home   |   -   |   A-Z   |  

Chapter 1

One month later . . .

"Stolen?" Stunned, Orchid Adams managed to keep her jaw from dropping in open-mouthed amazement, but it was not easy. She was still reeling. One thing she had to admit about focusing for Rafe Stonebraker, the jobs were never dull.

She turned on her heel in a slow circle and stared at the volumes housed in the rows of glass cabinets that lined the steel walls of the state-of-the-art, climate-controlled, underground gallery.

"You're kidding." She took a deep breath. "All of these old books are stolen?"

"Every last volume." Elvira Turlock smiled proudly. Light gleamed on her elegant silver chignon. "Including the one that brings you and Mr. Stonebraker here this afternoon."

"Good grief," Orchid whispered, awed in spite of herself. This was definitely Stonebraker's most bizarre case yet.

Elvira looked pleased by her reaction. "My new book of Morland poetry is quite spectacular, don't you think?"

Orchid studied the slim, leather-bound volume inside the glass case. She would not have it in her library, she thought, but she had been raised to be polite.

"Interesting," she said cautiously.

"Oh, dear." Elvira winced. "We all know what 'interesting' means, don't we?"

Rafe stirred in the shadows. "It's called Three."

Orchid did not exactly jump in surprise at the sound of his low, dark voice, but she did feel the hair lift on the nape of her neck.

She reminded herself that she had known he was there. He was, after all, the one who had brought her here today. But her new client was a strat-talent. He had an extremely annoying knack of sinking deep into the shadows.

She had almost refused to accept the first assignment earlier in the week. Only the combination of her boss's abject pleading and dire threats had finally convinced her to work with Rafe.

"I don't want to work with a strat-talent," Orchid had said when Clementine Malone had told her about the job. "They give me the creeps."

"Come on, how many have you worked with?"

"One." Orchid shuddered at the memory. "That was enough."

"Look, you know I'm trying to build an exclusive image for Psynergy, Inc. Stonebraker's an exotic. We want to attract exotic talents."

"There are other kinds of exotics."

"Yeah," Clementine said, "but not like strat-talents. You know how rare they are."

"Not rare enough as far as I'm concerned."

"Not to put too fine a point on this," Clementine said, "but you're not exactly one-hundred-percent normal yourself."

Orchid winced but she refused to take the bait. "Give Stonebraker to one of the other full-spectrum prisms on the staff."

"They've all got assignments. Or a home life at night." Clementine grinned triumphantly. "Which you, being single, don't yet have. Besides, you know you always request evening assignments."

"Only because I need my days for my writing."

"Stonebraker apparently prefers to work at night."

"Right. Probably under full moons."

Some people viewed strat-talents the way they did wild jag-pards in zoos. Fascinating, but dangerously undomesticated. In a world where virtually everyone had some degree of paranormal talent and where such abilities were taken for granted as a naturally evolving aspect of the human species, para-sensitive strategic-awareness talent was considered very retrograde, evolutionarily speaking.

After meeting Rafe Stonebraker, Orchid was prepared to dismiss the throwback theories. Whatever else he might be, he was neither primitive nor unsophisticated, although she would not go so far as to call him domesticated.

He was well educated, well read, highly opinionated, and chillingly intolerant of those who failed to think as clearly and cogently as he did. Intelligence and awareness burned in him with the cold, powerful energy of jelly-ice.

But during the past week she had rediscovered why strat-talents were sometimes called hunters. They did have some distinctly unnerving habits. Hanging out with one was a bit like keeping company with a chameleon-cat.

She had discovered that if you took your eye off Rafe for even a moment it was easy to lose sight of him. He did not exactly disappear, but he had a natural affinity for whatever camouflage happened to be convenient. If he wished, he could fade right into the woodwork. His ability to become uncannily still made it possible to overlook him when he stood in any kind of shadow. Until he moved a second ago, he had been blending quite nicely into the dark space created by two narrowly focused lights positioned above two of the glass cases.

"Percy Morland was one of the foremost stylists of sixth generation meta-zen-syn philosophical poetry," Rafe said.

His disapproval lapped at her like a dark sea in the windowless chamber.

"Yes, I know." With an effort of will, Orchid managed to keep her voice polite. Did he think she had never attended a basic lit class?

No doubt about it, as interesting as he wasand he was a far sight more fascinating than meta-zen-syn poetryRafe Stonebraker was starting to get on her nerves.

