Ann Macela--Author
 
 
Wild Magic by Ann Macela
Cover illustration Copyright 2011 by Winterheart Design

Wild Magic

Fourth book in the Magic series



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About the Book  | Read the Reviews  |  Read an Excerpt


About the Book

What if you could cast a spell to help you do your everyday job? But . . . what if that job included casting fireballs and lightning bolts and destroying evil magic items? And your soul mate turns out to be a “wild talent” with abilities neither of you dreamed of? And you’re up against the immensely horrible Cataclysm Stone?

 

Within the world of magic practitioners exist a group called Defenders and Swords. Their purpose: to find and destroy items of evil magic.

 

Irenee Sabel is a Sword, new to her blade and anxious to prove herself. On her first mission to recover a powerful crystal of ancient evil--The Cataclysm Stone--from its practitioner users, she encounters DEA Agent Jim Tylan. Part of a law-enforcement task force but also for personal reasons, Jim is after the same people for drugs and weapons trafficking.

 

When Jim and Irenee come together, they find that each is more than appears on the surface. Irenee is surprised to discover that Jim is a “wild talent,” in whom magic abilities spontaneously occur. Jim is astonished to realize that he can cast spells and Irenee and her team can actually destroy evil magic items.

 

The biggest revelation of all concerns both Jim and Irenee. They are, in fact, ready or not, soul mates, and the soul-mate imperative is lurking, determined to bring them together.

 

The villains have other plans for them, ones that will test Irenee and Jim’s new found magic powers--and their new found love.

 




Read the Reviews

"In Chicago, Irenee Sabel works as an event planner, but is also a witch who enforces the codes of magic usage especially those evil artifacts outlawed. She is assigned to destroy the cataclysm stone; her first solo major act.

Irenee attends a party thrown by an alleged ancient warlock Alton Finster whose safe supposedly contains an evil relic. She sneaks away from the gala using an invisibility spell to conceal her movement in order to break into the safe. However, she is caught by Department of Homeland Security Agent Jim Tylan, who is legally searching for financial records to attack Finster, the man he blames for his sister's death. Somehow he sees her in spite of her cloaking. As they team up, she believes he has some magic skills and is her soul mate, but first they must make the world safe from a malevolent mage.

The latest Defends & Swords Magic romantic urban fantasy (see YOUR MAGIC OR MINE?) is an engaging tale as Irenee is as stunned as Jim is when he sees the "glowing" handbag and the invisible sorceress holding it. Filled with magical and romantic mayhem, fans of Ann Macela's fun series will enjoy the latest entry as Chicago's historical Gold Coast is the focus of WILD MAGIC."

Harriet Klausner

 




Read an Excerpt

 

Prologue 

 

Twenty-five years ago

 

      “Are you sure we’re in the right place?” Bruce Ubell asked his cousin Alton Finster while he looked around the dingy storeroom in the basements of the hundred-and-ten-year-old ancestral mansion in Chicago. It was midnight, and their flashlight beams barely penetrated the cold gray gloom in the never-electrified space.

 

      “Yes, I’m sure,” Alton replied with the edge he used to let Bruce know he had asked a ridiculous question. “Granddad’s diary is extremely specific, and I spent a lot of time as a kid exploring the cellars. I never noticed this place, though.”

 

      Bruce straightened his red and black practitioner robe, settling it more carefully on his shoulders. This dusty, musty, dark corner of the basement creeped him out, and he reminded himself of the prize hidden here somewhere. To find it, he simply had to put up with Alton’s bossy tendencies. One day he’d show his cousin who was really the smartest—and make him acknowledge it.

 

      “Man, I thought my parents would never go to bed,” Alton said. “I expected any minute my mother would tell us it was past our bedtimes. You’d think they could treat us like adults. After all, I’m twenty-seven, and you’re twenty-five.”

 

      “Yeah, my mother’s the same way. Given your father’s hatred of Granddad, I doubt they’d have joined in the hunt for what the old man called the secret of his success.”

 

      “You’ve got that right. If Dad knew Granddad had ordered his lawyer to give me the diary ten years after he died with instructions to show it to you, he’d have a fit.”

 

      Bruce wondered for a moment if he would have showed the diary to Alton if he’d been the recipient, but put the thought out of his mind as unproductive and irrelevant. He stepped closer to the back wall and shined his flashlight behind a pile of wooden boxes. “Here’s the door.”

 

      “Give me a hand,” Alton ordered as he lifted the top box and placed it behind them. A long smear of dirt trailed down his robe when he turned around.

