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Chapter 18

"Yes, Mom. We got back to the city yesterday at about two o'clock. We, uh, stopped for a bite along the way." Carrying the phone in one hand, Orchid paced back and forth across the small living room. She had told her parents nothing about the incident on the highway. The information would only alarm them and there was nothing they could do about it. "Just wanted to let you know that everything's fine on this end."

"The wedding was lovely, wasn't it?"

"Beautiful. Veronica and Terrence were meant for each other."

"That," Anna said meaningfully, "is just what their marriage counselors said."

Orchid raised her eyes to the ceiling. "I know."

"Still no word from your agency?"

"No." Orchid suppressed a flash of guilt. She had not yet informed her parents that Affinity Associates had lost her file. She paused beside her desk, picked up a pen, and dutifully jotted herself a note.

Call Affinity Associates. Find out what happened to my file.

"I must say, your Mr. Stonebraker was very interesting."

"Yes, he is that." Interesting. Orchid winced. Rafe was a lot more than interesting.

She picked up the note she had just written to herself, crumpled it in her fist, and tossed it into the waste can.

"Mom, I know this is going to sound like a dumb question, but do you, by any chance, happen to know what kind of car Preston drives?"

"I'm not sure what type it is. I don't pay much attention to cars. But as I recall, it's white."

White. Like a white Phase 1000? Orchid wondered. She sat down heavily in her chair. "Does Dad know?"

"I don't know. Why?"

"Oh, nothing. I just thought I saw Preston pass us on the highway on the way back to the city. I wondered if he had left Northville because of what happened between him and Rafe."

"I don't know if he's still here or not. I'll ask your father when I see him later today. About Mr. Stonebraker"

"I'm sorry, Mom. I've really got to run. Love you. 'Bye."

Orchid hung up the phone before her mother could continue the gentle cross-examination.

She sprawled in her chair and thought about the fact that Preston Luce's car was very likely white. White was an extremely common color in cars, especially in Northville, she reminded herself. It was so very meta-zen-syn.

The low, resonant bong of her front doorbell roused her from her state of intense brooding. On the off chance that it would be Rafe with news of his investigation into the white car and maybe some take-out pasta, she got to her feet.

When she reached the door she automatically started to open it. But the events of the previous few days had taken their toll. She paused long enough to peer through the peephole. She stifled a small groan when she saw Briana Culverthorpe standing in the hallway.

Taking a deep breath, she pasted what she hoped was a pleasant smile on her face and opened the door. "Hello, Mrs. Culverthorpe. What brings you here?"

"I should have telephoned first." Briana did not smile. "But I happened to be driving past your apartment and I thought I'd take a chance on your being home."

"Why?"

"I'd like to speak with you." Briana glanced past Orchid into the tiny entrance hall of the small apartment. "May I come in?"

"Yes, of course." Orchid stepped back.

Briana was the same patrician woman Orchid had met briefly on the night of Alfred G. Stonebraker's birthday. Her pale hair framed her attractive face in two elegantly curved wings. The beautifully tailored suit she wore was a pale, pastel blue.

The only difference was that today there was an air of tension about her that did not suit the look of wealthy sophistication.

Orchid watched, amused as Briana glanced around the small living room with ill-concealed curiosity. She took in the sight of the genuine yellow velvet covered Later Expansion period sofa and the assorted reproduction pieces in the same style. An air of faint disdain lit the cool blue eyes.

"We probably don't use the same interior designer," Orchid said.

"No," Briana sat down gingerly on the edge of the flamboyantly curved, high-backed sofa. She did not allow herself to sink into its depths. "I doubt that we do."

"Coff-tea?"

"No, thank you. I won't be staying long. I shall come straight to the point, Miss Adams. My husband made you an offer a few days ago. I wish to know if you intend to accept it."

Orchid saw the anxiety in Briana's eyes. She found herself wanting to let the other woman down gently. But she could not think of any graceful way to refuse a bribe.

"No. I can't accept it."