Orchid reminded herself that it never paid to offend the clients. Clementine would not be pleased if she was rude to this one in particular. Think Exclusive was Clementine's latest office slogan.

Orchid did not mind thinking exclusive, but she wondered if Clementine was aware of just how exotic her newest client really was. Rafe claimed to be a class-six strat-talent and he had the certification papers to prove it. But this was the third time she had worked with him in the past week and Orchid was willing to bet her next royalty check that he was far more powerful than his papers claimed.

When she focused for him she could literally feel the self-control he was forced to exert in order to hold his talent to a class-six level. She sensed the hunger in him to use the full range of his power. She knew that the powerful prism she projected for him whetted his appetite.

Three years ago she had known another strat-talent whose hunger had been just as powerful. Calvin Hyde's talent, however, had also been tainted with the dark hint of evil. But after the first very cautious focus session with Rafe, Orchid had known at once that he was no Calvin Hyde.

He could be irritating, arrogant, and maddening but there was no evil in his talent.

She could feel other things besides the hunger in him and that fact was making her increasingly uneasy. After all, everyone knew that the focus link was supposed to be completely neutral when it came to the personal side of things.

The indescribable rush of intimacy she experienced when she created a metaphysical prism for Rafe had to be a product of her own overactive imagination. There was no other logical explanation. But it was definitely not normal.

Thankfully, thus far Rafe appeared to be blithely unaware of the sensations she experienced during their focus sessions. As far as she could tell, he seemed completely unaffected. Nevertheless, even though she was not afraid of him, Orchid was beginning to think that it might not be a good idea to work with him again in the near future. Something about their link was definitely weird.

Suddenly Rafe moved closer to her, coming to stand directly behind her. He studied the book over her shoulder.

"Most experts believe that Percy Morland was a very high-class vision-talent who suffered from periodic bouts of unaligned synergy on the metaphysical plane," he said.

"I've heard that," Orchid murmured. She wondered if Rafe knew how irritating he was when he went into his lecture mode.

"He refused treatment," Elvira put in helpfully. "Apparently Morland was paranoid about the syn-psych labs. Seemed to think the experts might destroy his artistic visions if he allowed them to try to realign his metaphysical energy waves."

"Can't blame him for steering clear of the labs." Orchid reflected briefly on her own extremely unpleasant experiences in a synergistic psychology research lab three years earlier. Lately the old nightmares had returned in full force. She'd had two this week. "If I could make a fortune writing poetry like that, I wouldn't want anyone messing with my para-energy waves, either."

Elvira chuckled. "An excellent point, my dear. I take it you are not a great admirer of the meta-zen-syn philosophical poetry?"

"To be honest, no," Orchid admitted.

Rafe did not bother to conceal his exasperation. "Why not?"

She wondered, not for the first time, why her opinion mattered to him. "I consider it at best to be a dead-end in literature. More likely it was a huge joke foisted on the literary world."

"I see." Elvira raised her delicately arched silver brows. "How very intriguing to think that I risked so much just to steal a poetic joke."

"But I do admire the writers' financial sense," Orchid added. "Unlike most poets, they got rich. Their works still grace the shelves of every library in the tri-city-states and there was a time when they were the hottest thing in the bookstores. Everyone who was anyone read the stuff."

"I have three originals in my own collection," Rafe said in a dangerously neutral voice. "A Morland, a Jenkins, and a Singh."

Orchid told herself that she should not allow him to goad her. But the man had an attitude and it made her reckless. She'd always had this problem, she thought. She could already hear a distinct sucking sound but she could not resist putting her foot a little deeper into the jelly-quicksand.

"Got to hand it to those meta-zen-syn philosophical poets," she said cheerfully. "Morland and his pals were shrewd businesspeople, even if their poetry does sound like something a fifth grader might write."

There was a short, highly charged silence.

"I suppose it would be too much to expect you to appreciate the clear, strong visual strength of meta-zen-syn poetry," Rafe said in suspiciously civil tones.

The polished edge of his voice was so sharp Orchid was pretty sure it could have severed bone. She gave him her brightest smile.

"Yeah," she said. "A little too much to expect."

His eyes narrowed.

"You may as well give it up, Rafe, dear." An amused twinkle lit Elvira's merry blue eyes. "I don't think that you will be able to intimidate Miss Adams into pretending that she admires philosophical poetry."