 

      Bruce grimaced. Alton never worried about ruining his robes—which matched Bruce’s since they had both inherited the family’s accounting talents. Bruce, however, did. The damn things didn’t always clean easily, and they cost a lot to replace because of their protective enchantments. For a CPA, Alton threw money around in a way Bruce couldn’t bring himself to copy. Granddad’s instructions had been explicit, though: “Wear your robes.”

 

      Bruce picked up one edge of the next box with his fingertips and helped carry it to the other side of the room. It was lighter than expected—the empty boxes were simply stage dressing.

 

      “Only one more,” Alton said.

 

      They moved the container and turned their attention to the dark wooden door. A black metal handle was bolted to its right side, but there was no visible lock mechanism.

 

      “Okay.” Alton pulled a red-leather book from his pocket and opened the slim volume to the third page. “Shine the light here.”

 

      Bruce did as he was told and reviewed the instructions along with Alton. “The resolvo spell is required to open it. Want me to cast?”

 

      “Yeah,” Alton replied, “I’ve never used it.”

 

      Of course he hadn’t—Alton was too lazy to learn any enchantment unless it directly involved his talents. Bruce cast the spell at the door.

 

      It swung open, slowly and silently. A gust of stale, frigid wind blew out of the room behind it and ruffled the bottom of their robes. He shivered when, despite the protective spells, the chill penetrated the cloth.

 

      When both aimed their flashlights at the opening, the darkness inside swallowed up the beams.

 

      “Damn,” Alton said. “Looks like we have to use the candles.”

 

      “Personally, I’d rather not chance exploding flashlights. If the magic in there is as old and powerful as the diary suggests, it may not like new-fangled gadgets.” Bruce wished he’d paid for more safeguards in his robe, but nothing had fried him or Alton when they opened the door, so they were probably all right. After all, Granddad wouldn’t want to destroy his heirs—would he? He pulled a candle and holder out of a robe pocket and lit the wick with a small flamma spell.”

 

      Alton put the little book in his pocket and did the same. “Granddad wrote that he cast extremely powerful shielding spells around the entire section of the basement, and especially this room. Can you feel anything?”

 

      Bruce concentrated on the blackness. Nothing made him want to turn away. “No. Let’s be careful though.”

 

      Holding the candles in outstretched hands, they stuck the lights through the doorway into the dark. The flickering flames illuminated only a small room, as dingy as the one they stood in. When nothing happened, they entered—Bruce letting Alton go first.

 

      The walls of the ten-by-ten space were rough-hewn stone, granite by the looks of it. The only furnishings were a scratched and dented wooden table and a matching chair, both dark with age and dirt. A tarnished-to-black six-branch candelabra, a supply of white candles, and a few sheets of blank, yellowing paper sat on the table top. Propped in a corner was a gnarled black stick about six feet long. Its top looked like four dead fingers trying to grasp something.

 

      Bruce quickly put candles in the candelabra and lit them.

 

      Alton turned in a slow circle before pointing at a corner. “The diary says to look three hand-spans south and four up from the northeast corner. Find a man’s face.”

 

      Bruce raised the candles while Alton scooted the chair out of the way and knelt by the wall. They both jumped when a devilish stone face with a gaping grin jumped suddenly out of the black gloom.

 

      Alton gave a nervous laugh and held his solitary candle closer to the carving. “Looks like Granddad, doesn’t it?”

 

      “Now you’re supposed to put your fingers in the mouth and pull.”

 

      “Whoa. Not me. Not when the instructions don’t say what’s in there or what happens next.” Alton stood and backed two feet away. “You do it.”

 

      “Coward.”

 

      “Just cautious. Granddad always liked you best, although why, I could never figure out. So, he won’t hurt you, but where I’m concerned . . .” He shrugged.

 

      Glaring at his cousin, Bruce had to admit Alton was right. Their grandfather had shown a preference for him, the younger grandson, and even predicted he’d grow up to take control of the entire family shipping empire. Bruce knew that prize wouldn’t be his. Even though his own mother was the eldest child, control of the Finster conglomerate always went down the male line. Besides, Alton wasn’t about to give up his privileged place in the succession, even to a smarter male cousin with a higher magic level than his.

 

      On the other hand, for all his accounting ability, Alton wasn’t the most complicated spreadsheet on the computer. He couldn’t even understand Visicalc and was perfectly happy to let Bruce do the thinking. As a result, Bruce could usually manipulate him to do whatever he wanted, as long as Alton got the credit and none of the blame.

