"Steffi? Stef, what in hell is wrong with you? You look
like you saw a ghost or something!"
Marissa greeted her friend at the top of the stairs, sending her a look
of concern, for the girl was more wild eyed and pale than usual, and there
was something about her that made the pianist realise something big had
"Oh God, I have to tell you something. I said I'd not tell the press,
but noone said I couldn't tell you." Stefana grabbed Marissa by the arm.
"You are never gonna believe this. I totally know what Aaron sees in that
Copper girl now. He's kinda forced to be with her because they both have
this psycho secret they can't tell the world. Come on! In my room, I gotta
"Steffi, can you come back to the world of the sane?" Marissa begged,
finding herself dragged unceremoniously along the landing and into Stefana's
room, the door banging behind her. "Secret? What secret? Copper and Aaron
are in love!"
"Uh-uh, I don't think so." Stefana said, shaking her head firmly. "Listen.
Jewel's stage act is all a sham. Cynthia isn't even a real person! She's
some illusion made by a computer and she doesn't even look like we see her!
She's purple, goddammit, and her eyes, she doesn't have proper eyes. She's
a goddamn freak of nature!"
"Oooook." Marissa eyed her friend thoughtfully, then, "I thought you
promised me never to trip acid again?"
"I'm not tripping out, Mari! I swear to you I'm not!" Stefana protested.
"It's really true, I swear to God! I saw her! She flashed her eyes and changed
colour and flew across the room at me! And when I went to touch her my
hand went right through her!"
"Right, that's it. You're staying in here till you sober up." Marissa
folded her arms. "Last time you got talked into trying acid you started
ranting about tigers in the mall and giraffes at the bar - now you're turning
Cynthia into a...well, God knows what, but it sounds insane. Stef, if you
don't want people to know you have a drug problem, get a grip!"
"But I saw it!"
"Steffi, honey, it's a hallucination, that's all." Marissa's voice became
gentle and she took her friend's hand. "Listen. This isn't the first time
you've sworn something is true and it couldn't possibly have been, is it?
I mean, you swore blind that Luca had two heads and a tail and was riding
a unicorn round the garden the night I graduated, but we all know that wasn't
real, don't we? So come on. I don't know what you took, and I wish you
hadn't, but you have to separate real from make believe."
"Fine. Then I'll go tell Luca, he'll believe me."
"No, he won't. Noone's gonna believe some halfbrained story about a
flying purple woman with flashing eyes, Stef." Marissa's tone became wheedling.
"Please, listen to me. Luca will only know you're stoned out of your head
if you do."
Stefana closed her eyes, flopping back on her bed.
"It wasn't a hallucination. It was real." She muttered. "I'm sober,
Mari. I swear to you I'm sober. I haven't taken anything."
"That's what you said the last time." Marissa reminded her. "Look, till
you start talking sense again, you and I aren't leaving this room. I'm
not having the world thinking you've lost your mind." She sighed. "Please,
snap out of it. You scare me when you do this...I don't know if you're
ever going to come back to sanity. Please, Stef. Stop it."
Something in her friend's tone penetrated Stefana's obstinate, headstrong
shell and she groaned.
"Fine. Whatever." She muttered. "Think what you like. I won't mention
it again. I know what I saw, but fine. If you don't believe me that's your
problem. I won't mention it again."
"Good." Marissa looked relieved. "Because Diablo needs you on the level,
you know that. Just forget whatever you thought you saw tonight and focus
on something else, okay? I need your opinion on some music, anyway. Okay?"
"Whatever." Stefana repeated flatly, lighting a cigarette and exhaling
a cloud of smoke. "I don't care."
"Okay, good." Marissa reached into her folder, pulling out a sheet of
paper, setting it down on the bedcover. "Just tell me what you think, okay?
And forget the nonsense about Cynthia. It's not worth your time. We've other
things to worry about."
"Fine." Stefana shrugged, scooping up the sheet with very bad grace.
Inwardly, however, she was already beginning to plot a way to get her own
back on the computer.