"Obviously," Rafe said dryly.

She did not look at him but Orchid knew that, unlike Elvira, Rafe was not twinkling.

Orchid smiled blandly. Synergy, confluence, harmony. Even chaos seeks balance'." She quoted smoothly.

Elvira's eyes widened in appreciation.

"Why, that's those lovely, dear. Which meta-zen-syn poet wrote lines?"

"I did. Mrs. Kramer's fifth-grade class."

Elvira laughed. "Point taken."

Rafe did not laugh. She could feel the brooding stillness in him as surely as she could sense his aura of paranormal power. She was fairly certain that if she turned around to look at him she would risk a nasty cut from the knife-sharp edge of annoyance in his icy gray eyes.

Why did he care whether or not she admired the stolen volume of Morland poetry? she wondered. The question was just one more on the long list that she had been compiling on Rafe Stonebraker all week.

She did not know what to make of him. At times she had the disturbing impression that he was studying her.

Or perhaps testing her would be more accurate, she thought. Either way, the weird sensation was making her edgy.

Unfortunately, contrary to what she had predicted to Clementine, she was enjoying her assignments with Rafe. They had proved very different and far more interesting than her usual focus projects. She was beginning to think that she had a flair for the private investigation business.

In the course of the first two assignments she had assisted Rafe in the recovery of a lost third generation painting and helped him trace a highly prized racing pony-hound that a groom had taken from its stable.

It had become clear that Stonebraker Investigations handled only the most confidential of inquiries. Rafe was called by clients who did not want publicity or the attention of the police.

This evening's assignment was the most unique yet. Orchid was still not sure why Rafe had even bothered to hire her. She was almost positive that he had known who had stolen his client's stolen volume even before he had phoned Psynergy, Inc., and asked for her.

To make matters even more curious, Elvira Turlock was not the least bit concerned about the fact that she had been caught redhanded with an extremely valuable stolen book. On the contrary, she obviously took great pride in displaying the volume to Orchid and Rafe.

Orchid got the impression that Elvira and Rafe were old acquaintances who had long ago established a quasi-professional relationship.

Elvira glanced at Rafe. "I suppose you feel you must return my Morland to George."

"He did hire me to find it." Rafe sounded mildly apologetic.

"Yes, of course," Elvira said.

Orchid cleared her throat discreetly. "George?"

"George Yeager." Elvira's smile was warm and tinged with an odd wistfulness. "An old friend of mine."

Orchid blinked. "You stole this book from a good friend?"

Elvira chuckled. "Why not? Six months ago he snatched my Kingsley. I had to even the score."

"I don't get it." Orchid glanced from Elvira to Rafe. "Is this some sort of game?"

Rafe shrugged but said nothing. There was almost no expression on his austere, bluntly carved features.

"George and I see it as more of a challenge," Elvira explained lightly. "Rather like a sailing regatta or a golf-tennis tournament. The goal, of course, is to make it appear that the theft was carried out by someone else."

"A challenge," Orchid repeated. A light went on somewhere in her brain. "I think I get it."

Elvira gave her a droll smile. "George and I are both widowed. Perhaps it would help if I explained that the two of us are more than merely good friends. Our little adventures serve to keep a certain zest in our relationship."

Elvira and the unknown George were lovers. Orchid grinned. "Why, Mrs. Turlock, that is incredibly romantic."

"Five hells." Rafe sounded thoroughly disgusted. "It's not romantic. It's a complete waste of everyone's time."

Orchid glowered at him. "Why are you complaining? You get paid to track down the thief, even though you obviously know who the culprit is before you even start. Sounds like easy money to me."

Rafe's jaw tightened. "It's not always quite that easy. George and Elvira go out of their way each time to fool me, too."

"Indeed we do," Elvira said. "Part of the game." She peered at Rafe. "Tell me, were you thrown off by any of the clues that I left behind this time?"

"The use of a miniature twin-blade saw to take apart the locked case gave me some pause."

"I hoped it would," Elvira sounded smugly satisfied. "It's Edison's trademark, not my own."

"Okay, I get the picture," Orchid said. "You and Mr. Yeager apparently have a longstanding competition going here, Mrs. Turlock. But what about the rest of these old books? You said that they were all stolen. Did you take them from Mr. Yeager's private collection, too?"

