"About time you showed up." Byron Smyth-Jones, Psynergy, Inc's receptionist, secretary, and avant-garde fashion guru, glared at Orchid over the rims of a pair of glasses fitted with purple lenses. "The boss is having a fit."
Orchid raised her brows at the sight of Byron's latest wardrobe addition, a violet-colored, skin-tight suit styled with massive shoulder pads and wide cuffs.
"How can you tell if Clementine is having & fit?" she asked with grave interest.
"Very funny." Byron took a bunch of notepads out of a box and stacked them in a supply cupboard. "And completely beside the point. This time it's serious."
"It's always serious." Orchid glanced at the notepads. They were each neatly imprinted with the Psynergy, Inc. logo and the words "Think Exclusive" at the top of each page. "What's going on?"
Byron glanced over his shoulder. Orchid followed his gaze to a large poster featuring a photograph of an improbably huge chunk of extremely rare fire crystal. It was emblazoned with the logo and partially obscured the closed door of Clementine's office.
"Her new exotic is here to sign another contract." Byron lowered his voice to a hissing whisper. "He insists on using you."
"The new exotic?" In spite of herself, Orchid felt a tiny thrill go through her. "You mean Rafe Stonebraker asked for me again?"
"You got it. He's been here for the past half hour, signing papers. Clementine tried to get hold of you to confirm the assignment, but when she couldn't reach you, she went ahead and drew up the new contract anyway."
A fluttery sense of panic instantly wiped out Orchid's incipient excitement. Last night in the euphoria that had ensued when she and Rafe had escaped the gallery, she had thought it would be exciting to work with him again. Now, in the cold light of day, she was not quite so sure.
"I was thinking of talking to Clementine about using someone else the next time Stonebraker called. If he called, that is."
"He called, all right," Byron assured her.
"I wonder why. I got the feeling he was not overly pleased with my services."
"Whatever gave you that idea?" Rafe drawled softly behind her.
Orchid spun around and saw him standing in the doorway behind her. He wore a dark jacket over a dark shirt and a pair of dark trousers. There was a plastic cup of coff-tea in his left hand.
She narrowed her eyes. "Must you sneak up on people like that?"
He looked amused. "Sorry." He held up the cup in his hand. "I just went down the hall for coff-tea. You were here when I got back."
With an odd sense of desperation, Orchid glanced at Clementine's closed door. "I, uh, thought you were in there with my boss."
"Ms. Malone and I finished our business a few minutes ago. She said you were due to stop by the office after lunch so I decided to wait."
"I see." Orchid tried to squelch the embarrassed heat that threatened to rise in her cheeks. She devoutly hoped that he had not overheard the reference to exotics, but something told her that he had. Rafe had extremely sharp hearing. She managed a cool, professional smile.
"I'm flattered that you asked for my services again so soon, Mr. Stonebraker. But when you dropped me off last night you didn't mention that you had another job in mind."
"I didn't get my new client until after I left you." He studied her with an unwavering gaze.
There was nothing overtly rude, threatening, or intimidating about his gaze. He simply watched her.
From out of nowhere, the familiar hunted feeling came over Orchid, just as it had last night in Elvira Turlock's gallery. She glowered at him. He bunked, frowned slightly. The sensation vanished.
If not for the fact that it had left every hair on the nape of her neck standing on end, she could have blamed the incident on her imagination.
"I'm a little busy at the moment," she said as the door of the inner office slammed open.
"No, you're not," Clementine announced. "I've canceled all of your other appointments. You're free to work with Mr. Stonebraker for the next month."
"A whole month?" Orchid whirled back around to stare at her boss.
"Yep." Clementine, built like her favorite form of transportation, an ice-cycle, bristled in her signature black leather and gleaming silver studs. Her stark white hair, styled in a short brush-cut, was set off by steel hoops in her ears. "Stonebraker says his new case may take a little longer than the others."
Orchid had no trouble seeing the dollar signs that glittered in Clementine's shrewd eyes.
"But I'm not free for a whole month." Orchid felt pressured. She needed to think about this, she decided. "I've got commitments."
"Nothing that can't be rescheduled," Clementine countered. "I checked."
"I'm talking about personal commitments, not Psynergy, Inc., commitments." Orchid was intensely aware of Rafe listening to the exchange. "I'm going to attend my cousin's wedding."
"That's a week off and you said you'd only be away overnight, anyway," Clementine said smoothly.
Orchid groped for another excuse. "Founders' Day is coming up soon. Only five days away."
