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Chapter 14

Time ran out a heartbeat later. Rafe launched himself at the prism just as he reached the corner and started to turn down the street where the predator waited.

At the last instant, the curly haired man apparently sensed Rafe bearing down on him. He jerked around, his face a mask of startled fear. He threw up one hand in a reflexive gesture while he struggled to bring an object out from beneath his jacket with the other.

"Christ, no. Don't—"

The prism's scream halted abruptly as Rafe slammed into him. The jarring impact sent both men crashing to the sidewalk.

A figure came around the corner. Rafe did not need the weak streetlight or his paranormal senses to see the pistol in his hand.

There was a flash of icy flame when the gun roared. The bullet crashed into a brick wall above Rafe's head. He rolled and pulled the stunned prism deep into the cover of the doorway.

Rafe released the prism, got to his feet, and reached down to yank a small pistol out of his ankle holster. He raised the gun and fired in one single motion.

But the predator who had been waiting for the prism had either lost his nerve or concluded that he did not like the new odds. He had apparently braced himself to shoot one man in cold blood. He was not prepared to deal with two, one of whom was also armed with a pistol.

He whirled and fled back into the darkness of the side street. Rafe tasted the fear in the other man. It had swamped the bloodlust.

"Rafe." Orchid's shout rang from her doorway. "Are you all right?"

"Stay where you are," he yelled back. She had to know he was in reasonably good condition, he thought. They were still firmly linked on the psychic plane.

For once, she obeyed orders.

He waited another few seconds, listening to the gunman's retreating footsteps.

"It's okay," he called. "You can come out now."

When he heard her start toward him, he broke the link. The night world dimmed, shifted, returned to normal.

Rafe became aware of the shaking man he had pinned against the wall with one arm.

"What's your name?" he asked very softly.

"Let me go."

"What's your name?"

"Uh, Crowder. Phil Crowder. Look, I don't know who you are, mister—"

"Sure, you do. We met the other night outside of Theo Willis's house."

'No," the man licked his lips. "That wasn't me."

"It was you, all right. I never forget a—" Rafe broke off before he said scent. "Forget it. You're the prism. Mr. Amazing is the illusion-talent who was with you that night." It was not a question.

Orchid came to a halt a short distance away. "Are you sure you're all right, Rafe?"

"Yes." He did not look at her. "But our friend, here, is not all right. Someone just tried to kill him. Who was it, Crowder?"

"I don't know."

Rafe pushed him harder against the wall. "Try again."

"I swear, I don't know. I was supposed to meet my bookie here. I owe him some money. Got a little behind at the tables. But that wasn't him. It was someone else."

"Someone the bookie sent, maybe?"

"Shit, no. Murphy wouldn't have sent someone to kill me. I'm not that far behind in my payments."

"Then who was it?"

"I don't know, I tell you."

Rafe concentrated intensely for a few seconds. He only needed a short burst of strat-talent awareness to assure him that the man was not lying. "Got any ideas?"

"No."

"I do," Rafe said very gently. "I think maybe whoever hired you to watch Theo Willis's house and get rid of Morgan Lambert has decided that you've become a liability. He came here tonight to get rid of you."

"Oh, Christ." There was fear and weary defeat in Crowder's voice. "I never wanted to do those jobs. But I needed the money real bad. For my bookie, y'know? He was threatening to send his knee man after me. Shit, I knew this was gonna be trouble. I knew it right from the start."

"Tell me about it." Rafe could feel Orchid watching him question Crowder. Her tension was palpable. He reminded himself to be careful. He didn't want to do anything too primitive in front of her. "Start with who hired you."

"Jink hired me. That's all I know, I tell you."

"Jink?"

"Mr. Amazing. I don't know the rest of his real name. He goes by Jink off-stage. He's an illusion-talent. Really strong. He needed a prism who could handle his power on stage. Said he didn't want to get someone from a focus agency. I found out why after I'd been working with him for awhile."

"He wanted you to do some work on the side, right?"

"Yeah. But he booked the outside stuff, y'know? I never even knew who hired us. Jink handled everything."

Orchid stirred in the shadows. "You tried to murder Rafe that night outside Theo's house."

"No, Founders' truth. We were just supposed to rough him up a bit. Scare him off. Least, that's what Jink told me."

"What was in the letter you took from Morgan Lambert's houseboat?" Rafe asked.

"Shit, I don't know. Jink found the letter. He never showed it to me."

"You deliberately overdosed Morgan on dirty-ice," Orchid said.

"No." Fear lanced through Crowder's voice. "Jink said he was only going to use enough ice to make Lambert forget a few things."

"He used enough to kill him."