"Heavens, no, dear." Elvira smiled. "The rest of these were permanent acquisitions."

"Meaning she stole them from other private collections," Rafe muttered.

"I see. I think." Orchid eyed Elvira cautiously. "I take it that you are not unduly concerned about getting arrested, Mrs. Turlock?"

Elvira beamed. "Not bloody likely."

"May I ask why not?" Orchid glanced at Rafe. "I understand that Mr. Stonebraker contracted only to find Mr. Yeager's book, not to turn you over to the cops. He made that clear before we came here tonight. But what about the next private investigator or police detective who comes looking for a missing book?"

Elvira looked mildly astonished. "But, my dear, the only one I have to worry about is Stonebraker. No other private investigator or detective has ever discovered my little hobby of collecting old books. I'm a fine, upstanding member of the community. Who would suspect me? Except for Rafe, of course?"

She had a point. Orchid, herself, could hardly believe that the wealthy, socially prominent Elvira Turlock, who sat on the boards of most of the major philanthropic societies in New Seattle and whose brilliant parties were legendary, was a book thief.

"But sooner or later" Orchid persisted.

"As she said, not likely." Rafe gave Elvira a knowing look. "Mrs. Turlock is careful to limit her acquisitions. She only steals from a highly select group of private collectors."

Orchid looked from Rafe to Elvira. "I don't understand."

"I acquire my books from collectors who are not in a position to go to the police." Elvira waved a graceful, heavily ringed hand at the volumes in the glass cases. "Every one of the volumes that you see here had been previously stolen from someone else before I took it."

Orchid raised her brows. "I get it. You steal from other thieves who can't go to the cops because they would have to admit they had stolen the books first."

"Precisely." Elvira nodded approvingly. "It limits my risk. However, I have many of the same security problems as the other collectors who dabble in stolen books and art."

"In other words," Rafe said, "she has to worry about thieves too. Mrs. Turlock is in no position to go to the police, either."

Orchid nodded. "Hence the state-of-the-art security system in this chamber?"

"Indeed." Elvira smiled at Rafe. "I've just had it updated again. You might want to have a look at some of the new features. Quite clever, if I do say so myself."

A gleam of what could only be professional interest appeared in Rafe's gaze. "Thanks. I'd like that."

"The least I can do. But first you both must join me for coff-tea and dessert before you leave. After you phoned this evening, I had my chef prepare a very nice pear-berry tart. You're quite fond of pear-berries, as I recall."

"My favorite," Rafe said. "Very thoughtful of you, Elvira."

Orchid could hardly believe her ears. Now they were discussing fruit tarts just as though they were not all standing in the midst of several million dollars worth of stolen books.

"Excuse me," she said crisply, "but if you're finished with me, Mr. Stonebraker, I really should be on my way."

Rafe looked at her with unwavering eyes. "But I'm not finished with you, Miss Adams."

A chill of awareness shot through her. It was suddenly very difficult to look away from that intent, icy stare. From out of nowhere, she was struck with an almost overwhelming urge to run but she did not think she could move if her life depended on it.

This was how a moose-deer that has just been singled out of the herd by a predator feels, she thought suddenly.

What was wrong with her? She was mildly claustrophobic but the underground gallery had not bothered her until now.

A tingling sensation wafted across the metaphysical plane, ruffling all her senses, psychic and otherwise.

Belatedly she recognized the faint shimmer of paranormal energy being actively projected. Talent seeking a prism.

An instant later, it vanished. But not before Orchid recognized Rafe's unique brand of psychic power. She did not know if he had meant to intimidate her with a flash of raw strat-talent or if the fleeting contact had been accidental. She strongly suspected the former.

Primal fear metamorphosed into outrage. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Sorry." Rafe turned his attention to the nearest bookcase. "It was an accident."

Elvira glanced quizzically from one to the other. "Something wrong?"

"Not at all." Orchid managed to summon what she hoped was a cool, professional smile. "Mr. Stonebraker let a bit of talent slip on the psychic plane. I thought perhaps he wanted to focus, but apparently he just lost control for a moment."

She glanced at Rafe out of the corner of her eye. Touche, she thought when she saw his stoic expression. She could have sworn that he blushed. She knew she had embarrassed him.