 

      “All right, but you owe me for this.” Bruce handed Alton the candelabra.

 

      In the glimmering candlelight, the stone face seemed to move, almost to laugh, almost to lick its lips, almost to be looking forward to chomping on some juicy fingers.

 

      Bruce felt his own hand twitch and reminded himself he was a higher level than the old hedonist had been. He could protect himself. He thrust his index and middle fingers into the mouth.

 

      Nothing happened.

 

      He wiggled his fingers. The space around them was empty.

 

      He reached farther in. The tips hit something. He withdrew his fingers enough to insert his entire hand into the hole and explore. The object at the back became a handle.

 

      “What’s there?” Alton asked. “What’s inside?”

 

      Bruce grinned as anticipation of what they’d find behind the stone in the wall rippled through him. He knew, absolutely knew, his life was somehow about to change enormously. He ignored his cousin and hooked his fingers around the bar. He pulled, first carefully, then harder.

 

      CLICK.

 

      He took a firmer grip and exerted more pressure. With a harsh grating sound, the whole face and the nine-inch-by-twelve-inch stone into which it was carved slid an inch out of the wall.

 

      “Oh, shit,” Alton whispered. “What do you suppose is behind it?”

 

      Bruce ignored his cousin, braced his feet, and pulled harder still, grunting with the effort. Stone scraped on stone, and he managed to haul the damn thing out only about three inches. Panting, he looked up at his hovering cousin. “Granddad must have used a strength spell to move this. Do you know one?”

 

      “No, never learned it,” Alton replied. “Or a telekinesis spell, either.”

 

      “Neither did I.” Bruce stood up and waved at the protruding face. “Brute-force time and your turn. Get it out a couple more inches so we can get a better hold around the edges.”

 

      Alton put the candelabra on the floor, knelt, wiped his hands on his robe, reached into the mouth, and began to pull.

 

      When the rock protruded another three inches, Bruce said, “Stop.”

 

      He grabbed one of the candles and held it by the wall above the face. A deep groove was gouged in top of the stone. The piece was not a stopper protecting a hole behind it, but a drawer.

 

      He put his fingers into the groove. “Come on, Alton, pull.”

 

      With the two of them working together, they brought the drawer out another foot. Alton held up the candelabra, and they peered into the small pit.

 

      The groove was not empty.

 

      A red leather-bound book, a duplicate to the diary in Alton’s pocket, and a drawstring bag lay in the bottom. Bruce picked up the book and riffled through its pages. “It’s a spell book, I think, and some of it looks like a list. It’s written in a weird language with strange letters.”

 

      “Oh, great,” Alton said, rolling his eyes.

 

      Bruce put the book in his robe pocket and studied the bag, a dark red silk with embroidered gold runes and glyphs and black drawstrings. It appeared to be about ten or twelve inches square. Whatever was in it pushed out the sides to make it six inches thick.

 

      He held his hands over it, but could detect nothing to indicate either a threat or the contents—not that he would have been able to recognize a spell, but it seemed the thing to do. The bag itself, however, glistened as the candlelight hit the symbols. Granddad was nothing if not meticulous in his magic and protective of his secrets.

 

      Whatever was in the bag, Bruce knew he didn’t want to discover it in this cold darkness. He carefully picked it up by the drawstrings and laid it on the table. “Let’s close the drawer and get out of here,” he told Alton. “We can investigate our ‘inheritance’ better upstairs.”

 

      “Fine with me,” Alton said with a shiver. “I’m freezing.”

 

      With both of them pushing, the stone drawer slid back into its place in seconds. Bruce took up the bag, Alton blew out the candles, and they exited the chamber, closing the door firmly behind them. Flashlights worked again in the storage room, thank goodness.

 

      “Let’s put the boxes back,” Alton said. “We don’t want one of the staff finding the door by accident.”

 

      Although Bruce doubted anyone had been in this room in decades, he went along with the idea. Alton was so damn picky—obsessive-compulsive, in fact—about how he put stuff away, and Bruce had long ago given up arguing about it. They restored the wooden boxes to their previous position.

 

      “Come on, my father’s study is the best place for privacy,” Alton said, and he led the way up the stairs to the book-lined room on the first floor.

 

      The only light came from a green-shaded lamp on the desk, barely enough to illuminate the portrait on the wall over the credenza behind it. Otto Finster, the previous owner of the book and the bag, glared down at them with his perpetual expression of distrust and disgust.

 

      “You have no power now, old man,” Bruce said to the picture.