"Oh, shit, I didn't know that honest, lady. It's not my fault. I was just supposed to help look for that damn letter. Jink fed the dirty-ice to Lambert. Used an illusion to make him think it was a beer. And then you arrived and screwed everything up."

Rafe released him and stepped back in disgust. "You're a waste of time, Crowder."

"I told you, I don't know anything."

"Let's hope you know enough to get out of town for a while. Because I have a hunch that whoever tried to kill you tonight will make another attempt."

Crowder flinched and edged sideways out of the doorway. "You think so?"

"Yes, I think so. What's Jink's schedule for this evening?"

"Why?"

"Because he's probably next on the shooter's list."

"Oh, shit. Oh, shit." Crowder glanced nervously over his shoulder as if he expected to see his attacker. "I gotta get out of here."

Rafe shifted position to block Crowder's path. "First tell me Mr. Amazing's schedule. When does he leave the Icy Dicey?"

"We've got another performance at midnight. He usually hangs around the club between shows. Got something going with one of the dealers, y'know? They get it on in his dressing room between acts."

"Maybe I'll be able to talk to him before his new employer gets to him." Rafe turned away. He reached for Orchid's arm.

"Wait." Crowder put out a hand as if to catch hold of Rafe's sleeve. At the last minute he thought better of it and snatched it back. He glanced at Orchid and then looked back at Rafe. "Why did you save me a few minutes ago?"

"I saved you because I'd hoped you could tell me a few useful things." Rafe smiled faintly. "But I was wrong. Which means that the next time I run into you, I won't go out of my way to do you any favors. So be careful, Crowder. Be very, very careful."

Crowder's face worked. He looked helplessly at Orchid. Then he turned and ran back down the street toward the lights of Founders' Square.

Orchid waited until he was gone before she spoke. "Do you think he was telling you the truth?"

"Yes." Rafe reholstered his pistol and adjusted the cuff of his trousers. "Come on. We've got to get back to the club."

"This whole thing is coming together." Rafe's hand tightened around Orchid's arm as he hurried her back toward the Icy Dicey. "If we move fast, we may finish it tonight."

In spite of her jangled nerves and the adrenaline that was still ripping through her system, Orchid grinned briefly at Rafe's intense satisfaction. It radiated from him in fierce waves. He was no longer riding the energy train of a focus link, but the strat-talent side of his nature was definitely in full bloom.

Well, maybe "full bloom" was not a good analogy, she conceded silently. There was nothing flowerlike about Rafe tonight.

He hauled her swiftly through the crowds toward the nightclub. The hunter in Rafe, never far from the surface, was what she saw in all its many aspects tonight. He was in full control, but the power that he held in check was strong enough to make the hair stir on the back of her neck.

She knew she was not the only one who sensed the presence of a hunter. She had seen the expression on Crowder's face a few moments ago before he turned and fled.

"I assume we are working under the assumption that it was Dr. Austen who just tried to kill Crowder?" Orchid realized she was breathless. If she was going to do this sort of thing on a regular basis, she had better start doing her meta-zen-syn exercise routine more than three times a week.

"Austen is definitely on the short list of possible candidates." Rafe slowed a little as the rambunctious crowd closed in on them. "He's trying to cover his tracks. But he's not a pro. He's screwing things up."

"You mean, we're screwing things up for him." Orchid studied the garish lights of the Icy Dicey up ahead. "This could be a little awkward if Crowder was right about Mr. Amazing's between show activities. Be sure you knock first."

"Afraid of seeing Mr. Amazing without his stage costume?"

Orchid thought about the overstuffed crotch of the magician's sparkling suit. "Let's just say that I wouldn't want to be disillusioned."

Rafe led the way into the alley beside the casino. Orchid followed, relieved to see that the narrow passage was not completely dark. A weak jelly-ice bulb glowing above a door kept some of the shadows at bay.

There was no one guarding the stage door entrance. Orchid concluded that Mr. Amazing was not overly troubled with eager fans. When Rafe turned the knob, it twisted easily in his hand.

She followed him into a dimly tit hall that stank of stale sweat and old booze. The muffled music of a torch singer could be heard through the wall together with the distant racket of gaming machines.

Rafe came to a halt in front of a closed door decorated with a sadly faded star.

He paused for a moment. Orchid sensed a fleeting pulse of familiar psychic energy, but Rafe did not seek a focus link. The small surge of talent vanished quickly. To Orchid's surprise, a new wave of battle-ready tension suddenly vibrated in the air around Rafe.

"Damn." He reached into his pocket, pulled out a pair of thin leather gloves and tugged them onto his strong hands.

"Why are you—?"

"Here, put these on, Ms. Private Investigator." He slapped a pair of thin plastic gloves into her palm.

