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The New Houdini 16

Chuck's hand found the paddle clutched in hers. "I've been at these before. As long as we stay calm and don't let on that we truly want anything, we stand a chance of not provoking anyone to bid against us." He took the paddle from her hand, but not before resting his cool fingers on her palm.

Kenneth Barrett was the opposite of the portly and dignified Belmouth; he was tall and thin with a head that looked as though it had been squashed vertically, and whose face was defined by thinning brown hair and a hawk's beak nose. His eyes were guileless, big and practical, and he held his polished gavel with ease.

Barrett nodded at a woman who had appeared by the table of candles. The woman trimmed the wick of one and lit it with an expert hand. The light flared brightly for a moment before the flame settled on the candle, a steady gold glow in the dark room.

"First item is number six-four-nine, Yuan dynasty vase, dated 1322 BC." Barrett voice was soothing but clear, carried to the far reaches of the room by the microphone. "Made in Kiangsi province, porcelain and kaolin, white and displaying artwork of peaches and willows. We'll start the bidding at a thousand dollars."

Barrett glanced around the room; people were now sitting carefully still, the room full of ducked heads and tightly-clutched paddles, lest someone move his paddle in an innocent gesture and place a bid accidentally.

"A thousand dollars is the opening bid," Barrett repeated. "A thousand dollars, anyone? Yes, a thousand dollars," and he gestured to the back of the room. His voice was leisurely, very different from the breakneck rambling Max saw in movies and had expected. Max resisted the urge to turn and guess who had raised his paddle to bid. "A thousand one hundred? A thousand one hundred!" And Barrett nodded at an old woman in the front row.

The price of bids began escalating quickly as others began raising their paddles, each gesture knocking the price up by a hundred dollars. Soon the candle burned low and the price was five thousand one hundred. As if the flickering flame of the candlelight had been an unspoken signal, the bids suddenly began to increase as well.

"Five thousand eight hundred," a man's gravelly voice murmured from the back as he raised his paddle with an arthritic hand. A bright red 18 was stamped on it. Murmurs crested around the room; he had upped the bid by five hundred dollars.

"Six thousand," the old lady at the front interjected. Her paddle was stamped 45.

"Six thousand five hundred," the man retorted.

"Seven thousand," she answered.

The other bidders dropped away, leaving only the two in the game. Barrett repeated each rising bid, looking unruffled and on top of his game, but the rest of the room was tense with interest. People glanced back and forth from the old woman in the front to the man in the back as if watching an enthralling tennis match.

"Eight thousand four hundred."

"Eight thousand six hundred," the gravel-voiced man said, and at that moment the candle sputtered and died.

"The candle has expired. The final bid is eight thousand six hundred," Barrett said swiftly. "Item number six-four-nine sold to number eighteen, the man with the gray suit in the last row."

There was some impressed applause. Max let out a breath she didn't realize she had been holding.

The auction proceeded with much less fanfare, beautiful item after beautiful item sold often before the candle expired. Everything from oil paintings to uncomfortable-looking furniture to a collection of jewelry boxes made of delicate shell was trotted out on the stage. Chuck bid on several items half-heartedly but let other people win them, careful to appear as though he were bidding without a plan and was not waiting for any one item. The man with the paddle numbered 18 won several items, often swooping in at the last moment before the candle blew out to place the final bid.

It was during the auction of the set of three ancient Egyptian thimbles that Max saw him. He stood at the corner of the room near the storage room without a paddle, arms crossed over his chest as he surveyed the works of art that entered and left the stage. At first Max thought she was imagining things. But he was right there with patches on his coat and ink-stained trousers, woefully out of place in the room of businessmen and art collectors.

What was her English teacher doing here?

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