 

      “I wish I was as sure of that as you are,” Alton muttered.

 

      Bruce placed the bag on the desk under the lamp and looked through the book again. He had no clue what language it was written in—Greek maybe?

 

      Alton went straight to the bar where he poured himself a stiff brandy. After swallowing it quickly, he poured one for Bruce and refilled his own.

 

      Bruce raised his glass in a small salute to his grandfather and took a generous swallow of the amber liquid. He felt every fiery drop all the way down, and his sense of anticipation returned. “All right, let’s see what we have. The diary says it’s potent magic, so let’s take the precautions it outlined.”

 

      “Right. I’ll get a bowl from the dining room.” Alton left and came back in a minute with a clear crystal bowl. He carried it to the desk, sat in the big leather chair behind it, and put the bowl directly in front of him.

 

      Bruce pulled up a chair and sat across from his cousin. He gently picked up the bag, first by the drawstrings, then cupped it in his hands. The runes and glyphs glowed when the lamp light reflected off the gold threads.

 

      “It’s not very heavy,” he said, squeezing it slightly. “I can’t tell what’s inside, however.”

 

      “Get on with it, man,” Alton gritted.

 

      Bruce took a moment to study his cousin. Since he’d laid eyes on the pouch, Alton had become nervous and sweaty, whereas he himself felt calm and collected. He shut off his curiosity about their different reactions and turned his total attention to the container.

 

      Careful, very careful not to touch the contents, he loosened the drawstrings. Holding the bag by its bottom corners, he slid the contents out of their covering and into the bowl.

 

      The two of them sat until dawn, staring at what fell out.

 

      The contents stared back.

 

Chapter One

 

Present Day

 

      Good, the don’t-notice-me spell is working. Irenee Sabel sidled out of the packed second-floor ballroom and into the hall.

 

      Nobody paid the slightest attention, and a couple she knew well passed her without so much as a flicker of acknowledgment or recognition. After a quick glance around, she started walking toward the stairs to the first floor.

 

      She had to admit, Alton Finster knew how to throw a party. On this early summer night, his Chicago Gold Coast mansion was wall-to-wall with the rich and famous and their wannabes. The charity for which the auction gala was being held would rake in a bundle.

 

      Holding her long skirt carefully so she wouldn’t trip, she hurried down the stairs and turned right into the darkened corridor. The guards were on their rounds, and she had only a short time to accomplish her task.

 

      A little buzz of excitement—and anxiety—skittered along her nerves. Her first solo assignment as a Sword! She would accomplish her task, whatever it took.

 

      The carved oak door was locked, of course, but an adaperio spell opened it. After another glance around, she slipped inside. She locked the door manually and leaned against it while she studied the room.

 

      Only a lamp over the portrait of Otto Finster on the left-hand wall and a small green-shaded one on the desk illuminated the high-ceilinged study, leaving the bookshelves and corners shrouded in shadows. The elder Finster glared at her from his frame, his hooded eyes seeming to follow her movements. The man had been an unscrupulous scoundrel in business, a ruthless robber baron like his fathers before him. His craggy face with its bushy eyebrows and fierce expression confirmed his determination and implacability.

 

      “You old warlock,” Irenee muttered at the portrait, “what do you think of your grandson and the uses to which he’s putting your treasure? Or, were you the source of the item we’re after? I wouldn’t put it past you.” She scanned the room. No sign of what she was looking for, of course.

 

      Deprendo incantamentum.” She cast “discover any spells” over the room. A faint glow outlined the edge of the oriental rug in the corner to her right. She stepped onto the hardwood in the corner, knelt, and laid her purse on the floor. If anyone had noticed how much larger it was than a regular evening purse, no one had said a word. Let them think she was out of fashion. What did it matter?

 

      Now to see if she’d found the right place, where the spell-sensitive spy they’d inserted into the event catering staff had reported picking up emanations of powerful casting. She knelt and lifted the rug by its tasseled edge.

 

      The hidden safe pulsed faintly with protective enchantments—stay-away and do-not-touch as well as lock-tight, according to her discover spell. To gauge their strength, Irenee held her hand close to the glow remaining from her first spell. She shook her head in disgust when she realized they offered only minimal protection, the kind that would deter only a non-practitioner burglar. Alton must be an idiot to think a simple spell would keep out a Sword.