"I see." Fine lines appeared at the corners of Briana's beautifully made-up mouth. "Perhaps Selby did not make the offer high enough."

"Actually, he left it pretty open-ended. Told me I could just about name my own price. But there is no price, Mrs. Culverthorpe."

Briana gave her a level look. "I trust you do realize that when this is all over, he won't marry you."

"Who? Stonebraker?"

"He registered at a marriage agency a few weeks ago because he needed a creditable fiancee to parade in front of his grandfather and the Stonebraker board of directors. Given his, shall we say, unusual nature, there couldn't have been a lot of choice when it came to a match. I suspect he grabbed the first one he was offered."

"Me?"

"Yes. I also suspect that, even if it's a genuine match, it's a very low-probability one. Take some advice, Miss Adams. If you're going along with it because you think it's worth the risk in order to marry into Stonebraker Shipping, don't be fooled."

"Fooled?"

"Don't make the mistake of believing that Rafe will actually go through with the marriage just because it's an agency-arranged match."

"I already got this lecture from your husband."

"My husband was right. Rafe is not interested in marriage at this point." Briana stood up abruptly and walked to the window. "All he cares about is seizing control of Stonebraker. He will do anything to achieve his goal. It's his nature. But when he has what he wants, he will no longer need you."

"Mrs. Culverthorpe"

"Eventually, of course, he will marry. But when he does choose a wife, he will do it the same way he does everything else, with an eye toward how well she suits his purposes."

"You don't think I'll suit his purposes?"

"No, I do not. Even if the marriage agency that put the two of you together is convinced that you were a reasonably good match in syn-psych terms, I doubt that they understand the rest of it."

"What do you mean?"

"The agency probably didn't take into account the fact that people who come from a certain social strata frequently marry for reasons other than compatibility and mutual affection. They choose spouses for more pragmatic reasons."

"Was your marriage based on those kinds of reasons?"

Briana shot her a glare that could have frozen lava. "As it happens, mine was an agency match. But the counselors were careful to ensure that social factors were considered along with the syn-psych aspects of the match."

"I see."

Briana turned back to the view of the street. "I will be blunt. I understand the people in the Stonebraker world infinitely better than you ever will. I can promise you that you will never fit into that world."

"I'm pretty adaptable."

Briana's spine stiffened. She did not turn around. "Let's be honest here. A woman like you is not likely to fit into the environment in which Rafe Stonebraker will move if he succeeds in getting control of Stonebraker Shipping."

Orchid felt a ripple of tension go through her. "What do you know about my background?"

"My husband did some checking," Briana said. "You were raised in Northville. I think that says it all."

"Contrary to popular opinion, Northville has a great deal more in common with the real world than most people seem to believe."

"I'm not disputing the importance of the North Institute or the people who staff it. But everyone knows it's an ivory tower filled with meta-zen-syn types. Anyone who grew up there would have little to offer Rafe Stonebraker."

"What do you think Rafe will look for when he chooses a wife?"

Briana shrugged. "Someone who can bring him good business and social connections. A woman who will know how to entertain his friends and associates. A wife who moves in the right circles."

"I was never very big on going around in circles."

"Damn you." Briana swung around. "Don't you understand? He's using you."

"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Culverthorpe. I've known some real users, and Rafe is not one of them. I will admit he's single-minded and goal oriented, but he's not a user."

Briana's eyes widened. "You think this is some kind of game, don't you? Are you doing this because it amuses you?"

"No."

"Good. Because I assure you, this is no game. There is a great deal at stake here."

"I'm well aware of that, Mrs. Culverthorpe."

Briana's eyes narrowed. "I was afraid of this."

"Afraid of what?"

"You're sexually attracted to him, aren't you?"

Orchid said nothing.

"You're having an affair with him. That's obvious. Perhaps you've even convinced yourself that he's in love with you."

Orchid did not respond.