"So?" Clementine shrugged one sturdy shoulder. "Have a beer, get a little crazy down in Founders' Square, sing the Founders' Anthem. Big deal. There's still plenty of time to work for Stonebraker."
"I do have another career, you know."
"You told me just the other day that you were on schedule with your writing."
"That's not the point."
Clementine planted her broad fists on her hips. "What, exactly, is the point?"
"Yes." Rafe gave her a curious look. "What is the point?"
There was no point and Orchid knew it. She had no excuse for turning down the focus assignment. She was not even certain that she wanted to turn it down. She was starting to enjoy the private investigation work Rafe did. But she did not like the feeling of being maneuvered into a neat little trap.
She turned back to Rafe. "When did you want to start?"
"Impossible." A ridiculous sense of triumph soared through her. "I have a previous engagement."
"Cancel it," Clementine ordered.
"I can't do that." Orchid gave them all a somber look. "I'm meeting someone at the Volcano Club. We're going to hold a small wake for a friend of ours who died recently."
"Oh, yeah, that's right." Byron balanced another stack of notepads. "I remember. You and Morgan Lambert are going to drink a toast to that poor ice-prism you both worked with. The one you said was weird."
"Yes." Orchid challenged Rafe with another cool glare. "An acquaintance died a couple days ago. You know how it is."
"Sure," Rafe said. "I know how it is. I'll go with you to the Volcano Club. We can discuss the new assignment after you hold your mini-wake."
"Uh—" Orchid's brain shut down for an instant.
"I'll pick you up at eight." Rafe glided back out into the hall.
He was gone before Orchid could think of any more excuses.
A hush fell over the office. It was broken only by the sound of Clementine brushing her hands together in gloating satisfaction. Nothing made her glow like a newly signed focus contract.
"He may not be one of the Stonebrakers of Stonebraker Shipping, but he's certainly a Stonebraker," Clementine said. "I'll settle for that."
"What do you mean?" Orchid asked.
Clementine shrugged. "Gracie gave me the lowdown on him. Seems our client was in line to inherit control of Stonebraker Shipping at one time."
Orchid frowned. Gracie Proud was Clementine's permanent partner. They had been matched by a marriage agency several years ago. Sooner or later, gay or straight, almost everyone on St. Helens got married. The Malone-Proud relationship was, from all appearances, a blissful union.
On the surface the two women could not have been more different, Orchid thought. Gracie was a petite, stylish woman with a knack for high fashion and social contacts. She owned and operated Proud Prisms, one of Psynergy, Inc.'s chief competitors. She was an unfailingly accurate source of gossip and information.
"Whew." Byron's eyes got very big behind his purple glasses. "We're talking about those Stonebrakers, are we?"
"Yeah." Clementine grimaced. "But our maybe not-too-bright client quarreled with his grandfather, old Alfred G. Stonebraker, years ago. Young Rafe lit out for the Western Islands to find himself, as they say. His grandfather never forgave him. Cut him off without a cent. Actually, Gracie says it was more like Rafe cut himself off. Apparently he refused to have anything to do with the family fortune or the company."
"But he's back in New Seattle," Byron pointed out. "Maybe he and his grandfather have been reconciled."
"Not likely," Clementine said. "Gracie knows about these things. She tells me that everyone who moves in the same ritzy circles as the Stonebrakers is aware that Rafe has no interest in the family business. Apparently Rafe's cousin is scheduled to take over control of the company in a few months."
"How sad," Orchid said.
"I'll say," Byron murmured. "Just imagine walking away from all that money and social clout. Clementine's right. Maybe our client isn't all that bright."
Orchid glared at him. "I was referring to the rift in the family. It's always sad when families are torn apart by a quarrel."
"Yeah, sure." Byron draped himself over the half empty box of notepads. He gave Orchid a deeply fascinated look. "So, tell me, is it true what they say about strat-talents? Can they really sense it if you lie to them?"
"That's just an old myth," Orchid said crisply. "Everyone knows that."
"Well, what about the other stuff?"
"What other stuff?"
"Are they really sort of, you know, primitive?" Orchid picked up a stack of Think Exclusive notepads and sent them raining down on Byron's head.
At nine o'clock that evening the Volcano Club was only half full. Orchid, seated at a small table with Morgan Lambert and Rafe, studied the shadowed room. The place was a cross between a nightclub and a coff-tea house. It catered to a bohemian crowd of poets, artists, and assorted wannabes.
A young man on stage hunched over a microphone and growled the words of a poem he had written.
