If you're reading this letter, it means that something has happened to me. Weird thought. At any rate, I'll keep this brief because I don't have much time. I'm on my way out of town. Better if you don't know where I'm going.
I've got to disappear for a while. I got involved in a really big mess. I can't explain it all but I know that I took one of the alien artifacts from the lab where I work. I don't remember much about the theft. It's kind of a fog. I only know that I took the thing with me one night. I remember giving it to my therapist, Quentin Austen. Now someone is trying to kill me.
I think Dr. Austen is somehow responsible for what happened to me. I can't go to the police. I have no proof. I can't even remember anything about this whole mess very clearly. I'm sure the bastard deliberately clouded my memory with his hypno-talent. He's strong enough to work for several seconds at a time without a prism. He gave me some medication, too. I think the stuff enhanced the effect of his hypnosis.
The artifact I stole for Austen is different from the others. I don't have time to go into details, but believe me, it's potentially dangerous.
Here's the zinger. Austen can't control the relic by himself. He needs a very powerful ice-prism. We both know there aren't many of us around. Now that I've broken free of his control, he may look for another strong ice-prism.
Be careful. Maybe you better warn Orchid. I didn't give him your names, at least I don't think I did. But you can't be too cautious. I have a feeling Dr. Austen's crazier than people say I am.
I'll call you as soon as I think it's safe.
Rafe slowly re-rolled the letter. He looked at the body on the floor and idly tapped the little scroll against the dressing table. "Mr. Amazing probably tried a bit of blackmail with this photocopy and got himself shot for his efforts."
"It looks that way, doesn't it?" Orchid rubbed her hands over her arms. The small room was warm, but she felt chilled. "Poor Theo. I knew he was innocent. If only he'd told someone what was happening."
"He was right about one thing. It would have been extremely difficult to prove anything. If he'd gone to the cops they would have taken one look at the situation and slapped him in jail for stealing a valuable artifact from a research lab." Rafe shrugged. "And dismissed the rest of his story out of hand."
"Especially if they talked to his helpful syn-psych therapist, Dr. Quentin Austen, who would have fed them a pack of lies about the state of his mental health." Orchid set her teeth. "That bastard, Austen. He's the one behind this whole thing."
"If he's looking for another ice-prism to help him control his stolen artifact, we'll have to conclude that he really does believe that crazy stuff about it being a thing of power. Which makes him a syn-psych head case."
"I can see how it happened. Theo innocently went to Austen for therapy. Probably mentioned his work at the lab in the course of his sessions. He must have mentioned that he thought one of the relics had some power and that an ice-prism could somehow control it. Austen evidently believed him."
"And then Austen hypnotized Willis so that he would steal the relic," Rafe concluded thoughtfully. "After that, things began to come apart. Willis somehow escaped Austen's mind control and fled in panic."
"I'll bet Austen probably arranged for Theo's death in that car crash."
"And then got worried that someone would connect him to Willis. He hired Mr. Amazing and Crowder to keep watch on Willis's house. Then he somehow learned that Willis had sent a letter to Lambert and sent the team to find it."
"And then Mr. Amazing tried to blackmail him with a photocopy of the letter." Orchid shivered. "So he set out to kill both Jink and Crowder."
Rafe tapped the little rolled up cylinder again. "Most of it fits."
She slanted him an uneasy glance. "Theo really did have some mental problems, you know. That stuff about being able to control one of the alien relics has got to be a fantasy."
Rafe looked thoughtful. "He obviously convinced Quentin Austen that it was true."
"I don't doubt for a moment that Theo really believed it. And I agree that he somehow made Dr. Austen believe it. Which proves that Austen is as unstable as jelly-ice. He's already killed at least two people, Theo and Mr. Amazing."
"And tried to do in a couple more, Morgan Lambert and Crowder." Rafe reached for the phone with a gloved hand. "All because he believes some wild tale about a still-functioning alien relic. You're right. The man is not normal."
"Who are you calling?"
"We finally have some hard facts and a body. Time to call the police. I've got a friend who works homicide. I'm going to give him what we have. And then I'll call Brizo at the lab and warn him that we can't keep the lid on this any longer."