Briana smiled grimly. "I told Selby that if you had been so foolish as to fall in love with Rafe, the bribe would not work. But he was certain you weren't that stupid. He seems to think that, because you're a full-spectrum prism, you're too smart to miscalculate the risks of getting involved with a strat-talent."

"My relationship to Rafe Stonebraker is a very personal matter, Mrs. Culverthorpe. I'm sure you can understand that I don't wish to discuss it."

"You do know that he's a strat-talent, don't you?" Briana frowned. "He didn't find a way to conceal that from you by any chance?"

"I know he's a strat-talent."

"Yes, of course. The matchmaking agency would have told you that much. They would have been grossly negligent in their responsibilities if they'd kept the fact from you."

"Uh huh."

"Having been raised in Northville, you may not be fully aware of all the, shall we say, implications."

"I think I've got a pretty good handle on the subject."

Briana did not appear to hear her. "They call them hunters, you know. Throwbacks to an earlier evolutionary time. They're quite rare in the population."

"I'm aware of the misconceptions that surround them."

"Their talent is considered primitive. Potentially dangerous. Most of them become criminals."

"Not most of them, Mrs. Culverthorpe. Only some. Just as some psychometric-talents and some hypno-talents and," Orchid paused to give her words added weight, "some tech-talents do."

Briana whirled around. "Damn you, my husband is not a criminal."

"He's trying to destroy a family business that supports not only the members of his own clan, but a couple of thousand employees. Some people might see that as a criminal enterprise."

Briana's face tightened. "That's not true."

"Forgive me, Mrs. Culverthorpe, but I have to trust someone's version of events. I've decided to trust Rafe's."

"Then you're a fool."

"There is no doubt in my mind that Rafe is going to take control of Stonebraker because he genuinely believes that the firm is in danger of being destroyed by your husband."

Briana gave her an incredulous look. "Why would my husband destroy Stonebraker?"

"I gather the motive is revenge. Something to do with what happened to his father."

"Rafe fed you that old tale?" Briana gave a short, harsh, crack of laughter. "It's utter nonsense. An old family legend that has circulated for years. No one, least of all my husband, actually believes that Alfred G. murdered Perry Culverthorpe."

"Are you certain of that?"

"Of course, I'm certain." Briana turned very quickly back to the window. "Selby would never destroy Stonebraker. He's devoted to the family firm. And to our children. He would never do anything that would hurt their future."

Orchid watched Briana open and close her hand around the strap of her purse. "I have a hunch that your husband has planned the future of his own, immediate family very carefully, Mrs. Culverthorpe. When he tried to buy me off the other day, he made it clear that he expects to be very, very rich soon."

"Naturally, after he takes control of Stonebraker"

"Stop it," Orchid said. "You're his wife. You know what he intends to do, Mrs. Culverthorpe. Who are you trying to fool? Me or yourself?"

Briana stared fixedly out the window. She looked so stiff and brittle that Orchid feared she might shatter.

"He won't destroy Stonebraker," she whispered. "He won't do it. He can't. When he gets control he'll realize"

"I don't know what happened in the past." Orchid got to her feet. "As far as I can tell only two people know the truth, Rafe's grandfather and your husband's father.

One is dead and I suspect that the other will go to his grave sticking by his version of events."

"Just a family legend," Briana whispered.

"Which your husband believes."

"No."

"Yes." Orchid hesitated. "Briana, Selby was right about one thing. I'm a trained, full-spectrum prism. I've had a lot of experience with various kinds of talent. I know something about the para-profiles of people like your husband."

"I don't need your so-called expert opinion on Selby's para-profile."

"Too bad. You've given me a lot of unasked for advice this afternoon. I'm going to dispense a little of my own."

"I don't want to hear it."

"Tough. Pay attention here. Your husband is a tech-talent. That means he's good at engineering things, including revenge. But it also means he can be obsessive about his goals. He's been plotting revenge for so long, he's forgotten there's any other purpose in life. We need to find a way to remind him."

"We?"

