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The New Houdini 4

Maxine Pilar left Quick Ink in a bad temper, stomping down the alley of small shops in a flounce of green sundress. She'd known the bookshop's so-called mystical cup would be a bust. The name itself had been a dead giveaway – The Quick Ink Cup? Come on. Another wild goose chase from Aderyn, wasting Max's precious time with idiocies.

She slowed her pace, anger giving way to a dark disappointment so familiar it was almost comforting. Again she hadn't found anything useful. Again a day would go by without any news, without any signs, and this whole thing was a giant mess from the ground up. She stopped to let a group of older college girls pass, giggling and clutching so many overstuffed shopping bags they tottered with the weight of them. Max suddenly felt aware of her scratched flat boots and old sundress, and wondered where this sort of self-pity had come from. She had never been a big shopper; that was Nadia's favorite sport. Yet here she was, jealous of a handful of airhead trust fund babies because they had new clothes and she didn't. What the hell was her problem?

She stopped at the Finagle-a-Bagel for a late breakfast, waiting in line with businessmen with loosened ties and their suit jackets in the crook of their arms, college kids from the thirty-odd schools in the Boston metropolitan area, and other high school kids goofing off and enjoying the long summer day. Max ducked her head at the sight of the high schoolers, the kids her own age who seemed to exist in a different world entirely. There it was, that self-pity again. The bad tip on the cup must have bothered her more than she expected.

She paid for her egg and cheese on poppyseed bagel and stepped back outside, eating as she walked. She ate quickly, not wanting to arrive at the Lighthouse with fast food – chances were good that Chuck was already there, and she didn't need another lecture about her bad eating habits. His lectures rankled her; as an only child she didn't have much understanding of affection masked as sibling cajolery, and the fact they spent enough time together that he knew her eating habits was upsetting. It meant that this task of finding Ben and Peter Quentin was taking too long; it meant they were on the brink of failure.

The scent of fresh tortillas and spicy chilis wafted through the air as she navigated the narrow streets of shops, dodging between raucous groups of dowdy summer tourists and roaming shoppers. Across the busy street the Boston Common fountain bubbled brightly in the hot sun, hipsters lounging at its base reading novels and chatting on cell phones. She was here already, and she wiped the crumbs of her bagel off her sundress and threw the remains into the trash. She turned down the quiet sidestreet across from the fountain. Here there were few tourists; the hair salon and the bookshops on this street were for the more savvy locals. She passed by Fajita's & 'Rita's Mexican restaurant, though she looked longingly into the windows, to open a small side door tucked into a corner between the restaurant and the bookshop beside it. The Lighthouse was situated on the second floor of the building, above Fajitas & 'Ritas, in a former office space.

She climbed the creaking narrow stairs to the second floor, cursing under her breath; yet again the lightbulb over the stairs had gone out, and the dark carpet of the steps was nearly impossible to see once the outer door had closed. Max made her way carefully to the landing, still unsure despite four months of climbing this same set of stairs almost daily. At least there was must light in the hall.

Chuck posed on the couch like he was waiting for a photo shoot, long legs encased in designer jeans and set carefully akimbo, his arms folded across his chest. His yellow hair looked green in the light. "You took your time."

"I checked out a tip," Max muttered, fumbling in the pockets in her dress for her key. "You could've called me and asked what time I was getting here."

Chuck snorted, folding his legs and rising from the couch to tower over her. "You never pick up. You make me wait on purpose."

There was only one door in the short hallway. Max fitted her key into the wooden door's lock and jimmied it; it tended to get stuck. "You're not gonna ask what the tip was?"

"I don't have to." He smiled at her, as mild as always, but his shoulders slumped. "If it was any good you would have said so first thing."

There was something reassuring in not having to explain to at least one person, but it was mixed in with something painful. Max felt her mouth twist but couldn't tell if it was a smile or a frown. Wordlessly she opened the door, moving aside to let Chuck in first.

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