 

      All practitioners knew certain extremely sensitive Defenders could pick up the vibrations set off when someone used an evil magic item unless the spell caster took elaborate precautions with shielding. True, the vibes Glynnis Fraser, their evil-sensitive expert, felt were faint, but clearly the signature of an ancient, extremely powerful focus for casting. Maybe Alton believed he had been sufficiently protected when he cast spells using the item and had no idea the Defenders were after him. After all, it had taken time—three weeks altogether—to track down the source of the evil. He might believe he was in the clear.

 

      She doubted Alton even knew she was a Sword. The Defenders didn’t announce their membership; neither did they keep it a secret. Surely he would have reacted differently to her if he thought she was after him or his treasure. No, his reaction when he greeted her upstairs had been his usual cordial self—exactly as it had been at all the other society functions where they ran into each other.

 

      Irenee, however, had to control herself firmly when they met. Evil people, practitioner or not, gave off an aura, almost a miasma, of wrongness Defenders could identify. Where Alton hadn’t before, he certainly did now. His recently acquired emanation raised the question of how long he had been using the item. Finding that answer, however, was not her goal.

 

      Her task was clear: bring back the item to her team and help them destroy it. When she succeeded, she would be a Sword in every sense of the word, and also able to hold her head up as an accomplished member of the Sabel family.

 

      She was stretching to lay the carpet back away from the safe, when faint noises came from the door into the hall—a scratching, a click, and the doorknob turning. Someone was picking the lock.

 

      “Damn,” she breathed while she let the rug drop over the safe and intensified her don’t-notice-me spell to full invisibility. She could see the shimmer as light bent around her, and she smiled with satisfaction. She wouldn’t be seen even if somebody looked directly at her.

 

      The door opened slowly, only a crack, just far enough for a figure to slip through.

 

      A tall, dark, curly-haired man in a tuxedo entered quickly and locked the door behind him. Although from her corner and in the darkness, she couldn’t get a good look at his face, she didn’t think she knew him. He stared at the portrait for a long moment before striding to it. After tugging at the sides, he swung the picture on its hinges, revealing a black safe door.

 

      A lighted bank of eight red zeros marched across its front. The man pulled a rectangular box out of his pocket and held it to the door. Two green lights on its side blinked alternately while numbers flashed through a complicated sequence.

 

      Irenee smiled to herself. Primitive technology, compared to her magic.

 

      In a few seconds, the green lights stayed on, the zeros had changed to a set of numbers, and the man twisted the handle to open the safe door. He searched through its contents—some papers, a small pistol, a few small, possibly jewelry, boxes—but he must not have found what he wanted because he put it all back. She heard him curse before closing the safe and the portrait.

 

      His hand still on the frame, he suddenly froze for a few seconds, then whipped around.

 

      And looked right into her eyes.

 

      He could see her.

 

      How was that possible?

 

      Irenee stood as he approached, the V of his white tuxedo shirt gleaming in the dim light. Who was this man who clearly saw right through her spells? How did he do it?

 

      He wasn’t a warlock. If he was, he wouldn’t have used the gadget to open the safe—or not without checking for enchantments. He certainly hadn’t cast a discover spell to find her or she would have felt it. Besides, she knew every practitioner capable of recognizing, by sight or otherwise, that she was in the room.

 

      Was he a thief? Who would dare to steal from Alton? No common criminal would trifle with the Finster security forces. Those who tried were usually beaten to a pulp. Corporate espionage? Maybe. But what would he expect to find here?

 

      Despite his lock-picking entry, the man wasn’t evil. Not a whiff of corruption radiated from him.

 

      If he wasn’t a thief, and he wasn’t evil, what was he? What was he after? Whatever it was, she knew its likely location—in the safe under her feet.

 

      She was running out of time. The auction would be starting, and the guards would be making another round. She had to get rid of him. If she helped him find his objective, he might leave her alone—after all, he was here as secretly as she was. As a last resort, if he objected, she could always stun him and make her escape.

 

      Although . . . she really hoped she didn’t have to do that. The man intrigued her for reasons she couldn’t identify—or were her own reactions surprising her?

 

      As she looked at him, a pulse of excitement ran down her backbone, and she was suddenly filled with a sense of well-being and . . . joy? Her magic center under her breastbone fluttered.

 

      By sheer force of will, she succeeded in quelling her peculiar response to this stranger who was moving silently and lithely, staring into her eyes as if he meant to mesmerize her, his prey. She cancelled her invisibility spell. It obviously wasn’t working. He couldn’t hurt her, she told herself. She was a Sword.

