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The New Houdini 3

Charlemagne Anthony Quentin sat in the waiting room of the Lighthouse, practicing his signature. His handwriting was atrocious, as his brother was once quick to point out, but his signature was divine. His name unfurled across the page like an inky flower, a beautiful script of flowing lines and delicate arches and loops, without a single unnecessary gesture.

Signatures were important things for Quentins, an old family of power and prestige. They had a lot of things to sign for and a lot of things to be frightened of signing away. There was a lot of power in writing your name if you were a Quentin. Chuck was vaguely aware that signatures were not exclusively important to Quentins, that they were the legal solidification of every tragic, impulsively-decided contract and bet of people with more anonymous names. He was aware of this, but none of it was very important. He doubted those anonymous people had more to lose than a Quentin anyway.

The waiting room of the Lighthouse wasn't quite a room and it wasn't quite built for the purpose of waiting. It was a narrow hallway poorly lit by yellow bulbs in dusty antique cases. What little light shone was absorbed by the dark carpet and the wood-paneled walls. Chuck tapped a wall, listening to the crackle of cheap paneling, and snickered to himself. He sat on a moth-eaten couch that took up most of the hallway, notebook perched on his lap, across from a nondescript, unlabeled brown door through which he was not allowed to enter without a certain someone. Max was late so often Chuck suspected she took a delight in the annoying rule that forbade non-members of the Lighthouse from entering their headquarters unless accompanied by a member. He had tried in the past to break in. He had been caught each time with embarrassing ease.

Chuck rumpled his fair hair with care – not too messy, just enough to give it the right amount of body. Ben, no matter how often the younger boy swore up and down that the two brothers were polar opposites, did the exact same thing to his dark hair, especially when anticipating Max's presence in his future. Chuck had never told Max this, though there were moments when he wanted to – moments that were so grim with despair that it would have been hard to tell if the story would have cheered her or upset her. Maybe that was why he wanted to tell her such a small thing in those moments. In those dark moments he didn't know if he felt a tenderness for her or a hatred of her, the cause of the events that now left his brother missing for four months. Maybe Ben was trapped in some netherworld, courtesy of the ghost of Peter Quentin, cold and longing for warmth. Maybe he was in worse situations, situations that woke Chuck from his sleep covered in sweat. He hoped those dreams weren't prophetic. He used to be able to tell which were predictions and which were the processes of his fevered REM cycle. He hadn't been able to prophesy anything more interesting than a broken shoelace in weeks.

The door creaked open, the delicate, adorable face of Leigh Anne Harte poking out, framed by ringlets of brown hair. Max was the youngest member of the Lighthouse but Leigh Anne was a close second at seventeen, a bookworm that specialized in Greco-Roman antiquities. Where Chuck thought of Max as a tiny, deadly volcano, Leigh Anne was a still spring of water.

"How long are you going to sit out here?" God, even her voice was pensive. Chuck couldn't help but feel cheered; he fought the urge to wrap her in a hug and shake the stuffing out of her in affection. It was an urge he never resisted around his brother. "I'd let you in if I could."

"I know, dear," Chuck said fondly. "But it's my fate to be tied with the tardy beast known as Maxine Pilar." He held out his notebook to her, his long arms crossing the small space between the couch and the door. "Which signature is the best, do you think? I only trust your keen eyes on this, Miss Harte!"

She giggled a little and took the notebook, the door opening a little further to expose the tiniest glimmer of a bookshelf within. Chuck kept his expression neutral and disinterested as she scanned the page of delicate scrawls.

"It's a little hard to read," she admitted. "The letters are so ornate I'd never pick out the name to be yours at first glance."

"That's the point," he explained. "Mysterious and ornate, that's me in a nutshell."

Leigh Anne cast him such a serious, considering look that Chuck instinctively looked away, presenting his better profile. Okay, it wasn't quite instinctive. He rose, languidly and with grace. He could sense without looking Leigh Anne's eyebrow rise with him. He took a careful step across the space toward her. He hit her with his most dazzling smile.

"Of course," he murmured to her, "that's only if one considers me fit for nutshells."

He leaned forward over the slightly smaller girl, whose mouth hung open. The notebook dropped to her side. He had a fingertip on the doorway. He was going to make it, just one small step and he could dodge in before she could close the door on him. He twinkled at her, gentle and inviting.

She giggled.

He sputtered.

"Thanks for the entertainment," she said gaily. She pushed the notebook into his chest and stepped back out of the doorframe. "Let me know when Max gets here, okay?"

"But –" Chuck reached a desperate hand forward but it was too late. The door shut gently in his face.

On the bright side, he thought as he settled back down on the couch to wait, at least it hadn't been Varij at the door. He would've gotten a slam in the face then, rather than a quiet rejection.

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