"Well? Did you find the seam you thought would be there?" Orchid's voice held a crisp edge of urgency.
"Yes." Rafe ran his fingertips along the wall. His focus-heightened sense of touch assured him that it was more than the place where two strips of steel had been joined. He could feel the faint trace of escaping ah-. "It's here. Right where I thought it would be."
"You're kidding?" A cautious relief bubbled in the words. "You actually found it?"
It occurred to him that she had not been terribly optimistic about his chances of locating the second exit. "Nice to know I had your confidence all along."
"Yes, well, I didn't mean to imply that I doubted your ability, it's just that—"
"I've insulted you, haven't I?"
"I'll get over it."
"I'm glad to hear that," she said. "But you've got to admit, I had cause to be concerned. It's impossible to see my own hand in front of my face. The odds against your finding a hidden door were pretty dismal."
"No, they weren't. The odds were pretty damn good that I would locate it. Anything a crypto-talent can hide, I ought to be able to find."
The gallery was as dark as the inside of a sarcophagus but with his para-sharpened awareness, Rafe did not need light to see what he was doing.
He could make do without illumination, he thought. What he really needed at that moment was a cold shower. Orchid was standing much too close. Her unique, shatteringly feminine scent was distracting in the normal course of events. It became a heady drug to his paranormal-enhanced senses. He could feel the heat of her body even though she was not touching him. Hell, he could feel the heat of his own body. He was burning up with the crazy desire that always hit him when he linked with Orchid.
Primitive. The word seared through him. He was in control, he thought. He was not a beast.
He took a couple of meta-zen-syn breaths to steady himself. Then he shoved a bookcase away from the wall. It had only taken a few minutes to find the telltale seam in the stainless steel panel. Now all he had to do was locate the release mechanism that would open the emergency exit.
A piece of cake-tart under normal circumstances. A real challenge with Orchid breathing down his neck. It worried him that he had over projected a few minutes ago. Orchid now knew that he was no class six. He had not meant for her to discover that so soon in their still-prickly relationship. She did not seem unduly concerned about the fact that he was an off-the-chart talent, but that was almost beside the point.
The problem was that he had not been in full control of his power at that moment. The effects of the alarm system on his keen senses had been painful. He had been tense and edgy and increasingly desperate for escape. Orchid's incredible prism had come as a glorious, intoxicating relief.
But that was not the whole of it and he knew it.
He could blame the oscillating security siren and the urgency of the situation for his failure to moderate his power but he was well aware that was not the only reason he had shoved too much energy, too quickly out onto the psychic plane.
The truth was, the more he worked with Orchid the greedier he became for the experience. In his whole life, he'd never had an opportunity to project the full range of his talent through a prism. Few talents as powerful as himself got the chance because, even if they were willing to admit the level of their power, it was virtually impossible to find prisms who could handle it.
He had overshot the mark a few minutes ago, jacked up the power by accident, discovered that Orchid could deal with it and now all he could think about was going to the limit again the next time.
Preferably while he was making love to her. The image of her, naked and open and welcoming beneath him when they linked nearly shattered his hard-won concentration.
Control, he thought. Control was the key.
He breathed deeply, using the techniques of meta-zen-syn meditation to regain his self-mastery.
Finding a delicate seam in a steel wall behind a painting in the dark was a breeze compared to solving his more pressing problem, Rafe decided. It looked as though he had finally found a possible candidate for a wife and she was all wrong.
Other than the fact that she was an extremely powerful, indeed, breathtakingly strong, full-spectrum-plus ice-prism, Orchid Adams met virtually none of the criteria he had given to Hobart Batt.
In the beginning, she had been distinctly wary of him. He'd had the impression that if he made one wrong move, she would walk out in the middle of the focus assignment. But she had appeared to relax after their first link. It was as if he had passed a test of some kind. He had been cautiously optimistic.
However, it had quickly become obvious that they had almost nothing in common.
From her coff-tea house wardrobe, which, from what he had observed, consisted of nothing but faded jeans, slouchy blazers, and black T-shirts, to her love of the romantic, they clashed.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the situation was that he seemed to irritate her as much as she irritated him. But, as if he had, without warning, developed new, masochistic tendencies, he kept coming back for more.
Physically, she was striking, not pretty. She was slender and small-boned but she was definitely not pale, delicate, or sweet. She moved with energy and grace. Her witchy green eyes held a dangerous mix of cool self-confidence and mischief. Her black, shoulder-length hair framed a face that was animated with intelligence. She handled herself with the assurance that often characterized a full-spectrum prism. Everyone knew they tended to be arrogant.
The irony of it all was that, given her career as a novelist, she would probably prove to be the one woman in a million who actually liked his house. He had a nasty suspicion that it looked like the sort of place she imagined a psychic vampire would inhabit.
This was definitely not the mate he had set out to find.
