

"What is it? What are you going to do?" she whispered.

"Just hold the focus for me. Whatever you do, don't lose it."

He broke into a silent, loping run. His para-heightened instincts told him he had only seconds to catch up with his quarry.

The prism was his prey, damn it. He would not give him up to the other hunter who lay in wait in the shadows.


Chapter 12 | Orchid | Chapter 14



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