Orchid leaned forward to peer through the windshield when Rafe halted the Acer at the front gates.
"Where are we?" she asked.
"My place." He activated the remote control to open the gates. "I brought you here so that we could discuss our new job. You do remember that contract I signed in your boss's office this afternoon?"
The gates swung wide. Orchid sat beside him, wrapped in silence, as he drove through the trees that shielded the front of the big house.
He had not realized that he had braced himself for her reaction to his home until she spoke.
"Good grief. This is where you live?"
"Yes." He brought the Acer to a stop in front of the broad steps and deactivated the engine.
"It's incredible." She gazed at the dark, looming mansion with unmistakable delight. "What a fantastic place. I spent the entire amount of my first book advance on a genuine Later Expansion period sofa. You've got a whole house from that period."
He had been afraid this would happen, he told himself as he cracked open the Acer door and got out. She not only loved the damned house, it felt right bringing her here. Very right. All of his senses were pulsing in tempo with the invisible rhythms of the night.
He looked back through the open Acer door and watched Orchid as she watched his house.
"I'd give anything to live in a house like this," she whispered.
"Funny you should say that."
"But why would anyone want to steal an alien relic?" Orchid swirled the ridiculously expensive moontree brandy in her glass and watched Rafe as he stood in front of the fireplace.
She had found herself reluctantly fascinated by the tale he had just outlined. A stolen artifact, a mysteriously dead thief, and the client's request for absolute discretion. It sounded like one of her own plots.
"People steal things for a wide variety of reasons," Rafe said quietly.
"Yes, but there usually is a reason. I don't understand what it would be in this case. From what I've heard you can't do anything with the alien relics. No one knows what their tools were used for, if they were tools. None of them function any more. The experts don't even know how they were powered. All anyone seems sure of is that they're very, very old and that they aren't native to St. Helens."
The first small cache of alien artifacts had been discovered by Lucas Trent. He had found them in the course of a jelly-ice prospecting venture in the jungles of the Western Islands. Trent had given his finds to the New Seattle Art Museum which had, in turn, formed a research partnership with the science and history faculties of the University of New Seattle.
Another, much larger cache of relics had actually been located by the third Chastain Expedition several years earlier. The records of the find had been lost because all but one of the expedition team members had been murdered by a mad spec-talent before the reports could be filed. The "alien tomb," as the cache was referred to in the press, had been rediscovered by the fourth Chastain Expedition last year.
The huge collection of artifacts had caused a sensation.
Speculation ran rampant in the tabloids. Stories featuring women who claimed to have given birth to space alien babies were popular fare at the supermarket checkout counters. The Return cults, predictably, wove the relics into their ludicrous, quasireligious notions regarding the Curtain. Novels and films featuring the artifacts were popular.
But when all was said and done, Orchid knew, the experts had learned virtually nothing about the alien relics. They remained a fascinating enigma.
"You've worked with me often enough to know that people steal for some strange reasons," Rafe said. "Collectors are a unique breed."
Orchid thought of Elvira Turlock. "Do you think there's actually an underground market for alien artifacts?"
"It would not surprise me." Rafe took a thoughtful sip of his brandy. "But there are other possibilities."
"The Return cults. Some of them have seized on the discovery of the alien relics to expand their crazy claims about the Curtain. It's conceivable that one of the more off-the-wall cult leaders arranged for the theft in order to get his or her hands on a genuine alien artifact."
"I see what you mean. Be great for show-and-tell at the next meeting of the believers, wouldn't it?"
"Yes." Rafe paused. "But the fact that the cult leader would have to display the stolen relic to his followers in order to get any mileage out of it makes me think that's a less likely scenario than it appears."
"Why do you say that?" Orchid waited expectantly. She knew that Rafe would have a reason for his deduction. He always backed up his leaps of strat-talent intuition with cold, hard logic.
"Because as soon as the cult leader starts to flash his own, personal alien artifact around at the temple meetings, he or she runs the risk that someone in the audience will mention the relic to outsiders. And sooner or later, someone will. It's inevitable."