"Quentin Austen must be found before he kills anyone else," Orchid said when they finally walked into Rafe's house two hours later. "But what about the missing relic?"
"The cops may find it when they find Austen. But there's a chance it's already disappeared into the underground collector's market." Rafe locked the front door and turned to face her. "Which means, we've still got a case."
She studied the hard lines of his face, saw the intensity in his gaze. The hunter in him would not quit until he had found what he had set out to find, she thought.
She gave him a wan smile. "You know something? I'm glad you're not after me."
"Who said I'm not after you?"
She did not move. Desire, power, and need thickened the atmosphere. She could not tell what portion of the heady, dangerous brew came from her and what emanated from Rafe.
"This is probably not a good time to talk about it," she said. "We've both been under a lot of stress lately. A bit too much excitement—"
There was perfect, if darkly brooding comprehension in his gaze. "Are you afraid of me?"
"That's not quite the answer I was looking for."
"What do you want me to say?"
"Just tell me the truth." He rose with fluid ease and crossed the short distance between them. He came to a halt in front of her, reached down, closed his hands over her shoulders, and hauled her lightly out of the chair. "Are you afraid of me? Does the fact that I'm a strat-talent scare you?"
She gazed into the dark, shadowy places in his eyes and saw the secrets in him. "No."
"Am I a little too primitive for the daughter of a couple of Northvillers?"
"Then what did you mean when you said that you aren't exactly afraid of me?"
She framed his face between her hands, and smiled wistfully. "I meant that I'm afraid that I might be falling in love with you."
The stunned expression that flashed in his eyes would have amused her under other circumstances. But tonight she was trapped in the swirling waters of her own emotions. She could not take refuge in laughter. She had an uneasy suspicion that her entire future was at stake.
Rafe said nothing. He groaned, caught her close, and kissed her with a raging passion that left no room for words. Then he picked her up in his arms, carried her into the library, and pulled her down onto the carpet in front of the fire.
A long time later Orchid stirred, stretched, and opened her eyes. She smiled wryly when she saw Rafe crouched in front of the hearth. He was gazing into the flames as though he could see visions of Old Earth. He had refastened his trousers, but he had not put on his shirt. The firelight warmed his bare shoulders to a rich gold and etched the strong contours of his back. For a moment she simply savored the sleek, masculine strength in him.
"You know, this business of making love in front of a roaring fire works nicely in my novels," she said finally. "But in real life it causes rug burns. Next time let's put you on the bottom."
"Orchid, I want you to think about marrying me."
Orchid stared at him. He did not turn his head to look at her. Everything in him was focused intently on the images only he could see in the flames.
"Just think about it, okay? You said you thought you might be falling in love with me."
She licked her lips. "Any matchmaking agency counselor can tell you that sort of emotion can't be relied upon as a basis for a good marriage."
"What else have you got to go on?" he asked with frightening logic. "You said, yourself, that, because you're an ice-prism, you don't trust the matchmaking agencies to find you a good match."
"What about you?" she whispered. "Why would you want to take such a risk?"
"My counselor has assured me that I'm almost impossible to match. Odds are I'll have to find my own mate, I mean, my own wife. You and I make a good team."
Orchid did not know whether to laugh or cry. "I see." Perhaps she should be a little more direct. "Well, how do you feel about me?" Do you love me?
"I just told you, I want you. I wanted you the first time I saw you and I want you even more now that we've been together. You feel ... I don't know, you feel right."
She wondered if that was as close to a declaration of love as he could get. "What happens if your marriage agency counselor does turn up a match for you?"
"I won't want her." There was absolute certainty in the words.
She sighed. "That sounds a little overly simplistic on your part."
"Why should it be complicated?" He did turn then. The flames on the hearth were nothing compared to the heat in his eyes.
"I know I'm not normal. I'm an exotic. The syn-psych experts don't even know how exotic I really am. But I know some things about myself. You don't have to be afraid of me. I would never hurt you. I could never hurt you."
She took a deep breath, let it out slowly. "I know that."
"Think about it. That's all I ask."
There was nothing to think about. She was in love with him. But he had said nothing about loving her. She had to make certain that he knew his own heart as well as she knew hers. She could not marry a man who did not love her, regardless of how committed or protective he felt toward her.