Any man endowed with Rafe's monumental degree of arrogant self-mastery would naturally be chagrined by the condescending assumption that he did not have complete control of his psychic talent. But he could hardly argue the point. If he denied it, he would be tacitly admitting that the flash of strat-talent had been deliberate. And that would mean that he had meant to intimidate her.

"I see." Elvira dismissed the event with a charming smile and turned to walk off down the gallery hall. "As long as you're here, why don't I show the two of you the rest of my collection? For obvious reasons, I rarely have the pleasure of allowing others to view it."

Orchid avoided Rafe's gaze. Perhaps the brief pulse of power had been an accident, she thought. Or perhaps she was overreacting. She was tired, she reminded herself. Anxiety dreams, punctuated by the two full-blown nightmares, had disrupted her sleep for the past several days. And then, this morning, Morgan Lambert had phoned her with the news of Theo Willis's death.

It had not been a good week.

"I'm especially proud of my Fay histories of the second generation." Elvira paused to indicate a row of leather-clad spines. "Aren't they lovely?"

Orchid smiled. "I like those. Read them in high school."

Elvira gave her a knowing look. "I'm not surprised they appealed to you, dear. Rafe, however, is of the opinion that Fay romanticized the second generation colonists. Isn't that right, Rafe?"

"I don't care for the romantic style," Rafe said.

"Figures," Orchid grinned. "I'll bet you've never read any of my books, have you?"

His brows drew together in a disapproving frown. "No."

"Don't bother. You wouldn't like them. Much too romantic."

"Personally, I love your books, Miss Adams," Elvira said. "Indeed, I am collecting them. Legally, of course. I was so excited when Rafe told me you would be coming with him today. I would be delighted if you would autograph a book before you leave."

"I'd be honored," Orchid said.

"Wonderful. Now, then, let me show you my little group of Espinosa mysteries." Elvira turned a corner and started down another stainless steel corridor. "Oh, by the way, Rafe, remind me to put in an order for another thousand shares of Synergy Fund stock before you go."

Orchid glanced at him. "Synergy Fund?"

"My day job," he muttered. "I'm the president and chief financial advisor."

Strat-talents were supposed to be good businesspeople, she reminded herself. "I see."

Who would have guessed, she thought. Stranger and stranger.

She was aware of Rafe pacing along beside her. If one discounted the subtle aura of power he radiated, there was nothing extraordinary about him. He was of medium height and he appeared to be in excellent physical shape. He looked lean and sleekly muscled in his dark sweater and trousers. His near-black hair was cut a little too short for current fashion.

It was, perhaps, unfortunate, given the nature of his particular psychic talent, that he had been endowed with the blunt, hard features and the intense eyes of a predator, she thought.

"Do take a look at my wonderful new Inchman, for me, Rafe." Elvira motioned toward a small volume. "I love it, but I have a nasty suspicion that it may be a forgery. I suppose there would be some ironic justice in that. Nevertheless, I would like to get a second opinion and I can hardly ask a professional"

She broke off abruptly, interrupted by a high-pitched. electronic wail that oscillated suddenly through the steel gallery. The sound was not especially loud but it struck

Orchid's nerves with an eerie intensity. She was abruptly dizzy.

An expression of acute dismay crossed Elvira's face. "Oh, dear."

Rafe winced as if in severe pain. He put his hands over his ears. "Five hells. The new security system, I assume?"

"I'm afraid so." Elvira closed her eyes and put her hand to her forehead. "The installer said there might be a few false alarms in the beginning. I'm afraid we have a problem."

"Do something." Orchid felt as if she were standing on the bow of a ship that was being tossed about by violent waves. She steadied herself with one hand against the wall. "Turn it off."

"That's the problem." Elvira swayed on her feet and gave Orchid a deeply apologetic look. "I can't. Not from in here. The lights will go next, unfortunately."

Rafe took his hands away from his ears and moved swiftly toward the door at the far end of the gallery. She caught a glimpse of his grim face and knew that he was as uncomfortable as everyone else.

Perhaps he was actually in more distress she thought, not without a pang of genuine sympathy. He was a strat-talent, after all. His kind were believed to have more acute physical senses than other people, even when they were not employing their psychic energy. She could only imagine what the strange, disorienting wail of the siren was doing to his ears and his equilibrium.

"Why doesn't one of your household staff stop it?" Rafe called out to Elvira as he went toward the door.