"You're right." But then, he was always right, she thought. It was one of his less endearing traits. "People, even devout cult members, are bound to talk about something like that. Once the word got out that the leader had the artifact, everyone would know what happened to the stolen lab relic."
"All of which does not mean that some cult leader did not steal it. Crazy people do crazy things. But most of the leaders in the Return cults are businesspeople, first and foremost. They're in the racket to make a profit. They're not stupid or crazy. I doubt if any of them actually believe their own drivel. Why do something that would jeopardize the scam?"
"So, I take it you're leaning toward the theory that the relic was stolen by an eccentric collector?"
"At this point, it would seem to make the most sense." Rafe hesitated. "But I'm not sure. There's something about this that doesn't feel right, yet"
"Okay, you've got two possibilities so far, an eccentric collector or a mad cult leader. Any others?"
Rafe raised his gaze from the flames. His eyes were as enigmatic as any alien relic. "No. But I may come up with some after we pay a visit to the lab that lost the artifact."
"When are we going to do that?"
"Tomorrow evening after the staff has left for the day.
I've made arrangements with the lab's director, Dr. Alexander Brizo. He'll meet us there."
"We're going to visit the lab after hours?"
Rafe's mouth curved faintly. "I do my best work at night."
"Yes, I know, but I would have thought time was of the essence in this situation. If you wait until tomorrow night to start on the case, you'll have wasted a whole day."
"I've already started work and tomorrow won't be wasted, either. There's a lot of basic investigation to do before we go to the lab."
"I contacted one of my sources on the street. A man named Whistler. He's got contacts into the underground art world. If there are any rumors about the artifact going into a private collection, he'll hear them."
"Sounds like a good start."
He arched one brow. "Thank you."
She blushed. It occurred to her that the remark had been the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head. "You know what I mean."
He ignored that. "I also spent today talking to some people who knew the lab technician Brizo believes stole the relic."
Orchid brightened. "There's a suspect?"
"Yes. But he's dead."
"Dead." She stared at him, astonished. "I don't understand. Who is this suspect?"
Rafe hesitated. "Theo Willis."
For a few seconds, Orchid could not even get her mouth closed, let alone speak. When she finally overcame her dumbfounded reaction, she slammed the glass of moontree brandy down with such force that several drops splashed on the table.
"That's impossible," she declared.
"It's what Brizo believes."
"Why didn't you say anything earlier?" Orchid leaped to her feet "You let Morgan and me blather on about Theo all evening and you never once mentioned that he was a suspect"
"Be reasonable, Orchid. I didn't know the name of the person for whom you and Morgan wanted to hold your little wake until we got to the Volcano Club. By then, it was too late. I couldn't say anything in front of Morgan. This is a highly confidential case."
"That's no excuse. You should have said something earlier."
"I wanted to lay out the whole case before I did that I knew it would upset you to learn that a friend was involved."
"I'm not upset, I'm pissed off." She leveled a finger at him. "What's more, I've got a big clue for you, Mr Investigator. You're headed down a dead-end bail if you think that Theo Willis was a thief. He was a trifle wacko, but he was not dishonest"
"All I'm saying at this point is that Brizo thinks he was involved in this thing."
"I refuse to believe that Theo stole that artifact And I'm certainly not going to help you prove that he did."
"I quit Find yourself another prism. I'm going to call a cab. And then I'm going to call another private investigator."
"What the hell for?"
"To help me prove that Theo didn't steal that relic." She stalked to the massive, Later Expansion period table and snatched up the phone. "I'm going to dear his name."
"Damn it—" Rafe started toward her.
"Don't come near me." She punched out the number of the cab company she routinely used. Then she turned quickly, holding up a hand to ward him off. "Stay, back."
His eyes darkened. "Stop giving me orders as if I were a cat-dog."
