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The New Houdini 6

Max placed her hands on the shining tabletop. Her palms left sweaty streaks on the glass, to her satisfaction. Aderyn liked to keep a clean house. "I'm not doing it."

Aderyn was unperturbed. "It's all in the file." She motioned to a blue folder on the top of a hefty stack of papers on her side of the table. She pulled out a bottle of hydrangea-scented lotion from her handbag and rubbed a dollop on her hands. "I do hope you manage to get this before Harvard does, they've beaten us to the punch for the last two Artifacts. Not your fault, of course, you weren't with us yet, but it was quite embarrassing."

"Did you hear me? You've sent me on twelve missions and all of them have been busts. I'm not doing another pointless task. "

"I did hear you." The older woman sealed the bottle of lotion and inspected the rim for stray drops. "And you're illustrating, in fine form, why I never wanted you in this Society. You're a petulant child with the fortitude of a string." She ran a manicured fingernail around the bottle before replacing it in the bag. "Not every Artifact is real. Not every claim is true. You were allowed into this group to ascertain these things. You cannot pick and choose which claims to investigate and which to ignore."

"If I did get to choose," Max interrupted, her face flushing with anger, "you'd save both my time and yours." The glass squeaked in protest under the grips of her fingers. "You've sent me to look at total frauds. I didn't join to measure the validity of every Artifact that comes around, I joined to find the ones I need."

Aderyn's gray eyes speared her at a glance, even across the long conference table. "And which would those be? Egyptian, British, Himalayan? Bronze Age, Stone Age, Victorian? Artifacts of prophesy or of creation?" When Max opened her mouth to argue the fierce woman silenced her with a long raised finger held to her thin lips. "Don't pretend you have any idea. I'll remind you that the Weather Man informed me of your situation. Any person that gets taken in by a so-called prophecy that was so obviously founded on a pipe dream can't claim the sense to judge Artifacts without looking at them."

Max inhaled involuntarily, a rush of air in the still room. Her stomach twisted; it was a cheap shot, she knew, but it was also unfortunately true. It would always be true. Her judgment would always be called into question. It was deserved, of course, but that didn't stop the fact from stinging. "It's not a pipe dream," she managed to say. Her hands shook and she balled them to make them stop. "Peter Quentin's back from the dead right now, so it's not as far-fetched as you think."

The stone-like gray of Aderyn's eyes softened almost imperceptibly. After the smallest of hesitations, she reached for the stack of papers and held the blue folder out to Max. Slowly Max rose from her seat and crossed the room to take it.

"You need not take everything so deeply to heart," Aderyn murmured, as Max clutched the folder to her chest. "You'd survive this world better that way."

Unsure of what to say, Max didn't answer, taking up her bag to go. At the door, however, she paused. She turned to look at the older woman, who was now pulling on her latex gloves with sharp snaps.

"It's been four months."

"You said that already."

"I know, yes." Max didn't know where to look; her gaze focused somewhere on the ceiling. "Why only twelve missions in four months? We're here every day."

Aderyn's response was distracted, her eyes focused once again on the weathered manuscript. In her hands it looked translucent, as if about to crumble at the slightest ill-tempered breath. "Your schedule seemed quite full already."

There was a moment of blank confusion before Max flushed a deep red. She and Chuck's independent research investigations, so carefully hidden from the Lighthouse, weren't so secret after all. With a startled sound that was a cross between a laugh and frustrated yowl, Max left the office and shut the door behind her.

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