"I gave them the night off when I heard you would be dropping by for a visit." Elvira sounded weak. "There's no one here but us."

The lights over the bookcases winked out with startling abruptness, plunging the steel-lined room into stygian darkness.

"Just what we needed to make the evening perfect."

"What is it about that siren?" Orchid shook her head, trying to clear it. "For some reason it makes me feel as if I'm about to pass out."

"It's designed to make you do just that. The sound waves it generates interfere with the natural synergy of ear-brain patterns to create a disorienting sensation." Elvira's voice was whisper-thin now. "In fact, I believe I'm about to faint, myself."

"Elvira." Rafe's voice sharpened. "The door's locked from the outside. We're trapped in this damn gallery of yours."

"The crypto-talent who installed the system designed it so that any thief who found his way inside would be locked in here and rendered unconscious."

"Good grief, we're caught in a fancy bug trap for burglars." Orchid massaged her forehead. At that moment unconsciousness held a distinct appeal. Anything was better than the feeling that she was going to be violently ill. "I don't do well in dark, enclosed spaces."

"Don't freak out on me," Rafe ordered. His voice sounded closer now. "I've got enough problems on my hands locating the other exit."

In spite of her growing nausea, Orchid was offended. "I never freak out." A flicker of hope went through her as his words finally registered. "What other exit?"

"There has to be one. Elvira?"

"Yes, dear?" She sounded half asleep.

"Pay attention. I know how crypto-talents think and I know how you think."

"Yes, of course you do, dear. You're a strat-talent."

"You and whoever designed the system must have planned for this kind of disaster. Where's the other exit?"

"You're right, there is one. Somewhere. Can't seem to think. So sorry, dear. This is very awkward. Quite embarrassing, in fact."

With a soft sigh, she fell against Orchid, who staggered under the unexpected weight.

"Oomph. Rafe, I've got her. I think she's unconscious."

"I'll take her."

She did not hear him move but a second later he brushed against her arm. He took the weight of Elvira from her.

"I'll leave her here on the floor for now," Rafe said.

Orchid's head was spinning faster in the endless night. "You'd better not get too close to me. I'm feeling a little sick. My boss will never forgive me if I throw up on a client's shoes."

"I won't be real thrilled either." He moved again in the fathomless dark. "Get a grip, Orchid."

"Easy for you to say. I can't seem to grip anything. I think I'm going to faint."

"If you do, I'll demand my money back from Clementine Malone. Come on, we've got to find that exit."

"You're the big-time strat-talent. Got any ideas?"

"Yeah. I just need to think clearly for a minute." There was raw pain in his voice now. "Damn. That siren is really doing a number on my ears."

An idea occurred to her. "Link."

"I'm not sure that's a good idea. No telling how that siren will affect a focus link."

"What have we got to lose?" she demanded. "I vote we try it."

"Okay, okay. You're right. Not much to lose."

When the questing tendril of raw power unfurled out on the psychic plane, Orchid greeted it with a great deal more enthusiasm than usual. Rafe's psychic energy burned, strong and steady, in the metaphysical realm where there was no day or night, no light or darkness.

The instant she projected the glittering crystal prism that could focus his power, everything steadied. The dreadful spinning ceased.

Strat-talent energy, a lot of it, more raw power, in fact, than she had ever focused in her entire career, slammed into the prism she had crafted.

"Better. Much, much better." Rafe's voice was hoarse with relief. "Definitely a good idea."

"Thanks. All part of the package of exclusive services available from Psynergy, Inc." Orchid let out the breath she had been holding. "Don't forget to tell my boss about this. I may be able to use it to get a raise."

The nausea faded as her sense of physical and spatial disorientation receded. She was still blinded by dense darkness and the obnoxious sound waves continued to assault her nerve endings but she found that she could now keep the nastier effects of the security system at bay by concentrating on holding the focus.

She studied the off-the-chart level of power pouring through the glittering crystal prism she had projected on the psychic plane.

"Class six, I believe your certification papers said," she murmured very politely.

There was a short, tense pause.

"You don't appear to be having any trouble dealing with my talent," Rafe pointed out dryly. "That makes you something more than a full-spectrum. A lot more. In fact, now that I've had a chance to focus at this level with you, I can see that there's something different about the kind of prism you project. What is it?"

