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The New Houdini 5

The second floor of the building that served as the base for the Lighthouse Artifact Society (motto: "Shining a Light Upon the Supernatural Studies") consisted of two shabby rooms covered in thin blue carpet with a layer of whitewash freshly painted on the walls, and lit by yellowing fluorescent lights. The first room, which Max and Chuck entered when they opened the front door, served as both reception and the main library. A row of windows ran along one wall. The room was large but looked small, as it was packed with slanted rows of tall teak bookshelves overflowing with dusty volumes, from generations of paranormal reading material filling the stacks and sorted by century, to binders of news clippings and old copies of the newsletters that were circulated by various Artifact societies, including the Lighthouse – whose newsletter tended to be printed on plain notebook paper when the funds ran low. Squashy, moth-eaten and mismatched armchairs dotted the room, paired with large round wooden tables covered in pen marks and obscene graffiti, and small battered desk lamps. The tables had been salvaged from a nearby reform school.

A desk sat near the front door, at whose seat the Lighthouse members rotated phone duty – and tried desperately to avoid their turn, as the desk chair was uncomfortable and the phone never rang. Leigh Anne sat hunched behind the desk, reading a Wonder Woman comic book and squirming in the hard-backed wooden seat, brown hair twisted around her fingers. She peeked over the edge of the book when the door opened, casting Max and Chuck a happy grin before returning to her book. Max simply nodded. Chuck winked lasciviously. Leigh Anne giggled in response.

"Where's Aderyn?" Max tried to gentle her voice for Leigh Anne, whom she genuinely liked, but the words were curt nonetheless.

Leigh Anne's happy expression became a look of anxiety, her Bambi-like eyes intense. "Did the tip not work out well?"

"Take a guess." And now Max sounded tired, and felt badly for putting that on the other girl. It was only noon and this day was going down the tubes.

Leigh Anne's brows knit in consternation. "At least you know," she offered. "You know you had to check that out, just in case."

Max bit her tongue, unhappy about being lectured about things she already knew but knowing her friend meant well by it. "The other room, then?"

Chuck said, "So I'll stay in here then. In my chair, you know, if you need me." He stepped closer to the bookshelves, lightly and casually, but Max knew it was a strategic retreat. Aderyn did not think well of Chuck, considering him a tag-along and a nuisance that she should not have to tolerate as he was not a member. This was different from the others, whom Aderyn also considered occasional nuisances but could do nothing about as they were already members.

Chuck retreated to his favorite blue paisley armchair, the squashiest in the room and one discreetly hidden at the end of two particularly long shelves. Max passed the reception desk and crossed the length of the long room until she reached the very end, where another door was cracked slightly open. The second, smaller room, similarly whitewashed and carpeted, served as a kitchen and a conference room. A long rectangular table took up most of the space. A mini-refrigerator, hot pot and basket of snacks stood in a lonely corner. Conferences were rare, and so Aderyn (and the Weather Man when he was inclined to feel regal) used to the room as a private office.

Max closed the door behind her, a controlled and soft motion. "Are you done sending me on pointless retrieval missions, in which nothing is ever worth the effort of retrieving?"

Aderyn didn't looked up from the weathered manuscript she held in her gloved hands. "No. Now shut up for a second. That is, if you're not dead set on ruining the whole thing."

She couldn't help it – Max immediately felt chastened. She set her bag down and sat at the other end of the long conference table and watched the older woman place the manuscript page on its tray with the ease of long practice, and slowly peel off the latex gloves to reveal pale, thin hands. She let out a sigh that Max interpreted as a signal to proceed.

"It's been almost four months," Max said.

"Oh, I'm well aware," the co-founder and financier of the Lighthouse retorted. "Is your idiot friend outside, sitting in my armchairs and dirtying my books?"

"Don't change the subject."

"I'm not." Aderyn's gaze was level, her sharp gray eyes set in a hawkish, lined face as pale as her hands, her eyebrows plucked to thin strands. "You'll need him for the next one."

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