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Chapter 21

Everything was going far too well. No guards inside the building. A convenient janitor who carried a lot of keys. No demands for a check-in from the gate guard's two-way radio.

The situation was just too dandy for words.

Rafe could feel the trap closing around him, but there was nothing to do but keep moving ahead. Orchid was close. He was sure of it. Why didn't she respond?

He looked at Selby, who was still fiddling with some dials in the mechanical equipment room. "Wait here. Give me ten minutes to locate them and then turn on the gas in all of the lab rooms at once. Remember, no gas in the hallways. Got it?"

"Got it."

"Leave the gas on for three minutes and then shut it off."

Selby squinted at him. "You sure you know what you're doing?"

"I'm a strat-talent, remember? I'm good at this kind of thing. Hit the master switch for the building lights if anything goes wrong. Blink them once. Understand?"

"The lights? Why?"

"It's a nifty way of telling me that Plan A is no longer working."

"Is there a Plan B?"

"There is always a Plan B." Rafe retrieved the small pistol from his ankle holster. "I just have to figure it out, that's all."

"Great. How do you intend to avoid the effects of the gas, yourself? Some of it might seep into the hallways through the cracks around the doors."

Rafe frowned. "I'll put some cloth over my face or something."

"That sounds like a strat-talent sort of plan, all right. A little weak when it comes to the high-tech side of things." Selby reached for a triangular shaped device on an overhead shelf. He lifted it down and handed it to Rafe. "Maybe you ought to take one of these with you."

Rafe took the strange object from him. "What is it?"

"Gas mask," Selby said dryly.

Rafe grinned. "I always knew you tech-talents had your uses."

He opened the door and slipped out into the hall.

He tried once more for a prism, but again there was no response from Orchid. Alarm trickled through him. He had told himself that she was safe because Bracewell needed her alive. The same logic held true for the strat-talent, who no doubt viewed her as bait.

At the end of the hall, Rafe turned and started down another corridor. He used another small burst of talent to see if he could snag Orchid's prism. She was nearby. He knew it in his bones. He wondered if she was unconscious. Bracewell could easily have drugged her.

He rounded a corner, gun raised, and went along another passageway. He sent out a burst of strat-power. For a few seconds his senses opened wide.

Ice sleeted through his veins when he caught the unmistakable taint of blood and death. He knew that in that moment he was as close to losing control as he had ever been in his life. A searing rage howled through him.

But in the next second he knew that the blood was not Orchid's. A stranger lay dead somewhere up ahead.

Before the relief could set in, his jacked up senses caught the traces of two men.

Somewhere behind him.

It was almost reassuring. He had guessed right. This was a trap.

Rafe flattened himself against the wall at the end of the corridor and looked back down the long white hallway. There was no one in sight. But they were there. He could feel them. The strat-talent's backup team.

He tried another short rush of talent.

He caught a distant, fleeting sound. The clang of an object against a pipe.

The emergency equipment room.


He loped swiftly back down the hall. The overhead lights did not wink out. The guards had gotten to Selby before he could hit the master switch.

So much for Plan A.

Calvin was getting restless. Orchid was surprised. She was accustomed to Rafe's quiet ways and seemingly unlimited patience. But Calvin lacked that degree of self-control.

He no longer leaned negligently against the lab bench. He had begun to pace. Periodically Orchid caught the telltale whisper of his psychic energy and knew that he was testing the air, seeking a trace of Rafe.

Orchid traded glances with Briana and saw that she understood the mounting danger.

"He should have been here by now." Calvin reached the end of the lab bench, turned, and looked at Orchid.

"It would be a real joke on me if it turned out I'd underestimated his interest in you, wouldn't it?"

"A real joke, all right."

"I'll give him another ten minutes and then I'm afraid I'm going to have to cut my losses." He smiled. "That will mean killing you both, of course."

Orchid said nothing. Neither did Briana.

We're getting numb to the threats, Orchid thought. Probably not a good sign.

"Shit." Calvin thumped the handle of his pistol on the stainless steel lab bench. He glowered at Orchid. "If only I could use you as a prism."

Orchid swallowed. "You know it won't work. We proved that three years ago. I can't focus your talent because you're too powerful."

"Yet Bracewell believed that you could focus his stupid artifact." Calvin glanced thoughtfully at the cooling body on the tile floor. "I wonder what convinced him you were strong enough for that?"

Rafe crouched above the mechanical room. He was perched on the edge of a section of the lowered ceiling that concealed the piping. He gazed down through the opening he had created when he had removed one of the three-by-five acoustical panels.

Below two men in ParaSyn security garb exited the emergency equipment room. One of them had a gun to Selby's head.

Rafe waited until all three were directly underneath him before he made his move.

Funny thing about quarry, he reflected as he dropped down onto the back of the man who held Selby captive. They were skittish of shadows. They peered cautiously around corners. They glanced frequently back over their shoulders.

But quarry seldom, if ever, looked up to see what might be waiting overhead.

The first indication Orchid had that something had altered in the situation was that Calvin had stopped pacing. He had started whistling, instead.

She looked at Briana. Briana smiled back.

A relaxed, decidedly cheerful smile.

Orchid suddenly became aware that she, herself, was feeling very good.

In fact, she was much too happy, considering that there was a dead man on the floor and another man was waving a gun about as if it were a toy.

She chuckled.

And then she remembered the gas in the ceiling. How it made everyone, even the most severely disturbed talents, unnaturally cheerful. How it made them want to take a nap.

Rafe had discovered the security system.

She started to laugh.

Calvin and Briana joined in.

When Rafe opened the door and walked into the lab a moment later, they all howled at the hilarious sight he made in his gas mask.

Calvin made one or two attempts to aim his gun at Rafe, but wound up dropping it on the floor. That sent him off into another gale of laughter.

He collapsed on the floor beside the fallen pistol and promptly went to sleep.

Rafe walked toward Orchid.

She was feeling very sleepy, but she had enough energy left to giggle again at the sight of him. "I knew you'd come for us."

"You were right." His voice was curiously distorted by the mask.

"He said you'd want to go mano-a-mano with him." She chuckled. "It was supposed to be a duel to the death between the two of you. A battle between equals to see who was top strat-talent."

Rafe caught her as she started to sink to the floor.

"Why would I want to do things in such a primitive way when there's a nice high-tech alternative available?"

"I always knew you were a lot more sophisticated than Calvin." She slipped blissfully toward sleep. "I really do love you, you know."

"I'm glad." Rafe lifted her into his arms. "Because I love you, too."

She smiled as she nestled against him. "That's nice."

"Marry me."

"Sure. Why not?" She closed her eyes, content, and went to sleep in his arms.

Chapter 20 | Orchid | Chapter 22