Images burn in jelly-ice. Frozen forever in jelly-ice Shimmering in jelly-ice Dreams of synergy and orgasm In jelly-ice.
It may not have been deathless prose, but it beat the heck out of meta-zen-syn philosophical poetry, Orchid thought.
Tiny jelly-ice candles flickered on the tables. The small flames revealed an assortment of expressions, most of which fell into two categories, world-weary ennui and passionate intensity. The majority of the clientele was dressed in gray, the fashionable color of the moment among the artistic set.
Morgan Lambert fit well into the ambiance of the Volcano Club. He was a thin, intense man with sharp, ascetic features and the long, sensitive fingers of an artist. He looked at Rafe.
"Did you know Theo Willis?"
"He was sort of weird, but he was okay." Morgan glanced at Orchid. "Not much else you can say about poor old Theo, is there?"
"I guess not." Orchid slumped back in her chair and shoved her hands into the pockets of her jeans. "Never thought he'd kill himself, though. He didn't seem the type."
"They say it's hard to tell." Morgan sipped his weak green wine. "He'd been seeing a shrink for the past few months."
Orchid raised her brows. "I didn't know that."
"The only reason I know it is because he came by my place a couple of days before he drove his car off that cliff. We had a few drinks. He said he wanted to talk to someone, but in the end the only thing he told me was that he had been going to a syn-psych doctor."
"Did he tell you why?" Orchid asked.
"No. I got the impression he was under a lot of stress because of his new job at that university lab."
"Theo didn't handle stress well." Orchid pursed her lips. "But I wouldn't have thought it would make him suicidal. He would be far more likely to just quit the new job if it bothered him that much. He was always changing jobs."
"He needed the money this time, he said. He mentioned some crazy plan to start his own focus agency. One that would specialize in ice-prisms. He was trying to get financing for it but he wasn't having any luck."
Orchid sighed. "I can't see a bank giving Theo a pile of cash. He wouldn't have looked like a good risk."
"No," Morgan agreed.
Rafe contemplated Morgan with a surprisingly thoughtful expression. "Did Willis mention the source of his stress?"
Morgan shook his head. "No. But he was always under stress. He was sort of paranoid."
"How did the three of you meet?" Rafe asked.
Orchid wondered why he was so interested in the subject of Theo Willis. "Three years ago we were recruited for a study of ice-prisms. The researchers at ParaSyn wanted to see if prisms like us could be used to treat violently disturbed mental patients. They wanted to test a dippy theory Dr. Bracewell, the head of the lab, had concocted."
"What was the theory?"
"Bracewell thought that if criminally insane talents could be properly focused, the syn-psych shrinks might be able to realign the synergistic forces of their para-profiles."
"Regular prisms can't work with talents who are really over-the-edge crazy," Morgan explained. "There's just no way to get a good focus. Besides, it hurts. The usual result is temporary burnout for the prism."
"Probably just as well," Orchid put in. "Another one of nature's little tricks to keep dangerous talents from becoming too predatory. Synergy in action."
Rafe gave her an unreadable look. "What happened with the study?"
Morgan grinned briefly. "They didn't learn much. Orchid led a revolt right in the middle of the project. Got pissed off when they tried to make us focus some really bent talents. She had one session with a guy named Calvin Hyde and that was the end of it. Walked out of the lab. Theo and I followed right behind her."
"Calvin Hyde?" Rafe repeated. "He was one of the violently disturbed talents?"
"Bracewell said he was normal." Orchid shuddered, recalling the predatory hunger she had sensed in Calvin Hyde. "He claimed Hyde was one of the control subjects. And I think he believed it. Hyde could be very convincing. But as soon as I saw the energy waves of his talent, I knew he was a very dangerous, violently inclined man. The last thing I wanted to do was give him a focus."
Rafe watched her with unwavering intensity. "What did you do?"
She shrugged. "Pretended I couldn't get a sharp focus. Told Bracewell that Hyde was just too powerful for me and that I couldn't take anymore. I think Hyde really liked the idea that he was so strong I couldn't handle him. He was incredibly arrogant. Always had to be top, uh—" She broke off before she uttered the words wolf-hound.
"What land of talent was Hyde?" Rafe asked.
It was Morgan who answered the question. "Calvin Hyde was a high-class exotic. A strat-talent. You know, one of those hunters. Very rare."
Orchid did not look at Rafe but she could feel him watching her.
"How strong?" he asked quietly.
She could not think of a diplomatic response to that query so she kept her mouth shut.
"She never did find out what his actual rating was," Morgan said. "Did you, Orchid?"