So why in five hells did she feel so right?
For the past month he had haunted every focus agency in town in search of a full-spectrum who would make a promising candidate for a bride. He had spent a small fortune hiring one prism after another, only to discover that he felt nothing at all, either in or outside of the focus link.
Eventually he had worked his way through a variety of agencies until he reached tiny Psynergy, Inc. When Clementine Malone had introduced him to Orchid at the beginning of the week, he had felt every instinct he possessed, strat-talent and otherwise, go to full alert. Something in him had throbbed with anticipation before the ink was dry on the agency contract.
That something was still throbbing. Which could prove embarrassing if he was not careful, he thought, thoroughly disgusted with his lack of self-control.
Choosing the right wife was too important a decision to be left to his hormones, he reminded himself.
He wished he knew if Orchid felt anything at all during the focus sessions. If she did, she managed to conceal it extremely well.
"What's going on?" Orchid asked sharply. "Are you making any progress?"
On top of everything else, she had a tendency to nag.
He used the ultrasensitive pads of his fingertips to search out the hidden lever in the floor. "Got it."
"Thank heavens. I don't think I could take another five minutes in this place."
"I'm not exactly having a great time, either."
Rafe decided it would not be smart to tell her that if he had to spend another five minutes in the dark alone with her he would probably start howling at the twin moons, Yakima and Chelan, even though he could not see them.
Definitely an uncool move. So very primitive. Bound to scare off a potential wife.
Damn. He was already starting to think of her as a mate. Things were moving too fast here. They were out of control. He had to step back from the brink and think about this before he took it any farther.
"You don't seem to be having any difficulty finding your way around in this tomb," Orchid observed thoughtfully.
"You know, there's enough contact through the link for me to realize that you have a clear sense of where we are in this gallery, but it doesn't feel visual. At least, not to me. Can you actually see in the dark?"
"I have excellent night vision." He found the tiny switch that freed the mechanism. "One of my biggest assets." Although Hobart Batt did not seem to think it was a big selling point to a potential spouse, he thought.
"But can you really distinguish objects in this kind of total darkness?" Orchid sounded surprisingly curious all of a sudden.
"No, of course not. At least, not the way you mean. No one can see where there's a total absence of light." He hesitated. "I use . . . other senses."
"You mean like hearing? Touch? Smell?"
"Sort of—" He wondered where all this was going. "It's hard to explain. There's something else involved."
"Hmm. I'm not sure I'd like to have a better sense of smell." There was a delicate pause. "Doesn't it get to be a little overpowering when you're in a crowded room or when you take out the garbage?"
Rafe felt an uncomfortable warmth suffuse his face. It had been a lot of years since he had been acutely embarrassed by a woman. Luckily Orchid could not see his face at that moment.
"The sense of smell is different when it's augmented by paranormal energy," he said stiffly. "It doesn't translate quite the same way on the metaphysical plane."
"Oh. Well, what about that other sense you mentioned? The one you called something else?"
He hesitated, his fingers on the trap door release. He wondered why she had chosen that moment to start asking personal questions. "It doesn't have a name. I can't describe it except to say that it's a sort of awareness." Hunter's intuition.
"Will there be any other questions before I try to open this damned trapdoor?"
"Sorry. Didn't mean to get personal."
He wrapped his hands around the lever and raised it cautiously. There was a squeak of steel hinges. A rush of air followed. An instant later, emergency lighting from a cramped stairwell flooded into the gallery.
"You did it." Orchid hurried to the opening. "My God, you really did it. You found the exit."
"Like they say, everyone has some talent, however small." Rafe got to his feet and moved past her into the stairwell. "If I know crypto-talents there will be an emergency switch for the siren right around here somewhere." He spotted the green lever immediately. "Right. Here we go."
He slammed the lever upward. The uncomfortable whine finally ceased.
"What a relief." Orchid gripped the edge of the steel door frame and sagged wearily against it. "Tell me, does this sort of thing happen a lot to you in the course of your private investigation work?"
"No." In the eerie green light of the emergency fixture he could see the tense, drawn expression in her eyes. He had been very careful to involve her only in cases that held little or no possibility of physical danger.
But after what had just happened, she might very well refuse to work with him again.
A frisson of dread swept through him. Maybe she wasn't exactly what he was looking for in a wife. But what if he never saw her again?
Rafe took a step forward. Reached out to touch her shoulder. "Orchid? Are you okay?"
"Yes, of course." She smiled weakly. "Just give me a minute. You'd better see to poor Mrs. Turlock."
"I'll get her." He made to step past Orchid and then hesitated. "Look, I'm sorry. I never thought anything like this would happen."
"Of course you didn't. Hey, don't give it another thought. I'm fine, really." She straightened and moved determinedly away from the door frame. "Actually, it was all quite fascinating. I must admit, working with you is never dull."