They were not sexy leather gloves like his own, Orchid noticed. They were the kind of cheap, disposable gloves used in food preparation work. She made a note to buy herself some more stylish gloves at the earliest opportunity.

"I'll go in first," Rafe said quietly. "Wait here."

"You're always telling me to wait. How am I ever going to learn if I'm always kept waiting around in the hall?"

"Trust me on this. You don't want to go in first."

He was right, she thought. She did not have the vaguest idea of what she would do if she suddenly came face to face with Mr. Amazing.

Rafe did not knock on Mr. Amazing's door. He opened it and went in very fast. Orchid noticed that no light spilled from the small room. There was no feminine shriek of surprise. No masculine yell of outrage. The room was empty.

Orchid realized she had been holding her breath. She relaxed fractionally and went to stand in the darkened entrance. She peered into the shadows but she could not see much.

"Guess Mr. Amazing isn't here after all," she said.

"He's here, all right. Come in and close the door behind you."

"What do you mean?" She wrinkled her nose as she obediently shut the door. "And what is that dreadful smell?"

"Brace yourself." Rafe flicked on a light. "Whoever tried to kill Crowder a few minutes ago got here ahead of us."

Orchid stared at the unnaturally still figure sprawled on the floor near the wall. Blonde hair concealed the handsome face. Bright red blood stained the front of the spangled blue body suit. She felt her stomach twist into a sickening knot

"Oh, my God." She swallowed. "Is he ... ?"

"Yes." Rafe scowled at the sight of her face. "Can you handle it for a few minutes? I want to take a quick look around and it would be better if you waited in here rather than out in the hall. I don't want to take a chance on someone seeing you near this dressing room."

"I can handle it." Only because she was dazed, Orchid thought. The peculiar sense of disorientation seemed to have the effect of temporarily shielding her from the reality of the crumpled body on the floor. "It must have happened only a few minutes ago."

"Yes. While I wasted time questioning Crowder." Rafe crossed the room to the dressing table. He crouched to peer underneath it.

"Quentin Austen has gone crazy," she whispered.

"Looks like it." Rafe ran his fingers along the bottom of the dressing table.

"What are you looking for?"

"Whatever it was the killer came here to find." He straightened and checked behind the mirror. "He was in a hurry. He had to know that we were only a few minutes behind him. He wouldn't have had time to do a thorough search."

For the first time Orchid realized that the small dressing room was in a cluttered, jumbled state. Someone had obviously gone through it in a hasty, perhaps desperate fashion.

Get a grip, she thought. You can have a nervous breakdown later. She took a cautious breath, willed herself to concentrate on the problem at hand. Gingerly, she went toward the open door of a small closet. She could see a row of glittering costumes inside.

"I'll check his wardrobe," she said in what she hoped was a businesslike tone.

Rafe paused long enough to give her a narrow look. Concern gleamed in his eyes. "You sure you're all right?"

"Yes." For now, at any rate. Ask me again, later.

She pushed aside the gaudy stage clothes and found a row of open drawers. The killer had already pawed through them. Wide belts studded with artificial gem-stones, rakish scarves and stage jewelry had been carelessly tossed about like so much flotsam and jetsam on a beach.

Orchid grimaced as she pulled out a handful of masculine undergarments. She shuddered when she held up a pair of slinky black briefs that featured a large pouch in the front and a narrow silk thong in the rear.

"Mr. Amazing must have had a subscription to the Syn-Sex Male catalog," she muttered.

"The guy had class, all right." Rafe eased the dresser away from the wall to look behind it "Got to admire the taste of a man who stuffs a sock in his crotch."

"You don't know that for certain." She stooped to examine a row of leather boots decorated with sequins and fake stones. There was nothing inside the footwear.

When she started to get back to her feet, her head brushed against one of the hanging costumes. She cringed when she noticed that she had collided with the bulging crotch section of a pair of form-fitting crimson trousers.

The large, codpiece-like lump in the front of the pants did not give beneath the impact. She gazed at it thoughtfully for a long moment. Then she steeled her nerves for the task of investigating the interior of the costume.

There was nothing inside the first one except a great deal of artfully arranged padding. The second costume revealed more of the same. But in the third one she discovered something else besides stuffing in the artificially enlarged crotch.

Very slowly she withdrew a piece of paper that had been rolled into a tight scroll.

"Rafe?"

"Yeah?" He did not look up from a floorboard he was exploring with the tips of his gloved fingers.

"You were right about Mr. Amazing. It was all an illusion." She unrolled the paper she had found.

"What are you—?" He paused, eyes slitting at the sight of what she held in her hand. "What is it?"

"A photocopy of the letter Theo sent to Morgan Lambert."


Chapter 13 | Orchid | Chapter 15



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