"Well, you, for the most part," Orchid admitted. "After all, you're the one who's married to him. Maybe you should try to get him to a syn-psych therapist."

"Are you serious?"

"Look, we've got good material to work with here." Orchid clasped her hands behind her back and began to pace. "You just told me that you and Selby were agency matched. That means that fundamentally the two of you form a good team."

"My marriage is none of your affair," Briana said fiercely.

"Selby's gone a little off course because of his fixation with revenge. But if you can break through that fixation, you've got a chance to change everything."

"How dare you try to interfere in my life?"

Orchid met her eyes. "You have the nerve to ask me that after what you just did?"

"I've done nothing to you."

Quite suddenly, Orchid had had enough. "Who do you think you are? You treat me as if I were a fool. First, you and Selby try to buy me off. Then you give me lectures on how I shouldn't expect Rafe to marry me. You tell me I couldn't possibly become a good little Stonebraker because I don't have the right social connections."

"I'm only trying to warn you that you're involved in a situation you can't possibly comprehend."

"You don't think I comprehend what is going on here?" Orchid stopped pacing. She drew herself up and looked straight at Briana. "I was raised in the tenets of meta-zen-syn. Perhaps you are not fully aware of just what that means."

For the first time Briana looked uncertain. "I only meant"

"I was trained from the cradle to analyze the synergistic forces at work in any situation. I comprehend things in ways that you can only guess, Briana. The ability to comprehend on the abstract level was bred into my very bones."

"I realize you had a very good education," Briana said weakly. "Especially in philosophy."

"A good education? When I graduated from high school I had an awareness of the confluence between the physical and the metaphysical planes that exceeded that of the average graduate student in synergistic theory."

"I only meant" Briana broke off. She fell back when Orchid took a step toward her.

"When I reached the university level, my ability to comprehend the philosophical principles of synergism was superior to that of the average professor of synergistic theory. Do not presume to tell me that I am not capable of comprehending something as simple as the situation between Rafe and Selby."

"You call it simple?"

"We're talking about two men who have distrusted each other since childhood because one of them is hell bent on revenge and the other one knows it. Nothing could be more simple."

Briana took another step back. She began to look desperate. "It's not that straightforward."

"Of course it is. The most powerful truths are always simple and straightforward. Have you forgotten the basic synergy lessons you learned in kindergarten?"

"This isn't about synergy."

"Oh, but it is, Briana. So far as Stonebraker Shipping is concerned, it can take two possible forms. Survival or destruction. You have power in this situation. Use it to help save the company and your husband."

Briana held up a hand as if to ward off an ill omen. "My God. Are you saying that Rafe will . . . will try to physically hurt Selby?"

"No. I'm saying that Selby will hurt himself and his family if he continues on his present course. Revenge never brings balance or harmony of a positive kind. It begets a downward spiral that ultimately results in destruction. Is that what you want for your family, Briana?"

"I won't listen to this. I don't have to listen to this."

Eyes bright with anger and anguish, Briana took a series of jerky steps toward the door. When she reached it she yanked it open.

"Briana."

At the sound of Orchid's voice, Briana halted on the threshold. She half-turned with the air of a woman bracing herself for a blow. "I've heard enough."

"Think about the future of your family, Briana. Think about what you can do to alter the synergistic forces so that the struggle for balance is weighted toward survival, not destruction. You love your husband. Use that love to try to make him see where he is headed. Make him understand that he will not find what he seeks if he is successful in toppling Stonebraker."

Briana stared at Orchid. "You're wrong. I don't have the power that you seem to think I do."

"We all have power, Briana. But not all of us are smart enough to use it. I'm betting that you are."

Briana stepped out into the hall and slammed the door behind her.

Orchid stood very still for a few minutes. Then she did some deep breathing to help shake off the effects of the tension and energy that flowed through her.

She walked to the window and looked out and down. She saw that Briana had practically flown down the single flight of stairs. The other woman had already reached the sidewalk and was running awkwardly toward a car that was parked at the curb.