 

      As he walked around the desk and headed toward the woman, Jim Tylan could still feel the tingling in the back of his head from what he called his “hunch mechanism.” That physical response always meant something important or dangerous was about to happen. Why hadn’t it alerted him when he walked in the room? He’d probably been so focused on the wall safe, he—and it—simply didn’t notice her crouched in the corner.

 

      He mentally cursed when he stopped before her. It was bad enough he hadn’t found Finster’s clandestine financial records, even though his informant said they were in a safe in the study. No one, however, was supposed to know he was executing a secret search warrant under Homeland Security and Department of Justice auspices. Now he had to deal with a witness.

 

      A witness with a glow, both around her and in the rug in front of her.

 

      The radiance cloaking her abruptly vanished when he came within two feet of her. He sent her one of his most accusatory cop glares. She only returned a distinctly puzzled look with no hint of guilt at being caught inside a locked private room.

 

      “Who are you, and what are you doing here?” he asked in a low voice. He’d seen no one in the hall, but the last thing he needed was for someone to hear them and come in.

 

      “Did you find what you were looking for?” she returned in the same tone.

 

      “What business is it of yours?”

 

      “I think I can help you.”

 

      “How?”

 

      “You’re standing on it.” She pointed to the carpet.

 

      “What?” He glanced down. The rug still glowed.

 

      “Step back,” she ordered, crouching to lift the rug’s corner.

 

      He understood then, knelt, and pulled the carpet back himself. A safe was set into a depression under a clear cover level with the floor. “Why is it shining? Why were you glowing?”

 

      She gave him no answer, only shook her head, as if she didn’t understand a word he was saying.

 

      He turned his attention to the safe. When he reached for the cover, she put out a hand to stop him. As they touched, a jolt of heat raced up his arm and through his body. They both jerked back, so she must have felt it, too. Despite the shock, he somehow managed to keep a poker face. What the hell was going on here?

 

      “Let me,” she told him. She held her hands over the safe for several seconds, and the glow diminished until it disappeared altogether. She removed the cover, turned the handle, and opened the door. A tiny light came on inside the opening.

 

      Together they peered into the foot-square compartment. The contents consisted of three manila envelopes, a black plastic four-inch-square box, a red leather-bound paperback-sized book, and a red drawstring bag embroidered with symbols. The bag glowed—probably the gold embroidery reflecting the dim light.

 

      She picked up the black box and held it out to him. “Is this what you’re looking for? Or one of the envelopes?”

 

      Jim stared at her for a moment. Nothing was making any sense. What had happened to the glow around the safe? How did she know what he wanted? Who was she?

 

      The cop in him immediately categorized her: five-foot-seven or eight, dark red hair, dark eyes—too little light to tell the exact color—slim, dressed in a dark blue or black dress. Then the guy in him took over. She was gorgeous, curves in the right places, skin almost luminescent. Her wavy, shoulder-length hair made his fingers itch to touch and find out if it was as silky as it looked. She smelled good, and he inhaled deeply as her scent wound its way to him—and through him. Her full mouth was made for kissing—an idea that caused him to lick his lips in anticipation.

 

      She nudged his hand with the box and brought him back to business.

 

      “Yes,” he replied, took the box, and opened it. Success. The two small flash drives inside had to contain the data his informant described. He took his specially constructed PDA out of his pocket, plugged in one of the drives, and hit the buttons for copying.

 

      While the machine worked, he watched the woman pick up the book and look at a few pages, a puzzled look on her face. She put it and the bag in her purse, her slightly glowing purse, took out an envelope, and laid it in the safe. Was she a thief who left a receipt?

 

      His gadget signaled completion of the copy, and he began the process for the second drive.

 

      “Who are you?” he asked again. “What are you after?” He put his hand on hers, as if the physical connection would gain him answers. It only raised more questions when the jolt went to his toes this time, after making a couple of stops, one behind his solar plexus and the other lower down. He tried to ignore both the itch in his middle and the hardening in his loins.

 

      She frowned. “Nobody and nothing that concerns you,” she answered as his PDA clicked again. “We need to hurry. The auction begins in three minutes, I must be there, and I have to reset the alarms on the safe.”

 

      He restored the second drive to its box and handed it to her. She replaced it in the safe and, after she closed its door, said, “You’d better leave while I do this. The guard is due on his rounds, and it wouldn’t do for both of us to be caught here.”

 

      He didn’t like it, but he acquiesced. He rose. “I’ll see you outside.”

 

      He silently unlocked the door and checked the hall. It was empty. He looked back at her, and she was putting the cover on the safe. He stepped into the hall and took up a position close to the stairs where he could see her when she came out. They had some talking to do.

###

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