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The New Houdini 17

Mr. Curry – what was his first name? She had never bothered to know – waggled his fingers at her in greeting, then shot an interested glance at Chuck. The young man didn't notice but Max felt herself frowning. She stood and began to worm her way through the maze of seats, ignoring the dark mutters of the people forced to move out of her way.

She had crossed more than half of the distance dividing her from her teacher and was impatiently waiting for a woman to move her handbag out of aisle when Mr. Curry held up a lazy hand in warning then pointed to the stage. Max didn't hesitate, moving quicker now that she was out of the thick of auction-bidders, and so she only spared a glance where the older man gestured. She stopped in her tracks, ignoring the curses of a young woman whose view she now impeded.

She could see the stage much more clearly now. What she thought was a storage room for auction items was not a room at all but a door to a hallway. Two burly men stepped through the doorway carrying an old writing desk between them, grunting under the weight of it. Max glanced at them in time to see a thin, black-haired body slip past them into the hallway like a ripple. The men didn't notice.

Mr. Curry gave her a half-smile.

Max recognized that thin back, hair that was now wildly overgrown. She felt sick, her eyes blurring for a moment. Frantically she turned to Chuck but he seemingly had not noticed, still intent on the stage. She stifled the urge to call out to him in the silent room; it would ruin the auction, ruin their best chance to get the amber, and he was too far away. They would lose Ben in an instant.

So she followed, forgetting Mr. Curry and moving to the edges of the room to wait until the men had deposited the writing desk and disappeared back into the hallway. Once they were safely inside and hopefully out of the hallway she sauntered up to the door and opened it nonchalantly, closing it behind her before anyone could ask who she was.

It was a dingy narrow hall, unlike either the fancy modern anteroom where waiters poured wine and the solemn polished auction room. The floor was grungy cement pocked with round black gum marks, the walls a simple cream color marked by the occasional print-out: schedules, sign-in sheets, and reminders not to clog the toilets. Her nice shoes were loud on the cement. Painted steel doors lined the walls and the hall converged with other identical hallways in other directions. This was one of the halls where the real operations of the building took place, one of the paths janitors, waiters and staff used to get around the building without being seen.

Thankfully the hall was empty of staff or movers. Max moved rapidly, searching for another glimpse of Ben while hoping to avoid getting kicked out of this obviously verboten area. She tried the doors, most of them locked, until she heard a crashing sound like broken glass. She ran to the end of the hall and turned left, following the sounds of shattering, until she came upon an open door.

It was the storage room of antiquities for the auction. It looked like the storage room of a museum, full of artworks and small valuables. Each item was carefully labeled and shelved, individually protected by layers of plastic bubble wrap and plywood. Max recognized an early Van Gogh sketch on a scrap of paper in a tiny frame. A shelf on the far corner had collapsed, its trinkets smashed to pieces on the ground.

Benjamin Franklin Quentin stood amongst the metal shelves, contemplating a row of gold Russian nesting dolls. He had his back to Max and didn't seem to notice her arrival, staring at the dolls with his back hunched, looking ready to spring. He was so thin, she thought with a pang; his clothes seemed to hang off him. He was in the same clothes he had worn when she saw him last in the Museum of Fine Arts four months ago: a pair of blue jeans now almost black with dirt, a dark blue button down shirt, now untucked and fraying at the bottom, the elbows nearly worn through. One of the sleeves was torn. She wondered how that happened. His long hair was stiff with dirt and grease, with permanent tunnels where fingers had run through them.

Ben seemed to have come to a conclusion about the dolls. Without a comment or a gesture of warning, Ben leaned forward and swept the nesting dolls to the ground. They fell with a noise like an avalanche, echoing in the small room, and Max jumped and cursed. People would be coming any moment now, wondering about that racket – it was too loud to be ignored.

It was only then that she noticed the movers that lay on the ground before her, those large intimidating men now bloodied and silent. She stared at them, frozen, and prayed that they weren't dead.

Throat too dry to speak, she crossed the room to where Ben now stared at a painting of a sea shore at daybreak. His back was to her still; she longed for him to turn around. She reached a trembling hand out and touched his cold arm.

She almost didn't see the knife in his hand.

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