She felt the heat suffuse her face a second time. "I never meant—"
"Yes, you did." He snatched the phone out of her hand and slammed it back down into the cradle. "Calm down and listen to me. You can't walk out now."
"I'm the one who's been hired to solve this case. If you really want to prove that Theo Willis did not steal that artifact, working with me is the most efficient way to do it."
His logic brought her up short. She drummed her fingers on the table, thinking quickly.
"I hate to admit it, but you've got a point," she said finally.
His jaw tightened. His expression was stark. "There's another reason why I want you to work with me on this case."
"Yeah, I know. You want me because I'm the best prism you've ever had."
"Because I want you. Period." His hands closed around her shoulders. "The only question I have at the moment is, do you want me?"
She stared at him, stunned, into silence by the dark flames of sexual desire that leaped in his eyes. An answering heat stirred deep within her.
"Oh, my," she whispered. "So you feel it, too."
"If you're talking about what happens when we link, yes. I feel it. That's not a problem."
"I could deal with that, if there wasn't anything more to it."
She could not look away from his intent face. "What is the problem?"
"The problem," he said very deliberately, "is that I go on wanting you after we cut off the focus link."
She was very close to him now. The heat of his body pulsed against her, drawing her nearer. "I see. That is a problem, isn't it?"
"I need to know if you have the same problem."
She drew an unsteady breath, violently aware of the sudden, exhilarating rush of her own pulse. "I'm sure it's just a superficial sort of thing. Some kind of weird, lingering after effect of the link."
The flash of icy amusement in his eyes annoyed her.
"Well, it's not as if we have anything in common," she said.
"Don't," he said, "remind me."
He brought her up hard against his chest, wrapped one hand around the back of her head, and kissed her. A deep, hard, fiercely urgent kiss.
A driving thrill of need washed over her.
"Just call me superficial." She wrapped her arms around Rafe's neck.
It felt so right. Excitement and need rose within her. It shouldn't feel this good, but it did.
Rafe's low, hoarse groan induced a delicious, fluttery sensation in the pit of her stomach. He tightened his hold on her. She felt his hand close over her breast. The heat of his palm seeped through the fabric of her T-shirt She sensed his pleasure when he discovered that she wore no bra. His satisfaction increased her own desire in some crazily synergistic fashion.
The contours of his heavily aroused body pressed against her. She could not get close enough to him.
Without warning, just when everything seemed to be going along quite nicely, she felt herself float up off the ground. She gasped and clung more tightly to Rafe. Surely the passion he was generating could not have triggered an illusion on the metaphysical plane. She was excited, but not that excited.
Admittedly there was a dreamlike quality to Rafe's kiss, but she was not hallucinating.
The world shifted around her.
She squeezed her eyes more tightly together. She was okay. Awake. Not dreaming.
So why the dazed sensation?
She opened her eyes part way, seeking to steady herself with a view of the solid, stable room.
There was nothing reassuring about the sight of the old-fashioned jelly-ice candles in the wall sconce spinning past her field of vision.
Before she could sort it all out she felt herself falling. Slowly, gently, she floated downward until she became aware of the thick rug beneath her.
It finally dawned on her that Rafe had swung her off her feet and lowered her to the carpet.
Laughter bubbled through her.
He came down on top of her, crushing her into the thick rug. He braced himself on his elbows. His eyes burned.
"Want to share the joke?" he muttered against her throat.
"If there's a joke, it's on me." She framed his face with her hands and pulled his mouth back down to hers. "I never dreamed it could feel like this."
He uttered a low, hoarse, hungry groan. His mouth closed over hers again. He wedged one leg between her thighs and pushed his hands up under the hem of her T-shirt.
She was fumbling with the edge of his pullover, trying to get her hands underneath it, when a measure of sanity returned. What was she doing? It was all happening much too quickly.
"Rafe. I'm not sure this is a good idea. It's too soon. We barely know each other. A superficial kiss is one thing. Superficial sex is something else."
"You may be right." Desire gleamed in his eyes. It was echoed in the faint curve of his mouth. "Maybe it will seem like a better idea if we do it this way."
