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The New Houdini 14

The elevator's walls were made of reinforced glass with a view of the street outside. As the elevator rose she watched the sidewalk become smaller and further away and felt a moment of stomach-dropping vertigo. Chuck kept his eye on the polished steel doors, his pulse leaping in his throat.

The trick was keeping calm, not letting on that the amber was valuable or a potential Artifact to keep the price from skyrocketing, the owner from absconding with it, or any of the myriad thieves who specialized in such objects from having a chance to steal it. Chuck was naturally calm and poised. So why was he so nervous?

The elevator doors slid open before she could ask. Max's first impression was of a solemn cocktail party: small tables covered by crisp white cloths, modern steel and glass decor against black walls, tuxedoed servers carrying trays of canapes and half-full bottles, men and women in gray suits and cream dresses holding slim glasses of wine. Max and Chuck were easily the youngest people in the room by at least ten years. People's eyes slid over Chuck, taking in his features then gazing beyond him, as if it were rude to show interest in him. No one looked at Max at all. The room was full of quiet murmurs and false tinkling laughs.

Max wanted to flee immediately, feeling outdone in ways she had never taken seriously in the past. Her clothes were not enough. Her face was too expressive. She was way, way too poor and they could somehow tell. How had Ben lived in this world? She wondered how he stood it for so long, this game of masks and manners, when he had been so forthright.

She must have made a strangled noise; Chuck shot her a quelling look, taking clean bites from his spinach canape as he strode into the morass of barely-smiling people. Max followed, remembering her role just in time. She suppressed a growl as Chuck tossed her his dirty napkin.

A round man in his fifties intercepted them like a shark. He shook Chuck's hand vigorously. Chuck, to his credit, did not pull away.

"Mr. Belmouth." Chuck's voice was smooth, tinged with warmth.

This was the art dealer who had arranged the auction and owned the amber. Max stole a measuring glance. He didn't match her grand suppositions, instead being a portly man with graying hair and a lined face. His suit was nearly pressed and his eyes alert and surrounded by crinkling laugh lines. He wore power and surety like a comfortable mantle, a man who knew his opinions on people and objects were valued and sought and enjoyed that fact.

"Young Quentin!" Belmouth was louder than necessary; the people around them hushed for a moment before resuming their conversations. "I haven't seen you at one of these in ages."

"I've been in school, sir," Chuck explained. "But when the auction is a Belmouth one feels compelled to attend."

The edges of Belmouth's mouth rose slightly. "I did not think your family had time for such things considering your unique circumstances." His eyes watched Chuck with intent. "Some wait to see what becomes of your family's empire after such unfortunate distractions, gawkers watching a stone land in a pond and hoping the ripples don't cause them harm." He chuckled. "They forget that water stills quickly enough for stones to be forgotten entirely."

Chuck's face remained impassive. Max knew she was bristling at his side, aching to retort but unsure what to say. Belmouth had managed to question Chuck's presence, throw Ben's disappearance into the room, insult the stability of the Quentins' trading business and dismiss that business all in one go. She could feel the room's stares.

"There is always time for art and beauty, Mr. Belmouth." Chuck's voice was a calm murmur that somehow carried across the room. "Especially in times of trouble. Of course, stones endure long after the pond is dry."

Chuck met Belmouth's gaze and held it. Max quieted at his side. Belmouth's bushy eyebrow quirked upward in surrender. Max sensed it in the room, a release of tension like an exhalation. Belmouth turned to face the crowd.

"The auction will begin in ten minutes," he said, gesturing to a wood-paneled room on his left. "We'll be handing out paddles as you enter, please make sure to log your number at the entrance." Belmouth nodded to Chuck. "I'll see you inside. You chose to come at the most opportune time. A few tricks this year, yes?"

"I look forward to it," said Chuck gravely. Belmouth joined the burgeoning crowd at the entrance collecting their numbered paddles, and only when the man was out of sight did Chuck grin at Max.

"That was marvelous," Max said.

"Go get me my paddle." Chuck managed to make the statement both a leer and a command. "Go forth."

Max was too pleased to argue.

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