A white car.

Orchid's stomach went cold. She peered more closely at the vehicle.

It was a Phase 1000.

"Dear God."

She whirled and ran to the phone. Punched out Rafe's private number and waited without breathing for him to pick it up. Her heart sank when she heard the familiar click of the answering machine.

"You have reached seven zero seven nine zero nine four. I'm either on the other line or away from the phone. Please leave a message after the beep..."

"Rafe, it's me, Orchid." She carried the phone back to the window. "I just had a visit from Briana Culverthorpe. Rafe, listen to this. She drives a Phase One-thousand."

Outside on the street, Briana sat behind the wheel of her car. She made no move to drive off.

"She doesn't like you very much, Rafe. And I think she would go to great lengths to protect her husband. If she thought that getting rid of you would solve everything she just might . . . Oh, hell. She's getting back out of the car. I think she's . . . Yes. She's coming back upstairs." Orchid carried the phone back to the desk. "Got to go. I'll call you again as soon as she leaves."

The doorbell bonged. Orchid was so startled she dropped the phone. Briana must have run back up the stairs.

"Coming." She fumbled the phone back into its cradle and crossed the room.

She took a deep breath, composed herself, turned the knob, and opened the door. "Back so soon, Briana?"

"I've been thinking about what you said a few minutes ago." Briana clutched her purse very tightly. Her eyes held barely controlled desperation. "I want to talk to you some more."

Orchid felt the tension go out of her. It was going to be all right. Briana had made her decision.

Orchid smiled, stepped back, and held the door wide. "Come in. I'll make coff-tea."

Briana walked back into the apartment. Turned. Looked past Orchid and out into the hall.

And opened her mouth to scream.

Orchid heard the rush of footsteps behind her. Belatedly she spun around but there was no chance to run.

There were two of them, both dressed in the nondescript green work uniforms of the gardeners who serviced the apartment complex's grounds, and they were headed straight for Orchid's front door.

One of them pointed a small canister in her face. He pressed the button. Orchid was vaguely aware of the second man aiming a canister at a stunned Briana. She heard a hiss. A cold mist enveloped her.

The apartment began to whirl around her.

She leaned into the uniformed man in front of her, groping for the front of his shirt. She felt him take a sideways step to avoid her. She kicked his ankle out from underneath him.

"He said you might be difficult." The man pressed the button on the canister a second time.

More of the icy mist struck her in the face. A great darkness began to descend on her. She held her breath, but that did not stop the stuff from penetrating the membranes of her eyes, nose, and lips.

The world receded swiftly in a black haze. Her legs dissolved beneath her. Voices came to her out of the gathering shadows.

"What about the other one?"

"She saw us. Better bring her along. He can decide what he wants to do with her."

Orchid felt the texture of heavy twill beneath her fingertips. The fabric of a gardener's uniform. Someone was holding her while she sank into oblivion.

She fought the effects of the spray with meta-zen-syn concentration techniques while she reached out wildly. She searched for something, anything to leave behind for Rafe to find.

"She's not going under very fast. Still struggling."

Orchid's hand brushed against a pocket. The meta-zen-syn mental exercises could not keep unconsciousness at bay for more than a few more seconds. She had to find something, anything that would constitute a clue for Rafe.

There was an object inside the man's pocket. A pen? A small flashlight?

She got two fingers into the pocket. The man who held her captive did not seem to notice. She seized an object. Held on tight.

"Bat snake shit. What's it going to take to put her out?"

"The doctor said she was a loony, remember? You know how it is with the crazy ones. Takes more than it does for normal people. Give her another shot of the stuff."

More mist in the face.

And then she was being bundled through the doorway.

As she was dragged across the threshold, she vaguely remembered to let go of the small object she had taken from her attacker's pocket. She heard it roll lightly on the floor.

She drew a gasping breath.

The darkness closed in on her.

She hoped she would not dream.


Chapter 17 | Orchid | Chapter 19



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