But she could think about it. She could even dream about it. At least for a while.
"All right, Rafe. I'll think about it."
Triumph gleamed in his gaze. He got to his feet, crossed to where she lay, and settled down beside her. He reached for her.
"That's all I ask," he said against her throat.
When he started to push her back onto the rug, she flattened a palm against his chest. "Hold it right there."
He stilled. "Why?"
"This time you get to be on the bottom."
His laughter was a dark, sensual force in the firelit chamber.
Rafe was still grinning to himself at odd moments for no particular reason the next morning. He first became aware of the strange, new mannerism when he looked into his shaving mirror. He quickly discovered that it was not easy to wield a razor while smiling like an idiot. After the second nick, he forced himself to pay attention to the job at hand.
It was not a done deal, he reminded himself. Things could still go wrong. But he had the edge now. Orchid wanted him. Of that he was certain. He could work with that.
He was still feeling remarkably cheerful when he walked into the breakfast room a few minutes later. Orchid was already there. She was hunched intently over the morning paper, a cup of coff-tea in her hand. She did not look up from the article she was reading.
He took a moment to appreciate the sight of her sitting here in his house in the morning light. Her denim-clad legs were tucked under her chair. The black T-shirt she wore emphasized the elegant curve of her throat. Her freshly washed hair was held back behind her ears with a headband. She looked fresh and vibrant and sexy as hell.
She looked right.
"Good morning." He started toward her.
She kept her attention fixed on the newspaper article "You aren't going to believe this, Rafe."
"Don't bet on it." When she did not lift her face, he contented himself with kissing the top of her head. He did not need para-sharpened senses to enjoy the fragrant mix of her herbal shampoo mingled with her own enticing scent. "This morning I could believe in anything."
"Try this." She pointed at the article she had beer perusing.
Rafe glanced at the newspaper. The headline was on page three of the front section of the New Seattle Times. An important story but not a major one.
Syn-psych Therapist Dead-Possible Suicide
"What the hell?" Rafe snatched the paper up off the table and read the article through very quickly.
The body of Dr. Quentin Austen, a syn-psych therapist with a practice in New Seattle was pulled from the bay at approximately two o'clock this morning.
Dr. Austen was last seen on board the ferry Old Seattle, which departed the downtown dock on its last run of the night at one-thirty this morning. He is believed to have jumped overboard somewhere en route. An autopsy will be conducted later today.
Rumors that Austen had a history of periodic bouts of depression and that he had experienced recent financial setbacks and was facing an impending lawsuit from a former patient led authorities to speculate that he committed suicide. "We get a few jumpers every year," said a source who asked not to be named. "A man can't last more than twenty or thirty minutes at the most in the cold waters of the bay."
Rafe tossed aside the paper and reached for the phone.
"What do you think?" Orchid asked.
"I don't know yet. I've got to call my friend in homicide."
Fifteen minutes later he hung up the phone, picked up the coff-tea Orchid had poured for him, and propped his elbows on the table.
"Tallentyre says there won't be any formal announcement until the autopsy results are in, but the people who handled the case are definitely calling it suicide."
"Mr. Amazing was killed around eleven o'clock last night. Austen would have had plenty of time to commit the murder and make it down to the ferry docks to catch the last run of the night." Orchid frowned. "But why would he kill himself at that point?"
"I don't know. Who can say what a man with a history of syn-psych problems will do in a situation like that? Maybe the act of murdering Mr. Amazing put him over the edge. I know he was definitely panicking last night when he tried to shoot Crowder and missed."
"How do you know that?"
"I just know it."
"But how did you know it?" she insisted, curious.
He shrugged. "I sensed it during the focus link. By the way, Tallentyre says they did not find the relic when they searched Austen's house."
"So we still have a case?"
"Yes." Rafe put down his cup and got to his feet. "I'm going to go down to the station. I want to talk to Tallentyre in person. Maybe I can get some more information."
Orchid watched him pace out into the hall. The long, eager length of his stride told her more clearly than words that he was wholly intent on the hunt.
So much for a cozy discussion of their future.
Morgan Lambert looked toward the door when Orchid walked into his room shortly after nine. He managed a weary smile.
"Hi," he said.