"I'll show you, Cynthia." She muttered under her breath. "I'll get you
yet. Just you wait."
* * * *
"Stefana, what is this all about?"
Rory Llewelyn dumped his tax report down on the desk of his office, casting
his unruly employee a tired look. "I've got a lot of things to do this
morning, so make it quick! I hope it's important. You haven't been very
productive with your sabotage recently."
"Oh, go hang yourself." Stefana retorted, taking a seat opposite the
desk and meeting Rory's gaze square on. "Listen to me, mr bigshot music
exec. I found out something last night...something that you'd love to get
your hands on, if I felt so inclined as to tell you."
"Oh?" Rory raised an eyebrow. "And what might that be?"
"Ah-ah." Stefana shook her head. "No, I'm not disclosing that. All I'm
telling you now is that last night I discovered something important about
Jewel's stage show. I need a little help from you - but I think I might
be able to put paid to their effects and their good mood once and for all."
"Stefana, I've been in this business a long time." Rory leant across
the desk, resting his elbows on the desk. "I'm not a fool. I know you want
money from me, and I'm not willing to give it unless you tell me what you're
A slow smile crossed Stefana's face.
"This is a big fish." She said softly. "I want more than the usual amount."
"Go on. I'm listening."
"I know where Jerrica's damn machine is."
"Jerrica's machine?" For a moment Rory looked confused, then, "The Jem
Memorial! The holograms..."
"Yes. Now you remember." Stefana paused for a moment, enjoying the look
of enlightenment spreading across her employer's face.
"Where is it?"
"I can't tell you." Stefana responded.
"So what's the point of this whole rigmarole then, Stefana?" Rory sounded
impatient. "You want money, you give me information."
"Listen." Stefana glanced around to make sure the door was closed, then
lowered her voice. "The machine has a mind of it's own. The Jem Memorial
should have told you that. It's dangerous. If word gets out about where it's
hidden, it's threatened violence."
"So what do you want to do? It's only a machine."
"No, it's more than a machine." Stefana looked amused. "Much more. Remember,
Rory, this thing projects holograms. Real...live...holograms. Remember
Jem? The hologram is closer to us than you think."
Rory stared at her.
"You mean...Jewel are using it like Jerrica and the Holograms did?"
"Not exactly, but good enough." Stefana smirked. "Jewel have a lighting
technician by the name of Cynthia. Cynthia...Benton. She organises all of
Jewel's effects. And last night...last night I saw her as she really is."
Rory pursed his lips.
"So what do you want from me?"
"I want your help in finding someone who has real technological knowhow."
Stefana replied. "Someone with the kind of brain to construct the ultimate
computer virus." She grinned. "One with no antidote program. Quietly done,
the machine dies...and so does Jewel's act."
"You know, I must admit that I like it." Rory acknowledged. "Your cunning
does you credit - I'm glad to see it. I was afraid you'd lost your edge."
"No. Just biding my time." Stefana replied. "So, do you know anyone?"
"Off the top of my head, perhaps." Rory mused. "What we need is someone
discreet. I will talk to Minx - she's the most technical of us and she has
contacts that I do not. I know in our Stinger days she had someone who helped
her produce gadgets for us - she never disclosed to me his name, but perhaps
she is still in contact with him. I shall endeavour to find out."
"And if you succeed?" Stefana pressed.
"I shall summon you." Rory told her firmly. "And yes, Stefana, I shall
pay you also. If...if your plan works, then I shall pay you handsomely.
I have scores of my own to settle with that machine for the games Jem used
"Then we agree." Stefana stood. "Good. But Rory, not a word to anyone
"Are you afraid of this machine, then?" Rory's tone was mocking. Stefana
"No." She retorted. "But if you want this to work we have to be stealthy."
"Don't panic. I can be discreet." Rory told her quietly. "Now get lost.
I'll deal with it."
"Be sure you do." Stefana's eyes glinted. "And in the meantime I'm going
to find out as much as I can about computers from someone who knows them
pretty damn good himself. I should like nothing better than to be rid of Cynthia
Benton once and for all!"