Orchid was suddenly grateful for the enveloping darkness. It made it impossible for Rafe to see her blush. At least, she amended, thinking of his para-heightened senses, she hoped it made it impossible for him to notice the heat she felt in her cheeks.

"I'm an ice-prism," she mumbled. Until tonight there had been no reason to demonstrate the full range of her abilities to Rafe.

"A what?"

"An ice-prism."

There was another short silence. "I've heard of those. Never met one."

"There aren't very many of us around."

"Is it true what they say about ice-prisms?" He sounded genuinely curious. "Can you really manipulate the prisms you project?"

"Mr. Stonebraker, do you have any immediate plans to get us out of here or are we going to hang around chatting all night?"

"Sure." An unexpected note of amusement laced his voice. "But you've got to admit that this is rather ironic. A couple of psychic vampires meeting in the dark. Just like something out of a novel. One of yours, perhaps?"

It was uncomfortably similar to a scene in her latest book, Dark Desires, but she had no intention of telling him that.

Out on the metaphysical plane, the raw chaos of energy pulsed through the prism, emerging in sharply controlled, brilliant bands of power. Orchid knew that, so long as she channeled the energy for him, Rafe could use it the way he used any of his other senses.

Strat-talent energy waves looked different from other kinds of paranormal power. The colors were deeper, stronger, less transparent. They vibrated on slightly different wavelengths, augmenting ancient hunting instincts and heightening senses that had long been lost to mankind. That was why the experts considered them more primitive in an evolutionary sense.

Rafe's psychic energy was fierce and powerful but it was clean, even at this level of intensity. It was not tainted with the muddy hues of evil and incipient madness that had shaded Calvin Hyde's talent.

She watched, enthralled as the energy surged across the metaphysical plane. It was exhilarating to focus at the highest ranges of her own power. This was what she had been born to do, she thought. It was akin to breaking into a run after walking all of her life.

She knew that she was not the only one savoring the experience. She could feel Rafe's exultant satisfaction. It occurred to her that he had probably seldom, if ever, had a chance to focus at this level for any extended period of time.

"Five hells." He sounded slightly dazed. "This is good. This is incredible."

She smiled to herself. The urge to show off overwhelmed common sense. She was an ice-prism, after all. One who rarely got to exercise the full range of her unique abilities.

You think this is good? she thought. Watch this.

She studied the nuances of Rafe's strat-talent, noting the rhythms of the waves, the subtle differences in hues, the texture of his surging power.

Using the exquisite control she wielded over her own psychic energy, she made minute adjustments in the focus. A gentle alteration here, a slight sharpening of power there . . .

The prism glittered as she went to work on its myriad crystal facets. When she was finished the metaphysical construct was so brilliantly clear that it seemed to glow with the light of an inner sun.

She heard Rafe groan. He drew in a deep, shuddering breath as he watched his powerful talent focused with preternatural clarity and precision. It was the kind of elemental sound he might make in the moment of sexual release, Orchid thought, fascinated. An answering rush of sensual heat flooded her stomach.

This was ridiculous. She took a couple of meta-zen-syn breaths to regain her self-control.

"It's as if you made that prism just for me," Rafe whispered.

"I did."

"A perfect focus."

"I told you, I'm an ice-prism."

"So it really is true ... I never realized" He broke off abruptly.

Orchid took a couple more controlled breaths and called on an old meta-zen-syn mantra. Balance and harmony, she chanted silently to herself. Balance and harmony was the key. The last thing she wanted to do was make a fool out of herself in front of Clementine's most exclusive client.

She had not felt anything that even remotely resembled physical attraction when she had focused for Calvin Hyde three years ago. All she had experienced on that occasion was complete and utter revulsion.

So why the sudden rush of yearning when she focused for Rafe?

Even now, in the midst of the crisis, she was aware of a passionate sense of intimacy, a wistful need for something more, something she could not describe. After her first focus assignment with him she had assured herself that the bizarre side effects of the focus link would disappear when she grew accustomed to working with his unusual talent.

But familiarity was definitely not leading to boredom or even to the customary, emotionally neutral state that defined the usual focus link.

"I'd rather not spend the rest of the night here," she said briskly. "Got any ideas of where the crypto-talent installed the second exit?"

"I'm a strat-talent, remember? I can find things."

"Even in the dark?"

"Especially in the dark. Why do you think I prefer to work at night?"

Prologue | Orchid | Chapter 2