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The New Houdini 15

Max was too pleased to argue, dodging forward in the crowded anteroom to find a numbered paddle. Most of the people ignored her, accepting their presence now that Chuck had kept his dignity. A few even stepped back and allowed her to pass ahead of them. She signed up for the paddle numbered 34 and found Chuck in the auction room already seated and waiting for her.

The room was mahogany-paneled, the dark wood glossy with the soft lights from the chandeliers that peppered the ceiling. The room was filled with cushioned chairs that faced a stage on the far side of the room, the stage bare but for a display stand, a microphone, an easel, and a table full of one-inch tapered candles. A closed door stood to the left of the stage. People filed in and chose seats silently, murmuring only when the closed door opened and two latex-gloved men appeared carrying a heavy Chinese vase. They placed it on the display stand on stage and vanished into the doorway, closing it carefully behind them.

Max sat beside Chuck heavily and waved the fat paddle at him. "Do I get to bid a little?" she asked hopefully. "That'd be fun, I've never done that."

Chuck stared at the stage, his lips thinned in worry. "It's candle."

"Excuse me?"

"That old Belmouth said there'd be changes." He pitched his voice low enough for only Max to hear. "Couldn't he have waited til next year when I didn't actually need anything?" He sat back in his chair, posture fully relaxed, but his eyes were frustrated.

"I'm not following. What do you mean by candle?"

"It's a type of auction," he murmured. "Each item is up for bidding only as long as one of those candles stays lit. Last bid before lights out stands."

Max glanced at the table of stubby white candles, their fat wicks as long as the candles themselves. "So they'll light a candle each time something's up on the auction block, and the last person to bid before the candle's out wins?"

Chuck's fingers flexed, as if he longed to run them through his hair in agitation. "Yeah. Those won't last longer than ten minutes each. The fatter the wick is the faster it burns, and candles usually stop burning roughly half an inch from the bottom." He sighed. "With the air conditioning and people waving their paddles around the flame won't be steady either. It could go out way before ten minutes."

Max stared at Chuck, the impact of this new addition to their plans finally taking root in her brain. "You mean it could go out whenever?"

"Yeah." His voice, low as it was, had so much anger in it that she looked away. "I could have a million dollars at my disposal and be out of luck if some bastard places the last bid before I can. And without a set time limit I'll have no idea when that last bid will be. Our plans are in the toilet."

Max studied his face and saw at last the panic and fear nestled in the downturn of his mouth, the set of his jaw and the dancing of his fingertips on the chair upholstery. It was panic and wild fear struggling to escape, clamped down only by his self-control. And she knew.

Mr. Belmouth clambered up the stage. There was a light scattering of applause. He coughed into the microphone. "I'm sure you've all caught on to this year's fun trick by now! The candle auction was very popular until the eighteenth century or so, and as this is an auction of historical goods I thought it'd be quite proper to use an historical auction style as well."

The crowd tittered in approval.

"This is the real thing, isn't it," Max whispered. She barely registered Belmouth's words. She suddenly felt somber and weighted down, as if she had just been handed a heavy parcel. "This isn't some far-fetched reconnaissance mission. Why didn't you tell me?"

"I know it, Max, I know this." Chuck reached across their seats to grab her hand tightly for a moment, squeezing so hard she squeaked in protest. "I know it's not official til you check but I'm telling you –"

"I'm not much for speeches," Mr. Belmouth continued, "so let's simply get on with it. Let's have a round of applause for our great auctioneer, Kenneth Barrett!"

More half-hearted applause filled the room.

"Okay," she said. She took a deep breath. "Okay."

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