She felt the familiar questing probe of his psychic talent seeking a prism. Automatically she responded. On the metaphysical plane a crystal clear prism took shape. Rafe eased power through it with seductive skill.
This time the accompanying flare of sexual awareness was so intense Orchid could not think. She could not even breathe. She felt as if she had just plunged over a waterfall.
And then she understood what Rafe was trying to do. Outrage slammed through her, dousing a good measure of the passion.
"Oh, no you don't, Stonebraker." She pushed against his looming shoulders as she tried to break off the psychic connection. "Stop it right now. Damned if I'll let you use a focus link to seduce me."
"No, wait," he whispered. "Don't let go. Please."
Out on the psychic plane Rafe caged the prism she had created with shimmering bands of raw power.
Orchid was horrified to realize that she could not break the link. If she had not heard the tales from her friends at Psynergy, Inc., she would not have believed that it was possible to do what Rafe was doing.
Instinct and the self-defense tenets of meta-zen-syn took over. She stopped trying to resist. Instead, she sent more of her own power out onto the psychic plane. Swiftly she manipulated the facets of the prism, altering the focus until the energy waves scattered. It was as if they were refracted through a thousand glittering mirrors. Power ricocheted aimlessly across the psychic plane.
"What the hell?" Rafe's stunned surprise came through on both the physical and metaphysical planes. "What are you doing?"
"What do you think you're doing?" she retorted.
"Damn. I'm sorry." Rafe's reflexes on the metaphysical plane were even faster than they were in the physical world. He cut the flow of talent with devastating suddenness. "I'm sorry. Oh, shit, I never meant—"
Orchid quickly dissolved the prism. She watched warily as Rafe slowly sat up beside her. She did not know what to expect from him. He did not look angry or baffled or shocked.
He looked deeply mortified. A dull red stained his high cheekbones. Chagrin, embarrassment, and humiliation blazed in his eyes. There was something else there, too, she realized. Fear?
Why should Rafe be afraid?
"I'm sorry," he said again. He put out a hand as if to touch her and then withdrew it. "That was very . . . primitive of me, wasn't it?"
Relief flooded through Orchid. She suddenly understood the fear she had glimpsed in his eyes. "Hey, don't worry about it. I'm used to that kind of thing."
He blinked. "You are?"
"Sure. I write about psychic vampires all the time, remember?"
"I am not a vampire."
The tightly leashed fury in him brought her up short. She sat up slowly. "No, of course you're not. It's okay. I was only making a joke."
"I fail to see any humor in the situation."
"It might not be the funniest thing that's ever happened to me, but it certainly isn't the end of the world, either."
"Orchid, listen to me. I swear I never meant to do what I did."
"Lighten up, Stonebraker." She patted his knee. "You got a little carried away with the first prism who could focus your full range of power. No big deal. Next time you'll know what to expect. You won't go off the deep end a second time. You've got too much control for that."
His jaw was rigid. "I did not get carried away because of the focus link."
"I got carried away because I didn't want to lose—" He broke off. "Forget it."
"I will," she assured him. And knew that she was lying through her teeth. She would never forget that kiss as long as she lived. "It was just a kiss that got a little out of hand. Probably happens all the time, right?"
He watched her closely. Dark curiosity lit his gaze first. It was followed by a flash of satisfaction.
He knew that she was lying.
Impossible. He couldn't be reading her mind. Strat-talents were not human lie-detectors, she reminded herself.
"You're wrong, you know," he said quietly. "That kind of thing does not happen very much to me. What about you?"
"Uh, no." She cleared her throat. "No, it doesn't happen much to me, either."
She held her breath, afraid he would pursue the point with the sort of single-minded intensity he applied to his investigation work.
But to her euphoric relief, he changed the topic.
"I knew you could create a near-perfect focus," Rafe said. "But I didn't realize you could manipulate it in a negative as well as a positive way. Before tonight, I would have said that what you just did was impossible."