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The New Houdini 7

"Your attentions were not fully engaged today, Nadia," Mr. Curry remarked. He shrugged his shoulders slightly, shifting in his long-sleeved shirt in an attempt to stir the still air, and began collecting the electrical cords. Class was over and the students rushed to escape the classroom to sweet freedom, bottlenecking at the door in a mess of backpacks and swearing.

Nadia, wary of the crowd's impatience, collected her things more slowly and flushed from a mixture of heat and embarrassment. She had always considered herself a master at feigning interest, was considered an intellectually bright student despite a complete lack of interest in academic subjects. She was slipping.

"It's a bit uncomfortable today," she said, with genuine contriteness. Part of the reason she feigned interest was sympathy; it wasn't the teacher's fault she didn't care much for school.

"Yes," he said. "Perhaps we'll have an outdoor lesson on Friday." He smiled a bit absently as he searched beneath the projector for a missing slide, a crooked expression that masked the frown lines on his face and deepened the crinkles around his eyes, framed by silver glasses Nadia never saw him without. "Of course, that means I'll count on all of you to retain absolutely nothing of intellectual merit."

Three conversational options were available to Nadia at that moment: a joke about the laziness of students; a optimistic rejoinder about the class's interest in the material; or a simple thank you for the kind suggestion of an outdoor lesson. On most professors any of the three, followed by a quick retreat out the door, would have been sufficient. But she hesitated to employ those tactics now.

The classroom was empty now but for the two of them. She watched as Mr. Curry, yellow hair flat on his head with damp and pen marks on his trousers, wheeled the projector to the back of the classroom and hid it in a closet before he looked at her in mild puzzlement.

"You all right, Miss Nadia? Usually you're full of empty witticisms, unless the muggy weather's fogged your brain as badly as it has mine."

She cringed internally a bit at the 'empty' jab, but smiled brightly nonetheless as she shouldered her backpack. "Just planning the rest of my day. It revolves around bemoaning the stupidity of taking summer classes."

He squinted at her from behind the silver frames. "Not going to spend time with that friend of yours – Maxine Pilar, is it? You're always roaming the halls together."

"She's busy, summer job, being responsible," Nadia said breezily. "Something like that."

In all honesty she had no idea if Max had a summer job or not; all she knew was that the phone calls and Quincy Market shopping trips were scarcer and Max's face growing more ashen in a way she was unsure how to address. Max was fierce about privacy. Maybe the other girl regretted discussing her father's death with Nadia; when Nadia had asked why Max had been at the Museum of Fine Arts the day that rich boy had been freakishly hurt Max had said some vague story about doing research for a class. But Max didn't have any art classes and the museum had been closed. Maybe Max was traumatized and didn't want to talk about it. Maybe she thought she was doing Nadia a favor. It was an idea Nadia could mostly forgive. Mostly.

From across the classroom she sensed an unusual unease from Mr. Curry, one that was hard to properly pin down. There were no outward signs of it, no hand-wringing or deep frowns. "Sir?" Nadia asked.

"Funny that you're not aware of what your best friend is up to," Mr. Curry said mildly, leaning against the locked closet door. "You're not curious at all?"

Nadia toyed with the straps of her backpack in agitation. "She knows I care." (I think.) "Of course I know what's going on." (I don't.) Stung, Nadia left the classroom. It didn't occur to her until she had left the school building that it was odd for a teacher to care who their students hung out with, let alone what those kids did with their free time.

"It's another stupid stone," Max said, dismayed. "That's a disappointment."

"Only an uneducated dollop like you would find this a disappointment." Looking over her shoulder at the folder, Chuck was practically buzzing with excitement.

Max was nonplussed. "What the hell's a dollop?"

They were in the back of the Lighthouse's library at Chuck's favorite table, a worn round mahogany flanked by Chuck's favorite blue paisley armchair and a not-quite-matching red chair. The folder's contents were spread over the table, Max crouching over the surface to examine a photograph. She'd found Chuck sprawled over his chair with a book on the ancient death rituals of the Himalayans and had chucked the folder at his head.

"It's gorgeous, it's divine. This might be the thing, Maxie." Chuck patted her on the back with enthusiasm, a pat that was more like a punch. He danced a jig between the shelves.

Max groaned in pain. "You're only like this because you get to help for once."

Chuck gave her a look of grand superiority. "Better up your enthusiasm. That's not the same thing as your ugly adder stone. That's a piece of blue amber you've got."

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