"I'm not sure that's a compliment."
Her smile brightened. Amusement replaced the strain in her smoky green eyes. "And you did rescue us from that horrible place."
"Least I could do."
"It was rather impressive, to tell you the truth. I was afraid we'd be trapped in there until someone from Mrs. Turlock's household staff returned."
"You don't have to remind me that you had your doubts about my ability to get us out."
She grinned. "Next time I promise to have a little more faith in your strat-talents."
Relief rushed through him. "Next time?"
"Sure. You know, I think I may have a flair for the private investigation business."
An hour later, Rafe drove home with the leer's window down. He needed the brisk, bracing night air to clear his senses. He was still brooding over Orchid's remark.
A flair for the private investigation business.
What if the only thing she saw in him was an opportunity to play private detective?
He absently noted the small, dark compact parked at the curb as he waited for the gates to his driveway to swing wide. The vehicle did not belong to any of the few neighbors he had left.
The door of the unfamiliar compact slid up into the roof just as Rafe was about to drive through the open gates. The street lamp gleamed on the figure of a tall, thin, bird-boned man in a rumpled gray suit. Light winked on the lenses of his wire-rimmed glasses.
He waved frantically in an obvious effort to get Rafe's attention.
"Mr. Stonebraker, is that you, sir?" The thin man hurried toward the Acer. "I've been waiting for hours. I must speak with you."
Rafe quickly assessed the scene with a short burst of strat-talent. He sensed nothing amiss. No obvious trap, at any rate. Just an anxious-looking potential client.
The last thing he needed at that moment was a client.
"It's late," Rafe said.
"I'm afraid this can't wait." The bird-thin man stopped and peered at Rafe through the leer's open window. "My name is Brizo. Dr. Alexander Brizo. I'm with the university."
"What do you want from me?"
"We desperately need you to find something for us, sir. Something that was stolen from one of our labs."
"Did you try the police?"
"Good lord, no." Alexander Brizo's eyes widened with horror. "The last thing we want to do is bring the authorities into this. There must be absolutely no publicity. Reputations are at stake. And the research contract, of course. Our lab fought hard for it. We don't want to lose it."
"What, exactly, was stolen from your lab, Dr. Brizo?"
Brizo blinked several times. "An object."
"Maybe you could be a bit more specific."
"An object sent back by the fourth Chastain Expedition. They're still in the field, you know, excavating the alien tomb that was discovered by the third Chastain Expedition."
"Yes, I know." Rafe frowned. "Are you telling me that one of the alien relics was taken from your lab?"
"That is exactly what I'm trying to tell you. You must find it for us, Mr. Stonebraker. Quickly. If word gets out that it was stolen while in our care, my colleagues and I will be in an extremely awkward situation. A great deal of grant money is at stake."
"Any idea who took the relic?"
Brizo looked uncomfortable. "Yes, we think it was a man named Willis. Theo Willis. He was a prism assigned to assist the psychometric-talent research team that is studying the most recent shipment of artifacts."
"Got any idea why he stole it?" Rafe asked patiently.
"No. Actually, we don't." Brizo looked baffled. "It's not as if one can use the relics in any way. None that have been found thus far still function. The researchers say they are much too old. And one can hardly sell an alien relic on the open market. They're easily recognized, after all. Any potential buyer would know it was stolen from a museum or a research lab."
"There are people who will collect almost anything that is rare or valuable, Dr. Brizo. That means that there is a market for anything rare or valuable."
"I see. You refer to an illicit, underground market. The sort that supposedly exists for works of art and such."
"I hadn't thought of that. Yes, I suppose it's possible that Willis stole it with the intent of selling it to a collector. I certainly can't think of any other reason why he would have done such a thing. No other lab would want it unless it also got grant money to study it."
"You're sure this Theo Willis is the thief?"
"Any idea where he is now?" Rafe asked.
Brizo's narrow face seemed to grow even thinner. "Well, yes. But I'm afraid that knowing where he is won't do us much good."
"Because he's dead, Mr. Stonebraker. His body was found yesterday. He apparently drove his car off a cliff."
For the first time since Brizo had hailed him, Rafe felt the familiar stirring of his hunter's instincts. "Follow me to the house, Dr. Brizo. We can talk there."
Brizo cheered slightly. "You'll take the case?"
The scents of the night sharpened as Rafe drove through the gates. The light of the twin moons was so bright that he could make out each silver-tinged leaf on the looming oak-drona trees that lined the drive.
He knew this feeling, he thought. It was the sensation he always got when he became interested in a new case. The anticipation of the hunt.
But this time he was not responding to the prospect of the investigation itself. Finding something as unique as a stolen alien artifact would be simple. The underground market for such items was very small and his contacts in it were excellent.
No, it was not the case that aroused all his senses tonight. It was knowing that he now had an ideal excuse to hire Orchid Adams again.