"No." Orchid refolded her small cocktail napkin with great precision. As diversions went, it was not much, but it gave her an excuse not to meet Rafe's eyes. "I didn't stick around long enough to find out. A class seven, maybe."
"I see," Rafe murmured.
"Bracewell was always running experiments with weird talents, as well as ice-prisms," Morgan explained. "Orchid said it was because he envied them."
"The talents?" Rafe glanced at Orchid.
"Yes. He's only a class-two hypno-talent."
Morgan chuckled. "Folks at the lab used to refer to him as Two-Watt Bracewell behind his back."
Anxious to change the topic, Orchid looked at Morgan. "Speaking of ParaSyn, did you get a letter from the lab recently asking you to come back for a follow-up study?"
"No." Morgan looked surprised. "Why? Did you?"
"Yes. I ignored it."
"If I get one, I'll do the same." Morgan lounged in his seat and raised his glass. "Well, here's to Theo. A fellow ice-prism. May he rest in peace on the other side of the Curtain."
Orchid hoisted her glass. "To Theo."
Rafe said nothing but he swallowed some of his coff-tea when the other two sipped their wine.
Morgan put down his glass and looked at Orchid. "Let's go on to a more cheerful subject. Any word from your marriage agency recently?"
"You call that cheerful?" Out of the corner of her eye, Orchid saw Rafe blink in what in another man might have been startled surprise. She ignored him. He had been acting weird all evening.
"All right, make that a more interesting subject," Morgan said.
Orchid wrinkled her nose. "Funny you should ask. I had lunch with my cousin, Veronica, this afternoon. She brought up the very same question. The answer is no. I still can't get a date."
Morgan whistled. "Sheesh. What is it now? A year since your last agency date?"
"A year and three days," Orchid said. "But who's counting?"
"Your folks, I imagine," Morgan said dryly.
"Don't remind me. I hate guilt trips."
Rafe folded his hands very tightly around his coff-tea cup. "You never mentioned that you were registered, Orchid."
Morgan's mouth curved faintly. "She postponed it as long as she could but a little over a year ago her family finally applied enough pressure to get her to a matchmaking agency. She's only had one date, though."
"And he doesn't count," Orchid said.
Morgan sighed. "Everyone knows ice-prisms are extremely hard to match."
"Try impossible," Orchid said.
"Still, I'd have thought your agency would have introduced you to more than one potential candidate by now." Morgan's eyes widened. "Hey, maybe Affinity Associates lost your registration paperwork."
"Not likely," Orchid said.
"You never know. Maybe you ought to give your counselor a call," Morgan urged. "It's possible there's been a screw-up."
"I doubt it. They're a very reputable agency."
"Things can happen in any office."
Orchid grinned. "You're telling me. I work for Psynergy, Inc., remember?"
The flaring light of the jelly-ice candle rendered Rafe's face into a saturnine mask. "Why haven't you called Affinity Associates to see what's going on?"
As if it was any of his business. Orchid decided it would be easier to slide out of the discussion with a small, white lie. "Okay, okay, I'll call this week."
Rafe's brows rose at that but he made no comment. The brief, knowing look that flashed in his eyes worried Orchid, however. She got the distinct impression that he did not believe her.
She recalled Byron's question. Is it true what they say about strat-talents? Can they really sense it if you lie to them?
Myths, she told herself. Nothing but rumors, gossip, and outdated speculation based on early, faulty, syn-psych research test results. Strat-talents were not human lie-detectors. There was no such creature.
Theoretically it was no more difficult to lie to a strat-talent than it was to anyone else. But some people, regardless of their paranormal abilities, had an instinct for discerning the truth. Rafe might be one of those people. And she was not the most accomplished liar in the world, she reminded herself.
But what did it matter if Rafe believed her tonight? After all, her love life or lack thereof was none of his affair.
Orchid gave both men a determined smile. "I suggest we abandon the subject of my marital prospects before we all expire from boredom."
"I don't find the subject boring," Rafe said softly.
Orchid glared at him and decided to turn the tables. "Are you registered?"
"Yes. Synergistic Connections."
For some reason the information hit her like a solid wall of jelly-ice. Rafe was actively looking for a wife. And he was doing it in the proper, appropriate, socially approved manner. Who would have guessed? She wondered why the news was so deflating.
"Good agency," she managed in what she hoped was a breezy tone.
"So I'm told. But I haven't been introduced to a single potential candidate yet."
Morgan gave him a commiserating look. "Sounds like you and Orchid have something in common. Neither one of you can get a date."