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The New Houdini 18

She almost didn't see the knife in his hand. Without turning he lifted it and slashed the painting with such violence that Max leapt back.

"Ben," she said hoarsely. Then her voice lifted in panic as she watched him slice at the canvas with a rage she had not known him to possess. "Ben!"

At his name the boy stopped, knife dropping to his side. The painting was in tatters. He turned to look at her and she gaped: a black patch covered the empty right socket, the band of it hidden beneath his hair. The brown of his remaining eye was a blank mirror. His mouth was set in a firm line, neither frowning nor smiling, and his face was smeared with dirt and so thin Max felt her eyes sting with tears. She had known logically that he had likely lost his memories, his right eye having been turned into the Artifact of memory for Peter Quentin's resurrection. It hurt to see that truth in reality.

She had kept the memory of his face -- smirking, cajoling, sparking with interest – in her mind as a reminder of her task. Only now did she realize that she had kept it as a secret hope of how he might be when she found him, and she felt an ache as that hope was dashed.

"It's me," she said. But he only looked at her for a moment before returning his focus to the next auction item. "Ben, it's Maxine."

"He doesn't remember you." A voice volunteered from behind her, partly pitying and partly amused. "Poor kid doesn't know a damn thing."

Mr. Curry closed the door behind him and leaned against it, surveying the damaged room and the unconscious men with a faintly disapproving look. "I wish you wouldn't make more mess than you have to," he said to Ben. When the boy ignored him he shot Max a rueful glance. "I think I talk to him out of habit," he confided to her. "He never answers."

"Why are you here?" she asked, too confused to process what he was saying. "I didn't know you went to these types of auctions."

Mr. Curry – damn, why did she not know his name? – shot her an appraising glance so very different from the absent-minded, gentle way he addressed her in school. The look was keen and focused and coolly disinterested.

"There are a lot of things students rarely discover about their teachers. Did you know I used to be an Artifact hunter like you?" he said conversationally. "I worked for several private collectors and could always tell when there was a good one at an auction. Just a natural talent from birth, nothing gained late like yours."

Max wondered if she was hallucinating his presence. He knew her secret life, shared in it himself. Worse, he knew she could tell when an object was an Artifact, a talent she had only discovered after Peter's escape and one she suspected had to do with meeting him. She had never told anyone about it but Chuck and Aderyn. Any minute now, she thought dazedly, he'd start describing a facet of a book she hadn't read using an elevated vocabulary only Nadia could understand.

Oh, Nadia. Max spared a despairing moment for her best friend. She had never paid attention to Nadia's deep crush on their teacher when she should have.

Behind her Ben shoved another item to the ground with a crash. She didn't turn to look at him, keeping her eyes on Mr. Curry's innocuous features.

"He's getting frustrated," Mr. Curry said amusedly. He rubbed at his elbow through his patched jacket. "I suppose it's not here after all."

Max immediately recalled the amber. Chuck had been right; it was an Artifact. Was Ben searching for it? Did that mean it was already in the auction room? "You didn't answer my question," Max said. "Why are you here?"

Mr. Curry's gaze turned inscrutable. "Maybe I want to buy something nice at auction. I do have my man out there winning me prizes. I think you know him: paddle eighteen? Your friend out in the auction room will know him soon enough. Or maybe I'm sick of collecting Artifacts for no reason and finally have a real fun one with this bringing-back-to-life talk."

"A fun reason?" Max bit out. "So you have no problem working for a homicidal ghost for amusement?"

The smile vanished, replaced again by that shuttered look. His pose was carefully casual against the door. "It would be nice never to die. Wouldn't you say so?"

Max reeled as though she had been slapped. "You can't," she said, struggling to keep her voice steady and to keep her feelings on the subject of death at bay. "If you'd studied anything in your career as a hunter you'd know. There are rules, forces in the world you can't rearrange."

"Says who? Books? The scholars?" Mr. Curry's laugh was soft and derisive but it carried across the room. "Maxine, I was a treasure hunter that could escape a room laden with traps that would kill anyone who breathed on them wrongly, and have treasure to boot. They called me the Houdini of Hunts, I was so good at getting out of scrapes that everyone, including my own mother, assumed would kill me." His eyes held hers. She dared not show weakness by avoiding his gaze. "Don't quote conventional wisdom and expect me to believe it."

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