"Hi, yourself." She leaned on the metal rails that framed the hospital bed. "How are you feeling?"
"Like I'll live. Barely." He rubbed a hand across his face. "They gave me something to blunt the withdrawal effects, but it can't mask all of them. I'm still twitching a bit. And I feel as if I'm going to throw up, but other than that I'm just dandy."
"You gave us quite a scare."
"Your friend, Stonebraker, was in early this morning. He said that he was on his way downtown to talk to the police. He told me what had happened. I guess I owe you my life."
"Do you remember anything?"
Morgan's face twisted in frustration. "Just bits and pieces. The doctor said a few hours of partial amnesia is a common side effect of dirty-ice. I seem to recall leaving a message on your answering machine. Something about a letter from Theo, wasn't it?"
"You said you'd received a message from him."
"Oh, yeah. I think I remember part of it. Some wild tale about being hypnotized by his syn-psych therapist."
"I've seen a copy of the letter. Theo claimed that a shrink named Dr. Quentin Austen forced him to steal an alien relic. He also said that Austen needed an ice-prism to control the thing. He wanted to warn you and me because we were the only other strong ice-prisms he knew."
Morgan sighed. "Poor, crazy Theo."
"It looks as though his therapist was even crazier. Dr. Austen must have believed that the relic really did have some power or he would never have sent those two men to your houseboat to find Theo's letter."
Orchid gave Morgan a quick rundown of events. When she was finished, he stared at her in amazement.
"So Austen killed Theo and another guy and then jumped off a ferry?"
"So they say. Rafe is checking into the details now, but apparently Austen had a history of mental problems."
"What a pair he and Theo made, huh? The crazy treating the eccentric."
"And now they're both dead," Orchid concluded. "And the firm of Adams and Stonebraker is going to find the missing relic."
"Adams and Stonebraker?"
"She means Stonebraker and Adams," Rafe said from the doorway.
Orchid turned. "There you are. How did it go with the cops?"
Rafe shrugged as he walked into the room. "They think it's pretty open and shut. Crazed syn-psych shrink manipulates equally nutty patient. Arranges to have a valuable artifact stolen and then tries to cover up crime by killing people. Eventually goes completely bonkers from stress of committing murder and kills self. Valuable relic missing."
"Hmm." Orchid eyed him thoughtfully.
"Precisely my conclusion," Rafe murmured. He looked at Morgan. "I'm told you're going to be discharged today."
"I want you to do me a favor."
"Get lost for a week. Take a trip to the Western Islands. Pretend you just won a contest."
Morgan gaped. "The Western Islands?"
"All expenses paid by the firm of Stonebraker and Adams," Rafe said.
"You're lucky," Orchid said. "Second prize was two weeks in the Western Islands."
Both men stared at her.
She blushed. "Sorry. My great-great grandmother told me that one when I was very little. She said it was an old Earth joke."
Orchid gave Rafe a long look as she got into the leer. "What's wrong? Why are you still worried about Morgan?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "But something doesn't feel right about this case yet. It's not just the fact that the relic is still missing, either."
"Are the police satisfied?"
"Yes. The important part of the case, the murder of Mr. Amazing and the probable murder of Theo Willis, has been solved. That's all they care about."
"Don't they have any interest in the relic?"
"They assume that it disappeared into the underground collector's market. They'll keep an eye out for it, but it's not a big priority for them."
"So what's our next move?"
"I'm not sure yet, but we've still got a client. I talked to Brizo. He definitely wants us to find the relic." Rafe glanced at her as he drove out of the hospital parking lot. "In the meantime, we've also got a date to attend your cousin's wedding. It's tomorrow afternoon in Northville, right?"
Orchid groaned. "To tell you the truth, I'd almost forgotten about that."
"I haven't," he said a little too smoothly. "I owe you. I always pay my debts. Stonebraker tradition."
Orchid wondered why she was suddenly overcome with the old hunted feeling. "Rafe, I won't lie to my family. I won't introduce you as an agency date."
"Of course not. At this point I'm just a regular date. The kind of guy you go away with for the weekend."
Her face burned. "But I don't go away for weekends with guys."
"Until you met me." There was a wealth of satisfaction in his voice.